María Elena was born the seventh child in a family of eleven children to migrant worker parents. Growing up, María Elena traveled with her family, following the crops throughout California and Oregon, and experiencing the exploitative conditions and hardships that migrant laborers suffer.
In spite of these obstacles, María Elena attended St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and graduated in 1975. In college she became involved in the Chicano Movement at the urging of her older brother. Then she entered the labor movement as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (later called UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees).
While working as a union organizer, she pursued an education in law at the People’s College of Law and earned her degree in 1985.
By 1987, María Elena was ready to lead a drive by the rank and file of HERE Local 11 to make the union more responsive to its majority-Latino membership. The organizing drive successfully instituted a shop steward system that educated the rank and file on their rights, workers were now able to participate in negotiating their union contracts and all meetings and publications were from then on bilingual.
In 2004, she became the Executive Vice President of UNITE-HERE International, the organization made up of the UNITE and HERE unions which had merged.
In 2008, María Elena Durazo served as the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and as National Co-Chair of the Barack Obama Presidential Campaign.
From 2006 through 2014, she was the first woman Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, the second largest labor council in the country and served on the National AFL-CIO Executive Council.
Besides her union work, María Elena has served on many civic commissions and boards. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed her to the Los Angeles Commission on Airports, Mayor Richard Riordan appointed her to the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Committee and she has also served on the California State Coastal Commission.
María Elena was married to the late union leader Miguel Contreras, who served as Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor from 1996 until his untimely death on May 6, 2005. She has two children with Miguel Contreras, Mario and Michael Contreras.