A mural honoring the late Maurilia Ortiz Blakely will be dedicated Sept. 15 in an alleyway in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, part of the city’s celebration of Women’s History Month. This mural is the newest in the Women’s Way Initiative, a public art project which recognizes local women leaders, decorates downtown alleyways—and attracts people to the downtown area.
Maurilia is celebrated for helping to organize Grand Rapids’ first Mexican Festival in 1970, which continues to promote respect for her Mexican heritage, and for her many contributions to assist Latinx students, women, migrants, homeless and unemployed people. Other murals honor additional Grand Rapids women leaders: an African American, an Ottawa Native American, a civil rights leader, plus the city’s 1945 All-American Women’s baseball team, the Grand Rapids Chicks.
It was from her Beeville aunt Virginia Presa that Maurilia learned to celebrate her Mexican heritage. She was born in Beeville in 1928 to Ophelia Ortiz and Arthur Blakely, the fourth of their five children. However, their mother died when Maurilia was 4 years old and their father when she was 6. The children spent several months in a Catholic orphanage in San Antonio before their aunt brought them back to Beeville to be raised.
Virginia and her husband Agapito Presa had begun one of the first Mexican festivals in Beeville, and their daughter Feliz was crowned the 1925 Diez y Seis Queen. (Feliz’s daughter Laly Peña Cárdenas has been the secretary for Our Lady of Victory Church for many years; she is married to Nick Cárdenas, long-time counselor at Coastal Bend College and member of the Beeville ISD school board.)
Maurilia would have seen the pictures of her cousin Feliz with her Diez y Seis crown, and she participated in Mexican heritage celebrations that the Presas continued to organize in Beeville. She attended OLV School through eighth grade, then worked at El Zarape Restaurant, owned by the Presas for many years.
At age 16, she married Adán Armijo, known as “Diablo Rojo” (Red Devil) on Beeville’s baseball team. Adán had an uncle in Ohio who suggested that he could get a good job there, so the couple moved in 1952. When he found a better opportunity in Grand Rapids, the family moved there—Adán and Maurilia had five children: Adán, Cresencia, Arturo, Rebecca and Beatrice.
When the marriage ended in divorce in 1966, Maurilia supported the five children by working at Kroger’s. However, she also made time to participate in the local Hispanic community, organizing Grand Rapid’s first Mexican Festival, which showcases Hispanic culture and customs, in 1970. “I wanted to show my children, as well as the people [in Grand Rapids], that we did have a culture, a heritage,” Maurilia explained. “And even though we spoke a different language, we were still Americans.”
In 1975, when she became seriously ill from overwork, the doctor ordered her to rest. At that point, she decided to finish her education, enrolling in night school to earn her high school diploma, after which she enrolled at Grand Valley State University and received a bachelor’s degree in social work and counseling in 1979.
“Going back to college at 47 helped me to find myself,” she explained. “Sometimes you grow up with a feeling that you should have done more, but until my family was grown, I couldn’t finish my education. Going back to school not only helped me with my inner growth but enabled me to help other people. Education is the key to everything,” she emphasized.
Maurilia became coordinator at the Neighborhood Education Center for the Latino Community, assisting students with personal and educational problems. She also helped develop employment opportunities for young Hispanics and facilitated their entrance into colleges or training programs. She created the Hispanic Institute, which offers adult education classes for Spanish-speaking residents. She also worked with the city’s homeless and addressed Hispanic women’s issues.
In 1990, the Latin American Services honored Maurilia with the Leonard Ortiga Award for her positive contributions to the Latinx community. She also received many other awards, including recognition from the Mexican Cultural committee, the Hispanic Institute and the YWCA “Women in Changes” Award.
Maurilia passed away in October 2015, at the age of 87. Her cousin Laly had visited her in the nursing home four or five months before she died.
The 40-foot tall mural honoring Maurilia, painted by local artist Arturo Romero, pictures the outstanding woman at the top; in the middle, a large red abstract structure representing Grand Rapids, located in front of City Hall; and a pair of Mexican folk dancers at the bottom. The alleyway on which the mural is located was recently named the Maurilia Ortiz Blakely Way.
Beeville can be proud to have one of our own honored so prominently for her outstanding contributions in Michigan’s second largest city—and Maurilia’s Beeville family is delighted.