Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Graciela Olivárez, Chicana Crusader

Today is the birthday of Graciela Olivárez, an Arizona native. Daughter of a Mexican-American mother and a Spanish father, she grew up in the mining country of Arizona during the Depression and developed a passion for the needs of the underprivileged.

Graciela dropped out of school after her junior year in high school when her family moved to Phoenix. She found a secretarial job in real estate before landing at radio station KIFN. There she worked her way up from secretary to radio host and eventually program director. Her position in the community gave her a voice she could raise against injustice, and raise it she did, not always with the support of her employers. In 1962 she was invited to work for the Choate Foundation which was establishing programs in Arizona to reduce juvenile delinquency. By 1966 Olivárez was director of the Arizona Economic Opportunity Office.

In 1967 Graciela was invited to attend Notre Dame Law School by Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the College, who had met Olivárez in his role as a member of the Civil Rights Commission. Remember that this was a woman who had never received a high school diploma. In 1970 she became the first woman ever to graduate from the Notre Dame Law School. Later she would be the first woman on the board of directors of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, and a professor at the University of New Mexico Law School.

Olivárez’ hard work and accomplishments caught the attention of national figures from both sides of the political aisle. President Johnson appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. President Nixon made her the Vice-chair of the President’s Commission on Population and the American Future. And President Carter made her head of the Community Services Administration, the federal government’s anti-poverty agency. She was the highest-ranking woman in his administration.

Graciela was one of the charter members of the National Organization for Women at its founding in 1966. She fell out of favor with that group when she dissented from the group’s adoption of a plank favoring legalized abortion. Graciela believed abortion would ultimately hurt women’s rights by excusing men from responsibility for children they might father. She also feared it would become a tool for reducing the population among minorities, pointing out the term “unwanted” as applied to unborn children carried a strong echo of the way society often looked at members of minorities:  "Mexican-American (Chicano) farm laborers were 'wanted' when they could be exploited by agri-business. Chicanos who fight for their constitutional rights are 'unwanted' people."

Graciela continued to work in campaigns against poverty and discrimination and was Director of the State Office of Planning for the State of New Mexico when President Carter tapped her for the top job at the Community Services Administration.

The CSA was rolled into the Department of Health and Human Services in 1981. Graciela returned to the world of broadcasting, founding a television company. She continued to work as a consultant and to crusade against poverty in America. In an article published in 1984, she wrote words that sound very current more than a quarter-century later: “To solve the nation’s growing numbers of poor, we need (1) rational analysis and practical programs, (2) the cooperation of both the public and private sectors and (3) sincere concern for the future of all Americans, Short-sighted ideological and political posturing, coupled with simplistic approaches, won’t do.”

Olivárez, who had received a leadership award from the American Cancer Society for her work in the 1960s, died of cancer in 1987. Her friends called her "Amazing Grace."


Mur said...

I think you've written your first profile for the Arizona book!

Sally said...

Not counting that it's too long and WAY above grade level . . .