She was the Amazing Grace for Civil Rights

Even if we are not male, white, and wealthy, we may not realize that we are at a disadvantage in some aspects of American society. That doesn’t mean we must ignore the inequalities that exist, but it does mean we need something to trigger our awareness. For Graciela Olivárez, when that awareness came, it pushed her to challenge herself and become a force for equality. Among her colleagues and those she helped, she was often called “Amazing Grace.”

Graciela Gil Valero Olivárez was born on May 9, 1928, in Sonora, Arizona. Her mother, Eloisa Solis Valero, was Mexican-American, while her father, Damian Gil Valero, was a Spanish immigrant. By 1944 the Valero family had moved to Phoenix. Instead of continuing in high school, Olivárez dropped out of school and took a job for a real estate agent as a stenographer and translator. At the same time, she also enrolled in Lamson's Business School, the oldest private college in Arizona.

Somehow she drew the attention of managers at KIFN (now KNAI), a Spanish radio station. Olivárez took a job at KIFN and became their first female disc jockey. However, even though she was supposed to talk about fluff pieces like cooking or play Latin jazz, her look into women’s issues uncovered extreme poverty among the Mexican-Americans in migrant camps near Phoenix and in the inner city. Even though her bosses criticized her for bringing such issues up, she continued to speak out on her show.

In 1962, Olivárez took an opportunity to work more directly for these impoverished families by joining the “Careers in Youth” program, started in Phoenix by Robert B. Choate. She worked for Choate and counseled Mexican-American families to help them improve their lives. She did excellent work and took a job at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) for the state of Arizona, where she became director in 1965. 

In 1966, Olivárez was offered a position in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson on the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. Later that year, Olivárez traveled to Washington, D.C., to help found the National Organization for Women.

Up until this point, Olivárez used her natural skills and talents to help others, but during her work for President Johnson, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the President of Notre Dame University in Indiana, urged her to enroll in their law school. She had no high school degree, let alone a bachelor’s degree, and she was in her late 30s, but Olivárez faced the challenge and was accepted to the school. In 1970 she had earned her law degree and was the first woman to ever earn a degree from the Notre Dame Law School.

Fresh out of law school, Olivárez became a consultant for the newly created National Urban Coalition, which advocated for impoverished communities in the city. From 1970 to 1972, she became the director of Food for All, an organization that focused on food insecurity issues. 

In 1972, Olivárez moved back to New Mexico to serve as Director of the Institute for Social Research and Development at the University of New Mexico (UNM). From 1973-1975, Olivárez was a law professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. While teaching, she continued to work for Mexican-Americans and became the first woman on the MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) Board of Directors. 

Olivárez’s success brought her to the attention of government officials. In 1970, President Richard Nixon invited her to the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. In 1975, the governor of New Mexico, Jerry Apodoca, made her the head of the state’s Planning Office. By 1977 President Jimmy Carter named her Director of the Community Services Administration, a subdepartment of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. This appointment made her the highest-ranking Latina in Carter’s administration. 

In 1980, Olivárez left government and started the first Spanish-speaking television network in the United States – the Olivárez Television Company, KLUZ in Albuquerque. Four years later, she set up a consulting firm to help others with their business endeavors.

Olivárez’s tireless work for the poor and those of Latin-American heritage was recognized throughout her lifetime. In 1960, she got the Outstanding Leadership Award from the American Cancer Society. In 1975, Redbook Magazine named her one of their “44 Women Who Could Save America.” She received multiple honorary degrees from 1972 to 1985 from institutions as varied as Amherst College, Michigan State University, the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary's-of-the-Woods, and the University of Albuquerque. 

Olivárez died from cancer on September 19, 1987, but left behind a legacy of work for civil rights that could easily fill an entire book. In her honor, the Notre Dame Hispanic Law Student Association, HLSA, offers the Graciela Olivárez Award to an outstanding Hispanic lawyer or judge who embodies the life’s work of Olivárez.