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Houston immigrant rights activist Maria Jimenez dies at 70

Houston immigration and civil rights activist Maria Jimenez, 70, died on Dec. 1 after a two-year battle with cancer.

Jimenez dedicated her decades-long career to fighting for marginalized communities, including immigrants and the LGBT community. The bulk of her efforts centered on issues facing the Latin American and immigrant communities, such as human rights abuse committed against immigrants by border agents.

“She was a compassionate and tireless leader, fighting for the most vulnerable, especially immigrants,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in a tweet on Dec. 2. “She was a mentor to me and one of the first people to support me in running for county judge. Rest in power.”

Jimenez was born in Coahuila, Mexico, on Aug. 2, 1950. She was the oldest of five children. At age 7, she traveled to Houston with her mother. Her father had already migrated to the United States and started work as a machinist. She would spend the rest of her life living in the city and amassing a long list of accomplishments.

When Jimenez began attending her new school, Franklin Elementary, she experienced discrimination for the first time in her life. She was not permitted to speak Spanish and was ridiculed at lunch if she brought any ethnic food. Jimenez acted against the kinds of discrimination she experienced in early life throughout her later work. 

Jimenez’s career in activism began later in her education when she was a political science student at UH, where she fought for issues impacting immigrant and Latinx communities.

She joined the Mexican-American Youth Organization and participated in lettuce boycotts to protest treatment of migrant workers, as well as demanding change from the UH president for equal and fair opportunities for Latin American students.

“Whatever issue we had, we would mobilize people and we would fill the office, and we wouldn’t leave until our issues were addressed and until they came and talked to us, and we did that constantly,” Jimenez said in an interview with Civil Rights Black and Brown at Texas Christian University in 2016. 

After graduation, Jimenez worked for decades on issues related to immigrant workers’ rights, including assisting laborers with visa acquisition. She also became a national authority on human rights abuse at the U.S.-Mexico border.

She fought against the separation of immigrant families and co-founded the South Texas Human Rights Center in 2013, which addresses the lack of proper burials given to deceased migrants.

In addition, Jimenez worked alongside fellow civil rights activist Cesar Chavez to bring change for Latin American representation and treatment.  

Later in her career, Jimenez became a professor at the University’s Center for Mexican American Studies. She assisted in founding the department during her time as a student to ensure future generations would have the opportunities to learn about her heritage that she lacked.  

“Our biggest contribution is we wrote a proposal, several of us, and we went to the state legislature and it was a big fight between the democrats and conservatives, and here we come with our little petition to have Mexican American Studies included and they grabbed it, and that is how it was established at the UH,” Jimenez said in the TCU interview.

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