- Associated Press - Saturday, July 5, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Polly Baca has lived the civil rights movement up close in all its triumphs and sorrows.

She was there for the March on Washington, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the rally in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Later, she served 12 years in the Colorado Legislature, becoming the first Hispanic nationally to serve in the House and Senate of a state Legislature, and the first to co-chair a National Democratic Convention.

“I’m proud to have been a part of it all,” says Baca, a Denver consultant for multicultural leadership development.

“It was knowing the pain of bigotry that drove me.”

She grew up in Greeley. Her parents were farmworkers, and later her father worked for an ice storage company, and her mother in fishhook and potato chip factories.

In the 1600s, her ancestors had settled New Spain, which included Mexico and most of the territory west of the Mississippi River. Her great-grandfather helped found Trinidad.

In the 1950s, businesses and theaters were segregated, and there was a “Mexican colony” where they had to live.

“It was rough,” she says.

“The first boy I liked said he wasn’t allowed to date Spanish girls. I saw some of my girlfriends dating white boys, but they had to sneak around to do it.”

Even her church was segregated.

“I remember I saw these little girls sitting in the middle rows of the church, and I wanted to join them. I was told ‘Your kind is not allowed in these seats.’”

School was no better. “Little boys called me ‘dirty Mexican,’ and the girls taunted me.”

But she also saw how the Hispanics stood up for themselves. Her father, Jose Manual Baca, and other Mexican-Americans wrote to the archbishop and got their own parish. Our Lady of Peace remains open in Greeley and most recently helped migrant workers last year during floods.

Her parents stressed education, telling her that she had to go to college. Her father, who had only gone through eighth grade, was good with figures and was the first head of the church’s credit union, which helped the parishioners with small loans. He encouraged her to get good grades by setting up a savings account and giving her 50 cents to put in it for every A she received.

Her mother, Leda Baca, had been orphaned at age 14, and became responsible for three younger brothers and also an older brother who had been injured in the car crash that killed her father, Baca said. Leda and other poor students were able to attend College High School, a K-12 school where education students from the University of Northern Colorado came to get classroom training. Leda was behind and the teacher who helped her catch up was the author James Michener.

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