As Marylou Olivarez Mason, Executive Director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan and 2014 Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame inductee, sits among shelves full of family photos and walls of awards, she tells the story of her humble beginnings and the life lessons that taught her giving back gives life purpose. Born in Texas, Olivarez Mason grew up as one of five children who migrated with her parents seasonally to harvest crops. Olivarez Mason ended up in Michigan with her family to harvest sugar beets, a crop they knew very little about. “Michigan Sugar Company couldn’t find anyone to do agricultural work here in Michigan so they set up an employment office in Texas to contract people to harvest sugar beets. My dad and some other men went down and signed up for the whole family,” Olivarez Mason said. “I remember asking my dad what sugar beets even were and he said ‘I don’t know, I guess we’ll find out when we get there.’” Olivarez Mason started working in the field at 4-years-old and continued to work for years but always dreamed of attending school like the children she would see on the buses that passed. “We didn’t go to school. When I was young bilingual education didn’t exist and there were no laws about going to school. I was almost 12 and had never been to school. So, I would sit with my brother as we worked and tell him I wanted to be on one of the school busses that drove by. He would tell me I was crazy and try to scare me. My dad would tell me that we came to work, not to go to school,” she said. Because Olivarez Mason’s family traveled seasonally, she struggled to find an opportunity to go to school. It wasn’t until her uncle offered to let her stay through the season to attend school that she finally had the chance to realize her dream of education. Though she was much older than the children in her class and was ridiculed for being “different,” Olivarez Mason was determined to succeed. “I had good teachers that worked with me. The harder I worked and the more I learned they would move me to the next grade,” she said. “I had good mentors and had teachers that cared that I really learned. You don’t think about it until you get older how much faith they had in me. They kept pushing and knew I could do it.” Despite the opportunity to attend school, Olivarez Mason still had to work in the fields and also held a job as a telephone operator. Though Olivarez Mason met the love of her life, George, later in life, in an idealistic effort to escape physical labor Olivarez Mason married young and became a mother to four sons and a daughter. Ultimately her first marriage crumbled because of abuse, making Olivarez Mason a single mother determined to create a better life for her family. “It was a stupid mistake. I got married and then had five kids and ended up in a divorce with a lot of problems and pain. At that time it was unacceptable to divorce but after ending up in the hospital, it was the only option I had. I was determined though. I could do it on my own,” Olivarez Mason said. “I worked two jobs. I worked as a nurse’s aide, then was able to get a job at a doctor’s office as a receptionist. I would work evenings, come home, get the kids ready for school and then go back to work at the doctor’s office.” Olivarez Mason worked strenuous hours to support herself and her children and her health suffered. The single mother found support and guidance in a close-knit community. Today, she is brought to tears at the thought of the individuals and families that rallied around her in her time of need helping the young family find housing and childcare. “I didn’t always think I could do it, but I didn’t want my kids to see me as a mother who didn’t work. I always say my kids and I grew up together, worked together and were trying to build a better life for ourselves,” Olivarez Mason said. “I was very lucky. I am very lucky. I had people around me that wanted to help. They put a lot into me and my family. I wouldn’t buy things until I could pay for it. If we couldn’t afford it we didn’t have it. But these people that loved me, they gave me more than material things. They showed me love and became part of my family and part of my life.” Olivarez Mason went to nursing school as her career progressed and graduated in 1969. Initially volunteering in the political world as a way to teach her children, Olivarez Mason found her true passion in the field. Through connections, Olivarez Mason found her first job in public affairs and never looked back. “They had governmental programs and you were paid by federal grants. The Latin American affairs office had a job for a community coordinator and you had to be bilingual. The grant paid you for a year and if it went well they would keep you for permanent community work. It was right down my alley, it was work I really enjoyed doing,” said Olivarez Mason. “I never went back to nursing. I went from one job to another doing constitute work. Immigration education, housing and everything and anything that effected the Hispanic community.” Olivarez Mason’s career progressed quickly. She filled one impressive opening after another, passing exhausting testing and interviewing processes and collecting references from highly-respected individuals. “I can remember after one test they took everyone out separately to let them know if they had passed or not. One by one they came to get the others and I ended up sitting in the room alone,” said Olivarez Mason. “They came in as said, ‘Well it’s you. You’re the only one that passed.’ I couldn’t believe it, I wondered if they had the wrong person. Sometimes I still can’t believe it.” Through her work, Olivarez Mason has been awarded some of the highest honors in the Hispanic/Latino community. She has received dozens of awards including the OHTLI award, from the president of Mexico, she was named Hispanic Woman of the Year in 2000 and will be inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame on Oct. 30. (More information on page 22.) “When Emily, the Executive Director from Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, called to tell me I was nominated and had been selected as an inductee I had to make sure she had called the right person. I couldn’t believe it,” said Olivarez Mason. “It was all a surprise, my whole family knew. My kids are very proud. There have been so many times in my life where I have thought, ‘There are so many Hispanics who do great work and so many successful women, I can’t believe they picked me.’” Olivarez Mason has accomplished a lot in her life and career. Starting school at age 12 and progressing through classes quickly enough to graduate at 18, providing a home and living to support her children, receiving her masters and doctorate degrees, helping fight for Hispanics and Latinos rights, helping bridge the gap in legislation, meeting and befriending celebrities, presidents and iconic figures to promote positive change. She’s the ideal candidate for the Hall of Fame and will surely be an inspiration to young Michigan girls and girls across the nation. Olivarez Mason has an amazing past and will continue to create change in the future, yet she says her proudest accomplishment is her family and making her parents proud. “I can remember when my dad came to my office one day and told me he had something for me. When I opened the box it was a briefcase with my name on it. I was shocked,” Olivarez Mason said in tears. “My father was not like that. He never said ‘I love you,’ or that he was proud. I would force him to tell my mom he loved her. He just wasn’t that way. And that day, when I opened the box and he told my boss (who was in the room) that he was proud of me. That meant everything. I knew I had done well. Everything I have done, I have done for my family.”
Ami Iceman-Hauter is the Brand Manager at M3 Group in downtown Lansing. Iceman is a graduate of Michigan State University with a bachelors degree in creative advertising.