María Elena was born into a family of eleven children with migrant worker parents who experienced the hardships that migrant laborers suffer. María Elena earned her degree from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where she became involved in the Chicano Movement. She entered the labor movement as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and earned a law degree from the People’s College of Law. María Elena has been the Executive Vice President of UNITE-HERE International and the first woman Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, the second-largest labor council in the country. She has also served on the National AFL-CIO Executive Council, the California State Coastal Commission, the Democratic National Committee as Vice Chair, and the Barack Obama Presidential Campaign as National Co-Chair.