As a child, Marilyn Cuneo dreamed of leaving home to travel the world. As an adult, she worked to bring the world back home.
Through several incarnations, she was a lifelong educator and activist for women, peace and human rights. As a supporter of the arts, her work often focused on issues related to the plight of women in foreign countries, from human trafficking to the availability of clean water.
With her husband, she was instrumental in bringing after-school Spanish classes to local schools and in advancing Pan-American issues through events and organizations like those that would later become the Festival of Nations.
Cuneo died of cancer on July 13 at her home. She was 91.
Family members recall that she always considered herself a world citizen, and it would generate a complicated response when people asked her ethnicity. She felt that, if the planet was going to survive, people had to honor their nationality but not let it create exclusivity or conflict.
“You could just feel a certain energy; that things happen to you in your life,” a daughter, Deborah Cuneo-Sullivan, recalled. “You see things as an adventure. Instead of getting weighed down by them, you do the best with what you’ve got and you kind of believe that life is going to give you what you need.”
A descendant of the Merritt family, which has been credited with discovering the Mesabi Iron Range, she nonetheless grew up in a family in Minneapolis that struggled financially during the Great Depression. Voraciously curious, she developed a passion for the idea of world travel.
At one point during high school, she dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. At 17, she entered the University of Minnesota and began studying Spanish. It was there that she would meet her future husband, Santiago Cuneo, an Argentinian-born professor.
She graduated in 1944 and went to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a secretary at the State Department, returning home after about 14 months. She began pursuing a graduate degree at the U and began work as a teaching assistant. She and Santiago were married in 1949.
Four children and the couple’s community activities dominated her life and it took her until 1970 to get her master’s degree. She would eventually become the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
Following her departure from academia, she focused her attention on using the arts to explore global conditions for women and children and making their stories universally relatable. Her work included coordinating projects for the Minnesota branch of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, much of which has been archived at the St. Catherine University library.
“Marilyn was our fearless leader. They say organizing artists is like herding cats, and Marilyn kept the group together,” said Terri Hawthorne, a gender studies professor who worked with her at the Women’s International League. “She always had ideas, she always had contacts, she always was ready for the next project.”
In a 2001 story in the Star Tribune, she also talked about embracing athletic competition as she got older. “I would have loved the opportunities girls have now,” said Cuneo, who was then 76. “But I had to hide what I loved to do.”
Cuneo’s husband died in 1993. She is survived by her children and their partners, Chris Cuneo and Linda Thompson, Larry Cuneo and Melissa Constantine, Deborah Cuneo-Sullivan and Mike Sullivan, and Marisa and Jerry Linsly.
A celebration of life service is scheduled for Aug. 6 at 11:30 a.m. at Lakewood Cemetery Chapel. Memorials should be directed to Red Cloud Indian School, 100 Mission Drive, Pine Ridge, S.D., 57770.