Olga Maldonado, the former Mercedes police chief and mayor of La Feria, at her home Aug. 21 in La Feria. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

LA FERIA — Olga Maldonado no se deja.

On a recent afternoon, the 61-year-old paused for a bit, searching for the correct translation for the Spanish phrase that best describes her: she does not give in or give up.

“(My father) would tell me, ‘you don’t let nobody hit you. And if they’re going to hit you, you fight back. I prefer to go pick you up from the ground than (have) somebody tell me that you did not fight back.’ And girl, nunca me deje ,” she said.

That same fighting spirit gave her strength to battle sexism, harassment and cancer on her way to becoming South Texas’ first female police chief, and most recently, the first female mayor of La Feria, where her ancestors can be traced.

And while the road to success has not been easy, Maldonado is making sure other women embark on it, too, earning her a spot in The Monitor’s three-part series featuring women who have transformed their communities through their empowerment — just as women did 100 years ago, when they first won the right to vote.

“By the time I came along, we could vote, but you didn’t see too many (women) in office, and you didn’t see too many women in rank,” Maldonado said. “And now you do. And it’s a godsend thing that it happened because we’re not going to stand back, and we’re going to continue to rise, and we’re gonna continue to be heard, and we’re gonna continue to move forward. That’s the way I see it.”

NOT FIT FOR PANTYHOSE

Maldonado was born and raised in La Feria, where she grew up alongside nine siblings. Her father was a businessman who owned a bar and served in both the U.S. Army and Navy, while her mother cooked, cleaned and cared for the children.

“We had a happy childhood,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you we were rich, but we never lacked.”

After graduating high school, Maldonado began working at Harlingen International Bank, but never quite felt comfortable in that setting.

“The pantyhose were not my style,” she said. “At the bank, you had to wear pantyhose, you had to wear a skirt, you had to wear a dress, and that wasn’t me, girl. I wasn’t going to be wearing pantyhose every day. So I said, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

After another stint working at Texas Migrant Council, she applied for a clerk position at the Mercedes Police Department in 1987.

“I did municipal court. I did records. I did dispatch, and I became an officer all in one year,” Maldonado said.

The late John Pape, who was the Mercedes police chief at the time, was the one who suggested she become an officer and arranged for her to attend the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s police academy in San Benito.

“I remember he called me in one afternoon, and I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he goes, ‘Well, I’ve really watched you, and I’ve been thinking that I want you to go to the academy,’” Maldonado recalled. “And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not going to have a job,’ you know, because you couldn’t get cities to sponsor you.”

Training at the academy was a full-time job, which meant Maldonado would not be able to earn an income while doing it. Pape, however, said the city would sponsor her, and she was the last officer Mercedes ever sponsored.

“That was a blessing, but that only meant one thing: I had to pass,” she said. “I had to because somebody had enough faith to put me out there and continue to pay me.”

THE ACADEMY

There is one incredible incident that marked her time at the academy, but it can not be told without mentioning Maldonado’s dear friend Aurelio “Al” Leal, a retired FBI agent who also attended the academy in 1988.

Leal was essentially Maldonado’s partner at the academy. Together they studied law and trained in physical combat, which included learning how to use batons from an instructor that, according to Leal, would not leave Maldonado alone.

“He was hitting on her. Like in class, (he would say) ‘You’re gonna go out with me. What are you doing this weekend?’ He would make those comments,” Leal said. “And she said, ‘No. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And to me, you know, that bothered me because it was almost to the point of sexual harassment. You don’t do that.”

Still, Maldonado, who was only two of four women to graduate from the class, brushed it off and instead focused on her classes.

But there came a time while training with batons that put Maldonado and the instructor at odds, and it eventually led to the incident which neither Leal nor Maldonado could ever forget.

“I remember one time with the baton, they would put it on your chest and you were supposed to go down on your knees,” Leal explained.

The instructor would use the pointed edge of the baton, which was typically used to break windows, to subdue the cadets, Maldonado said.

When it was her turn, however, she refused to go to her knees.

“I remember he bled me, and I would not go down,” Maldonado said. “He pissed me off, and the guys were telling me, ‘Go down. Go down. He’s going to hurt you.’ (And I said,) ‘I don’t give a s—-, I’m not gonna go down.’ So he grabbed me by the shirt and threw me against the wall.”

A few days later, the instructor approached her again — this time in a classroom setting.

“He sat at the edge of my desk, and we were all there, all of us, and he got his gun, and he says, ‘What are you gonna do this weekend’ in front of the whole class. And I looked at him, and I said, ‘I don’t know.’

“Are you sure you don’t know what you’re gonna do this weekend,” Maldonado remembers he asked again.

“I said, I don’t know,” Maldnado replied a second time.

That answer did not sit well with the instructor, and he made sure everybody knew.

“I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.That guy pointed that weapon in my face, right at my forehead,” Maldonado said.

Leal, who was sitting in the back of the class, remembers it vividly.

“It was loaded, and he had his finger on (the trigger),” he said. “And she’s just looking at everybody, and to me, I mean, I just, my instinct, I stood up — the only one in class. Nobody else stood up. And I’m starting to walk up, and I’m pointing at him (saying) ‘Put it down. I said put it down,’ and he just turned and looked at me, and I walked all the way up there. And then I went between both of them and he finally put it down.”

Leal remembers he put his arm behind his body to try to hold Maldonado back.

“And I turned and looked at her, and I could see her eyes were wide open. She turned a little pale because she was all scared,” he said. “I honestly thought he was going to shoot her.

I think it could have gotten to that point because this guy was — it was like an infatuation he had for her, and then he was mad because she had turned him down.”

Neither of them filed a complaint, but they suspect word of the incident reached Fil Acosta, who ran the school, because within a matter of days the instructor was gone, never to be seen again.

And though the incident created a strong bond between them, Leal can’t help feeling upset about it, even after all these years.

“He should have been arrested right there on the spot, or the other people should have stood up,” he said.

Olga Maldonado on Aug. 21 in La Feria. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

CLIMBING THE RANKS

Maldonado was met with resistance for a large part of her 32-and-a-half years in law enforcement.

“I suffered a lot with Mercedes, but gracias a Dios, I stood my ground with the face of the Lord and the backing of my family,” Maldonado said.

Much of it came from her own colleagues.

“And you know what? It was weird because I got more respect at the beginning from the men on the street, than I did with my fellow coworkers,” she said. “And as I started moving up the ranks, some people actually left.”

Male officers didn’t want to take orders from a woman, she said, and they made it known.

Maldonado was a supervisor in major crimes investigations when an officer, who later became “a heck of a sergeant,” told her he didn’t want a woman telling him what to do.

“And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Sir, really? Well, you know what? You’re gonna do what I say. You’re gonna do it because I say you’re gonna do it because it’s the correct thing to do. And that better be the last time that you talk to me in that manner. Do you understand me,’” Maldonado remembers telling him. “And you know what? He became one of my good sergeants. And I never brought that up to him. Never.”

Maldonado also endured sexism after giving birth via cesarean section to her last child.

“You know how you only get so many days for maternity leave? Well, I went back and I guess my incision opened in the inside. And I remember that they were like, ‘Well, why can’t she wear her gear? And why can’t she do this?’

“The doctor got so upset at them that she said, ‘Look, I’m not gonna tell you what’s wrong. The only thing I can tell you is that you will not allow her to wear her gear.’ Me la hacian pesada. Jesus. And this was in 1998.”

During that time, Maldonado was also battling thyroid cancer.

“So I fought it with chemotherapy and radiation, and I remember that they would make fun of me because I lost my hair,” she said about patrolmen and even some supervisors. “They would do it to my face, and I would just ignore them.”

Maldonado, however, turned all of those negative feelings into motivation and pushed herself to continue moving her career forward. In 2004, she was named interim police chief and she eventually held the post permanently until 2019, when she retired after more than three decades of service.

“I’m 61, and I worked for that city for 32-and-a-half years. That’s more than half my life,” she said.

Olga Maldonado outside her home on Aug. 21 in La Feria. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

PUBLIC OFFICE

Fed up with what she described as a lack of progress, Maldonado decided to run for a seat on the La Feria City Commission in 2014.

“I would get off of work and walk the streets every day,” she said about her campaign efforts.

Then in 2016, she became La Feria’s first female mayor after running unopposed. She won the seat again last year after a contested election, and she is now serving her second term as mayor.

“So I guess from worrying about one city, now I worry about the other city,” she said with laughter in her voice.

“You gotta worry about the infrastructure of the city and how we can best serve our community and make sure that everybody is safe during these hard times with the pandemic and dealing with this type of weather. It’s very difficult,” she said last week as two hurricanes barreled into the Gulf of Mexico. “As chief, it was the same thing. I was always worried about the guys on the street, the citizens, making sure that we served and protected as best as we could, making sure to stay close with the district so we would serve our children… and that they were able to gain enough confidence to come to us at any hour at any time of the day.”

Maldonado is heavily involved in the community, hosting toy giveaways at Christmas time and most recently donating masks to residents to protect them from COVID-19.

“I support our children here at the district a lot, especially the athletic girls, because you know how it’s always ‘football, football, football.’ It’s a big thing, but we have a lot of girls in the athletic teams that play ball, they play soccer, that are cheerleaders, tennis players, you know? We’ve got so much (talent).”

Leal said he and his family walked the streets with Maldonado after Hurricane Dolly ravaged the Rio Grande Valley in 2008 to offer residents a hot meal.

“And we were out there, through the whole community, walking with her, even at night through some of these real barrio areas and (you) can see these guys coming out showing respect to her,” he said. “And you could tell these guys were gang bangers, with tats and everything, but there was a lot of respect for her. And we were delivering food, hot meals and everything. So she’s always done a lot for the community.”

These days, she’s focusing her efforts on getting a third woman on the commission, the wife of the late mayor pro-tem, who died earlier this year.

“The reason I reached out to her is because he served our city very well. He was very passionate about serving …and she was with him all the time. When we walked, she walked,” Maldonado said. “And I figured who else would be the best person to sit in the seat that he occupied than his wife?”

Whether that will happen, remains to be seen. But it’s a worthy effort, Maldonado said.

“We can’t take the back seat anymore,” she said. “We have to be pushing and encouraging each other to continue and to run, and to do this and to be involved, you know? We want to be involved. We have to be involved.”

In the meantime, she’ll keep driving around the city of La Feria, making sure everything is in order.

“That’s what I do now,” she said.

Perhaps old habits die hard.