JG – Maria Rifo

Maria Rifo

2002 Jack Green Civil Liberties Award Honoree

Maria Rifo is a woman who has dedicated her life in America to help fight poverty and foster poor people’s independence.

At age 95, Maria Rifo has a lot to be proud about. Unlike many who have reached this age, she gets up early to walk Santa Rosa’s streets. She lives simply and does not have much money but is able buy food for those who are down-on-their-luck. “I’m not doing this for money or power,” she said. “I do this because I like doing this.”

Raised in Santiago, Chile, she spent the first part of her life teaching school and caring for her parents. At age 56, she started exploring the world, first Europe, then the United States.

She came to Washington D.C. to visit a friend from Chile for a week. Her friend asked her to watch her house while she went back to Chile for a vacation. Maria agreed and soon decided to stay in America. She applied for a job as a Vista volunteer and was sent to New Mexico where she became active in the Latino community. After hearing Cesar Chavez speak, she moved to California and for 12 years she worked as his secretary, translating the grower’s contracts into Spanish and helping make the union run. Her apartment is filled with photos of Chavez, whose lessons in putting people before profits resonate with her today.

In 1980, she debarked on a road trip with a friend across America. Luckily for us, she came to stay in Santa Rosa.

Maria has been active in Sonoma County working with Mujeres Unidos, a Latina group active in community and political affairs. She has raised money to fight alcohol and drug abuse in the Latino community. Maria helped start the Alternatives to Violence program, and is a consultant to the Girl To Girl mentoring program. She established a scholarship fund at Santa Rosa Junior College, and teaches Spanish. On top of all of this, she finds the time to counsel inmates at Folsom State Prison to try to break the cycle of violence. Ms. Rifo has worked with the Catholic Diocese as a liaison for the Hispanic Community with the Sonoma County Faith Based Community Organizing Project.

Maria Rifo lives her life by the following maxim: “Try to find a thing that is good in a thing that is not so good. Take advantage of the disadvantage!”

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