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Maria Pilar Otaegui (1935–1994)

by Hsu-Ann Lee

This article was published:

María Pilar Moreno de Otaegui (1935–1994), co-founder of the Spanish Club of Sydney, was born on 2 March 1935 at Cuerva, Toledo province, Spain, eldest of four children of Mariano Moreno Santamaría, and his wife Pilar Tuya Gómez, both schoolteachers. In 1939, at the close of the Spanish Civil War, the family moved to Madrid, where Pilar attended a Catholic primary school. She later studied at the Instituto Lope de Vega, and upon graduating completed a secretarial course. From her youth Moreno was an activist, standing up for the rights of workers and the disadvantaged. She joined the Catholic Young Workers. She was appointed chief of press and propaganda of the national body, a voluntary position which she held for two years.

In March 1961 Moreno came to Sydney with Operación Marta, a migration scheme for single Spanish women. Her younger sister had emigrated the previous year under the same scheme, which reinforced an earlier agreement bringing Spanish men to the cane-fields of Queensland. Although she had intended to stay only two years in Australia, she ultimately made Sydney her home. Upon her arrival, she worked as domestic help in the homes of well-to-do families, and then as a cleaner in public schools, during which time she was elected union representative. On 7 December 1963 at St Francis de Sales Catholic Church, Surry Hills, she married Juan Otaegui, a fellow Spaniard. Juan worked as a fitter and turner, and would co-found the Basque Club of Sydney.

Like many migrants, Otaegui felt keenly that ‘loneliness is the order of the day’ (Moreno 1961): adapting to life in Sydney and learning English was difficult, and she missed the culture of her homeland. It was this common struggle that gave rise to the idea of a social club for Spanish migrants. The Spanish Club of Sydney opened its Liverpool Street premises in October 1962, and in recognition of her role in bringing this dream to fruition she was assigned membership card number 1; she was later elected, on multiple occasions, president of the club. She was proud of the equal rights and responsibilities that men and women shared in the club, noting the significance of this parity in the context of immigrant organisations generally, and particularly in a Spanish culture that was ‘marked by machismo’ (García 1987, 3).

The club was a hub of activity and community in central Sydney, with numerous members. On its thirtieth anniversary, Otaegui proudly wrote: ‘We have ceased to be a small drop of water in Sydney to become a symbol, a small sea which continues to grow and demonstrate each day, in this cosmopolitan and multicultural city … what it means to be Spanish’ (Otaegui 1993, 21). She helped organise the Australian visit of the Spanish royal family in June 1988. The Spanish government appointed her oficial de la Orden de Isabel la Católica (Order of Isabella the Catholic, officer class) in recognition of her services to the Spanish community in Australia.

Otaegui was appointed to the New South Wales Ethnic Affairs Commission in July 1990, and served a three-year term. In this capacity she was involved in introducing an anti-racism project for schools and in other initiatives promoting multiculturalism and the rights of non-English-speaking migrants. She also continued to be an active member of the Spanish Club, co-founding the senior citizens’ branch in 1992, and acting as its first president. The group organised activities for the elderly and, the following year, helped to establish an aged care hostel for Spanish speakers in Rooty Hill.

A devout Catholic her whole life, Otaegui was ‘one hundred percent Spanish in her customs and sentiments’ (Ovidi 1999, 195). She was a charismatic and dominant figure, popular but polarising, and she held her own in an overwhelmingly male leadership culture. Her extended terms as president and committee member of the Spanish club are testament to her influence and work ethic. At the end of 1992, while visiting family in Spain, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite being twice operated on, she died on 10 July 1994 at Kogarah, and, after a requiem mass at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, was buried in Botany cemetery, Matraville. Her husband, two sons, and a daughter survived her; one daughter had predeceased her.


Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • García, Ignacio. Interview by the author, 23 May 2016
  • García, Ignacio. ‘Las Mujeres en el Club: Charlando con Pilar Otaegui, Social Fundadora no. 1.’ El Español en Australia, no. 39 (29 September 1987): 3
  • García, Ignacio. Operación Canguro: The Spanish Migration Scheme, 1958–1963. Sydney: The Spanish Heritage Foundation, 2002
  • Kerkyasharian, Stepan. ‘Outspoken Leader of Spanish Expatriates.’ Australian, 27 July 1993, 11
  • Moreno, Mari-Paz. Nostalgia for the Future: Memoirs 1960–2004. Edited and translated by Marisa Cano. Sydney: M. P. Moreno, 2004
  • Moreno, Pilar. Letter to Concha Rico, 29 April 1961. Private collection.   Otaegui, Michelle. Interview by the author, 23 January 2016
  • Otaegui, Pilar. ‘Ante un Trigésimo Aniversario.’ Boletín del Club Español de Sídney, April 1993, 20–21
  • Ovidi, M. P. ‘In Memoriam: Pilar Moreno De Otaegui.’ In The Spanish Experience in Australia, edited by Carmen Castelo, 101–2. Jamison Centre, ACT: The Spanish Heritage Foundation, n.d
  • Ovidi, Mari Paz. ‘Pilar Moreno de Otaegui: In Memoriam (1935–1994).’ In Memories of Migration: Seminar Proceedings, University of Western Sydney Macarthur, 4 & 5 September 1998, edited by Ignacio García and Agustín Maraver, 193–5. Jamison Centre, ACT: The Spanish Heritage Foundation, 1999
  • Rico, Concha. ‘A Veteran of “Operation Marta”.’ In The Spanish Experience in Australia, edited by Carmen Castelo, 77–79. Jamison Centre, ACT: The Spanish Heritage Foundation, n.d
  • Trevin, Concha. Interview by the author, 20 December 2015

Citation details

Hsu-Ann Lee, 'Otaegui, Maria Pilar (1935–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Moreno, Maria Pilar

2 March, 1935
Cuerva, Toledo, Spain


10 July, 1994 (aged 59)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (bowel)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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