Graciela Olivárez, “Amazing Grace” to friends and colleagues, was the first woman to graduate from Notre Dame Law School, a remarkable accomplishment considering she did not have a high school diploma. From her humble beginnings, she managed to overcome obstacles to become one of the most notable Hispanic women in the nation, working as an attorney, public servant, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist.
Olivárez was born in 1928 to Damian Gil Valero and Eloisa Solis Valero in Sonora, Arizona; a small mining town near Phoenix. She lived with her father, a Spanish immigrant; her mother, a Mexican-American; and her four siblings. She dropped out of school at age fifteen to work. She found employment at KIFN, a Spanish-language station, where she worked in a number of positions, including disc jockey. She hosted a radio program, where she often discussed civil rights and other issues that she advocated. She later acquired a job as the State Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Arizona in 1965, a department responsible for overseeing federally funded social welfare programs.
Her path to Notre Dame was unconventional. While working for OEO, she met the president of the Notre Dame University, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh. He encouraged her to apply law school, despite her lacking a high school diploma. Olivárez, then in her late thirties and a single parent, entered Notre Dame Law School. In 1970, she became the law school’s first female graduate.
After graduating, she took a position in Phoenix as a consultant for the National Urban Coalition and later as Director of Food for All. She moved to New Mexico in 1972 when she became the Director of the Institute for Social Research and Development at the University of New Mexico (UNM). She notably pushed for men and women to be equally represented on La Raza’s Board of Directors. From 1973 to 1975 she taught at UNM law school. In 1975, she was appointed by New Mexico Governor Jerry Apodoca to the state’s Planning Office, making her the highest ranking government official in the state. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her Director of the Community Services Administration. In 1980, she started the Olivárez Television Company—the only Spanish-language television network in the nation at the time. She was also a senior consultant at United Way of America. Olivárez supported numerous charitable causes including youth programs, cancer education, and programs dedicated to socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
Olivárez’s received numerous national and local accolades. Most notably, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, and President Richard Nixon appointed her to the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. She also held an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College and an Honorary Degree of Law from Michigan State University. In 1960 the American Cancer Society awarded her an Outstanding Leadership Award. In 1975, Redbook magazine honored her as one of the “44 Women Who Could Save America.”
Olivárez lost her fight to cancer in 1987. She left behind a tremendous legacy, including a scholarship named in her honor given by her alma mater, Notre Dame Law School. She has also inspired other Latinas to pursue degrees in higher education.
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