Monday, March 9, 2015

Graciela Olivárez

Graciela Olivárez (March 9, 1928 - September 19, 1987)

Graciela Olivárez was the first woman and the first Latina to graduate from Notre Dame Law School, in 1970, at the age of 42. This in itself is quite impressive. So when you consider that she was the daughter of a immigrant working-class family, and a high school dropout, it's truly remarkable. But it was also just another of the many amazing things this woman did during her lifetime as a civil rights and feminist activist.

She was born in Phoenix, and grew up in a small, ethnically divided mining company town during the Great Depression. She attended school and lived with her mother while her father traveled around Arizona, looking for work to support his family.

When she was 16 years old, her family finally moved to Phoenix during WWII so her father, a machinist, could find work in the factories. Graciela decided to drop out of high school, and instead take classes as a local business school while looking for work. She started out in the office of a real estate agent, working as a stenographer and translating for his Spanish-speaking clientele. Here, she met one of the operators of the local Spanish-language radio stations, KIFN, who talked her into taking a job working for them. By 1952, she was the director of women's programming, and she had become the first female disc jockey in Phoenix, filling the airways with music as well as advice on her program "Action Line."

It was in her role at the radio station when she became increasingly aware of the pervasive poverty and hopelessness in the Mexican-American community of Phoenix and its surrounding migrant labor camps. Unwilling to sit idly by, she used her platform on the radio to bring attention to their issues, and while she was criticized by the station's owner who was afraid of losing advertising revenue from conservative sponsors, she continued to speak out on their behalf.

This stance brought her to the attention of civil rights organizers and prominent politicians, and in 1962 she was invited to work with the "Careers for Youth" initiative, counseling families in South Phoenix on issues surrounding the youth population. In 1965 she was named State Director of the Office for Economic Opportunity by then-governor Samuel P. Goddard. And then, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. In October of that same year, she attended the founding conference of the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C., where she signed on as a founding member.

During her work for the president she met the President of Notre Dame University, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who was impressed with her dedication and activism, and who encouraged her to consider continuing her education by attending Notre Dame's School of Law. She decided to follow his suggestion, and despite being in her late-30s and not having any of the usual qualifications to attend law school, she enrolled.

In 1970, at the age of 42, she graduated from the Notre Dame School of Law, becoming the first woman to do so, white or Latina. Soon thereafter, she accepted a position as professor of law at the University of New Mexico. During this time, she also served as the first Mexican-American woman on the MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) Board of Directors, and continued to be a vocal advocate for the Latino community. Additionally, she served as the director of the Arizona state program "Food for All" which addressed issues related to food availability, distribution of surplus food, school lunches, and food stamps.

Photo source: ASU Libraries

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named her as the Director of the Community Services Administration, making Graciela the highest-ranking woman in his cabinet. In 1980, she moved back to the Southwest, where she founded the Olivárez Television Station, the only Spanish-language station in the US at the time. Continuing her work to combat poverty and discrimination, she took a role as senior consultant for the United Way of America.

Note: Some sources list her date of birth as March 9, while others as May 9. I'm going to assume that her headstone is correct.

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For more information:

Women's Heritage Trail: Graciela Olivárez

The Write Sisters: Women of Wednesday - Graciela Olivárez

The American Presidency Project: Community Services Administration Nomination of Graciela (Grace) Olivárez To Be Director

Law Crossing: Hispanic Law Students Honor a Former Graduate with the Graciela Olivárez Award

Wikipedia: Graciela Olivárez

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