McALLEN — Maria Louisa Garcia was born 19 years after women won the right to vote, and she’s spent her life making sure she and those around her use it for good.

Garcia, who turned 81 years old Saturday, embodies the fighting spirit women 100 years ago envisioned when they successfully fought for that right.

Wednesday will mark 100 years since the 19th Amendment was adopted, and The Monitor will feature three women who have used that right to impact their communities, Garcia included.

“I’ve known Maria Louisa since the 80s, when I first ran for state representative. She’s always been very active in the community, always involved, especially with education and students,” state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said Saturday. “She really had a presence and is an excellent writer, and also very much involved in campaigns — very well respected.”

Former Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, with whom Garcia also worked closely, said it’s because of people like her that the Rio Grande Valley has been able to move forward.

“I am immensely grateful that Maria Louisa and her husband, coach Willie Garcia, worked on my 10 congressional campaigns from 1996 to 2016. It was all volunteer work, and I have to say that Maria Louisa is a hardworking and highly respected teacher who knew the importance of kindergarten through 12th grade education programs,” Hinojosa said.

Born in Rio Grande City in 1939, Garcia has earned many titles throughout her life: educator, grant writer, activist, bilingual director, poet, school board president, business owner and mentor, to name a few. She has marched in support of various causes, including with Cesar Chavez, and has been given the prestigious Ohtli Award by Mexican President Vicente Fox for her charitable work across the border, as well.

“We came from a humble family. We didn’t have money per se, but we had a small business, and my mother always told us, like a broken record, that we needed to go to college,” Garcia recalled Thursday.

That humble upbringing and the lasting impact her mother and grandmother had on Garcia’s education, propelled her to create opportunities for others in many different ways, including by writing grants that injected hundreds of millions of dollars into schools and nonprofits throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

“I feel like I’m from the whole Valley, I really do, because we worked a lot with people that are from the whole Valley — con todos,” Garcia said Thursday from her Mission home.

The Texas Woman’s University graduate began her career teaching second grade in La Grulla when she was 19 years old, and it put her on a path that would eventually lead her to become the first woman elected to political office in San Benito and the first woman to sit on the San Benito Consolidated Independent School District Board of Trustees, where she served as president in the 70s and endured racism in many forms.

EARLY INFLUENCES

Garcia’s grandmother, Aurora, taught her the alphabet in Spanish before she ever attended school. So on her very first day of class, when the teacher passed out cards with letters written on them, Garcia noticed there were a few letters missing — namely the Spanish ones, like “CH,” “Ñ,” and “LL.”

So Garcia took her pencil and added them to the cards.

“But that teacher had told us in English not to write on those cards, but I didn’t understand. So guess what? She slapped me across the face, and as I started to run out because I was peeing in my pants, she pulled me from my dress and hit me in the back, and I peed myself on the floor, right there in the classroom — the first day of school with my mouth busted,” Garcia recalled in English and Spanish.

What followed would shape her young life in ways she never imagined.

Garcia said she was terrified to go home that day because her mother, Andrea, had warned her if she got in trouble at school and was disciplined by a teacher, she would get another spanking at home.

“And you know what I did? I hid underneath the house,” Garcia said.

Her sister, who was in the same class, eventually told her mother what happened.

“My mother went out to look for me, and when she saw that my mouth was busted, I thought, ‘she’s going to hit me for sure.’ Nuh uh,” Garcia said, holding back tears. “She took me by the hand and she went walking with me across the street from the post office, where there was a county superintendent, and showed him what had happened to me. And he went, put us in his car — my father was serving already in World War II — and he took me and my mother and made her apologize to my mother and me.

“And I think to myself, my mother was so brave — una mujer bien luchadora. She dared to do it — because it was a gamble. She didn’t know what was going to happen.”

While her father was serving in the U.S. Army, her mother bought a tortilleria from her brother-in-law for $500, and Garcia and her three siblings helped run the business.

“She ordered calendars that said, ‘The best tortillas in town,’” Garcia recalled. “How could they not be the best if they were the only tortilleria in the middle of town?”

Garcia described her mother as a strict disciplinarian and an activist.

“We used to go to all the political meetings — every one of them. My mom loved it,” Garcia said. “She loved politics.”

And it’s something that she instilled in her daughter.

Paul Vazaldua, a government relations consultant who worked at Garcia’s grant-writing business, described her as a “maverick for voting.”

“Early on she knew that having the right to vote was a privilege, and she shared that with everybody,” Vazaldua said. “I remember her telling me about the meetings she used to go to with Billy Leo in the western part of Hidalgo County, and organizing and educating people to exercise their right to vote.”

Hinojosa, the state senator, remembers meeting Garcia at one of those meetings almost four decades ago.

“I remember when I was in La Joya campaigning, I first met her and she insisted that a woman introduce me,” Hinojosa said. “She had Ofelia de Los Santos, a young person at the time, introduce me in La Joya at a political campaign, which was unheard of. So she’s always been pushing women to be more active, to be more involved, to be leaders, not only in the political system but in the community.”

That young woman who introduced him eventually became an attorney and led one of the region’s most active nonprofits, Valley Interfaith, Hinojosa said.

“So there it is — her influence and assistance,” he said. “We all play a role.”

Maria Luisa Garcia, 81, at her home on Friday in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

PUBLIC OFFICE

Garcia was working in San Benito, which she described as the “last bastion of English-only type of schooling,” when she noticed teachers were physically hurting students.

“They would leave them marked,” she recalled. “They would hit them in their little fingers, and their hands and their little butts.”

So she filed a complaint with Child Protective Services against the principal.

“It’s supposed to be anonymous, and they told him that I did it,” she said.

That put both of them at a crossroad, so when the principal decided to run for the school board upon his retirement, Garcia decided to run against him. When she filed to run, she was told she couldn’t because they couldn’t find her voter information, so she and her husband spent three hours searching through public records.

She eventually won the post with the help of a third candidate in that race, a dentist who encouraged voters to support her if they weren’t going to support him.

“I worked very hard when I was a board member there and suffered a lot,” she said.

Just moving into her home was a whole ordeal. Garcia and her husband purchased two property lots in front of the football field, and when they tried to relocate, they were met with opposition.

“When we started to move our houses that we bought from a church, there was a man with a shotgun — that’s what I went through in San Benito — saying that over his dead body would we have our houses moved to that area because I needed to go back to Mexico,” she said. “It was terrible. We struggled a lot in San Benito. They considered me an activist.”

City leaders at the time illegally stopped her from going into a public meeting, her name was chiseled off a plaque at a high school and someone threw a molotov cocktail underneath her home.

“That’s when I decided to leave,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

She never again sought public office, and even turned it down later when former Hidalgo County Judge J. Edgar Ruiz wanted to appoint her to the inaugural board of what is now South Texas College.

Vazaldua, who was working for Ruiz’s office at the time, hand-delivered the letter asking her to take the position.

“I told them, ‘I don’t want the position,” she said. “‘I want to work with the kids, with the parents because I’ve been a board member in San Benito, and it was no easy job, believe me.’”

Still, she’s proud of her time in office and the changes she was able to make, including renaming a middle school after a Mexican-American teacher — which had never been done before in San Benito, she said. That campus, Berta Cabaza Middle School, still exists today.

“And because she died of cancer they didn’t remove her name. If not, they would have also removed it,” she said about those who stayed in power after she ended her political term early.

Garcia was also the first to address parents and students in Spanish at a graduation ceremony there.

“I remember clearly that for the first time, les hable en Español,” she said. “They (parents) had made the sacrifice for their children, and I told the students that if anybody wanted to be congratulated, they first had to congratulate their own parents. And I said it in Spanish and in English, and all the parents stood up and clapped, and all the kids, too.”

PUTTING IN THE WORK

Garcia became heavily involved in her students’ lives and eventually accepted positions that focused on parental involvement, developing programs to help them learn English and become more involved in their child’s education.

“We actually met under Mesquite trees, pulled chairs from a house, and I would meet with the parents there, and we would all sit and learn the language so that they could help their children,” she said. “As a matter of fact, one of the ladies was a janitor in one of the schools, and now she has a master’s degree. And I told her, ‘you need to leave that pail and that bucket.’ She was so smart.”

During that time, Garcia started learning how to write proposals and grants, and she eventually made a name for herself and opened her own grant-writing business, where she employed at least eight others to focus on drawing down funds.

Together with Hilda Medrano, the former department of education dean at what is now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and Santiago Baldazo, Garcia’s secretary, the trio drew down one of the biggest grants in Valley history.

“We wrote the biggest grant ever written for $275 million,” she said about the allocation to local schools and faith-based organizations. “That grant was the GEAR Up grant — the very first one that was written — and we wrote it for kids that were having problems.They had to have a ‘C’ or less, and we worked with them until we brought them up to par. Now, GEAR Up is for anybody that wants to join. We have kids whose parents are teachers, et cetera, but at the time we wrote it, we wrote it for those kids that were having problems.”

Garcia’s work took her around the world, working in Mexico, Spain and other countries.

“I visited the Soviet Union when it was still a communist country and spent some time there and worked with the kids there. And to my surprise, they knew four languages,” she said. “They already knew Spanish and English and Latvian and Estonian — all kinds of languages and dialects.”

Garcia eventually opened up her own bookstore and distributed books around the world. The business also doubled as a learning center, where she implemented a wide variety of free programs through partnerships with Workforce Solutions and other organizations.

“We had people from all over come and visit our programs there,” Garcia said.

Meanwhile, she continued to be very involved in politics, offering politicians translation services, among others, at no cost. And every time there was an election, Garcia volunteered to drive voters to the polls.

“I walked the streets like you have no idea. Street by street,” she said. “It was easy for me to take women out to vote. One time, in one hour, we brought out 16 women to vote. They’re more apt to go vote.”

WORK REMAINS

Garcia’s voting record is almost impeccable.

“Only one time in my life since I voted for John F. Kennedy, was I not able to vote,” she said Thursday. “One time, I went to vote and I couldn’t vote because my license had expired and they didn’t let me vote.”

She’s not willing to let it happen again and is planning on renewing her license soon in order to cast her ballot in November’s general election.

“My plans are to vote in person, and I’ll tell you why: I do not trust what could happen to the ballots,” she said.

Even Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that left her in a wheelchair for two-and-half years, couldn’t deter her.

“But even then, I was involved in politics. I kept working in a wheelchair,” she said. “Did I give up? No. I didn’t give up.”

And that’s because there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“To me, (the 19th Amendment) means a beginning to what still is not the end, because women still get cheated out of positions (of power),” she said. “The school boards, commissioners, almost always are men.”

And there are still some jarring inequalities that need to be addressed.

“You still don’t have the rights that I want to see. I want to see the marches of women like the Black people. I’m proud of them because they finally said enough is enough,” she said about the Black Lives Matter movement. “But to me, we still haven’t reached that point.”

Still, life has been kind to Garcia.

“I had the time of my life. My work was — I loved it. I loved what I did, and I still do,” she said.

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19th Amendment Centennial
This is one of three stories to be published in observance of the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote.