- 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.

“His influence was the driving force behind my mother’s determination to send her three daughters to College High School,” Baca writes in a draft of her memoirs.

Baca attended the school without tuition because her mother had studied there, and she says it provided a good education.

She received a full scholarship to Colorado State University and studied physics. A professor noted she wasn’t in a single science club, but belonged to many political organizations and suggested she think about changing to political science. She did.

“He was so right. I wanted to change the world, the way Mexican-Americans were treated.”

In 1960, she was vice president of the Young Democrats at CSU and was chosen for an internship at state headquarters and was recruited to be student chairman of the Colorado Viva Kennedy Campaign. It was the first time that a presidential candidate had tried to get the Hispanic vote, she said.

She graduated in 1962, one of about seven Mexican-Americans in a class of about 1,000 graduates, she said. “So many of them weren’t getting that opportunity.”

After college, she worked in Washington, D.C., during much of the civil rights era.

She worked from 1962 to 1967 for two labor unions, writing for their newspapers and magazines and developing testimony for congressional hearings. In 1967 and 1968, she was a public information officer for President Lyndon Johnson’s White House Interagency Committee on Mexican Americans.

She was on the mall during the March on Washington in 1963.

“It was an incredible day. But I volunteered to help hand out doughnuts and coffee to all the marchers. Riots had been predicted. I was surprised that so many in the crowd were white, and that there was so much love and joy.”

But the acoustics were so bad, she couldn’t hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “You had to be right up front.”

While on vacation in Colorado in 1966, she met Cesar Chavez, who founded the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerte. She was working for the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks and was encouraged to help organize the Huelga Committee in support of the farmworkers’ movement.

“My father was so proud of me. He was in awe of Cesar.”

In June 1968, the Kennedy campaign staff was in Los Angeles working on Robert Kennedy’s presidential primary. Baca was helping organize Viva Kennedy, which was focusing on east Los Angeles. She was staying at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. On occasion, Cesar Chavez’s wife, Helen, stayed with her.

“Mexican Americans and the Viva Kennedy efforts headed by Chavez and Bert Corona (a longtime labor and civil rights leader) were responsible for his primary election win that day - many people don’t realize that.”

Baca was in the Ambassador ballroom for Kennedy’s victory speech. Then, he went to the kitchen to thank the workers, and suddenly chaos broke out as word spread that Kennedy had been shot.

“I was crying. Everyone was crying.”

Baca rushed to the hospital because among those wounded was a friend with the Los Angeles Central Labor Council.

“An internist told us Kennedy had died. It seemed like the end of the civil rights fight. JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby. I was despondent, angry and wanted to give up.”

She helped Chavez and the farmworkers organize a California memorial march for the senator, then left for his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. She was part of the staff that helped control access to the burial site.

“As a consequence I was able to touch the casket and say my personal goodbyes.”

Disillusioned, she went to Venezuela with a friend who had family there. She took off on her own through Central America, a trip where she met “many caring families that helped restore my faith in the universal spirit that unites us all as human beings,” she says in her memoir.

Back in the U.S., she was ready once again to address the problems confronting Mexican-Americans. She took a job as research director of the Southwest Council of La Raza (which later became the National Council of La Raza), which had received a $600,000 grant to address the education and economic issues of Mexican-Americans in urban areas.

She got married in 1970 and had two children, and continued her activist work.

“I didn’t want my children to go through what my family had gone through,” she said.

In 1974, she ran for the Colorado state Legislature and spent four years in the House representing Adams County, and eight years in the state senate, and later held such positions as chief consumer advocate for the Clinton administration and president of the Latin American Research and Service Agency.

Now 73, her work continues on civil rights, political campaigns and consulting with companies and organizations on developing multicultural relations programs.

Looking back over the 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she says:

“There was so much struggle, but it didn’t fulfill the hopes of the times. We changed the laws, but not everyone’s hearts and minds. Not everyone thinks that we are all created equal. There is a fear of others.

“The job isn’t done.”


Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com



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