Despite lacking a high school diploma, she was accepted to Notre Dame Law School and in 1970 became its first woman graduate. Through her work as an attorney, public servant, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist, she became one of the most notable Hispanic women in the United States.
Graciela Olivárez, “Amazing Grace” to friends and colleagues, was the first woman to graduate from Notre Dame Law School, a remarkable achievement particularly given that she started work young and did not have the opportunity to earn her 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 15 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 she advocated.
Her path to Notre Dame was unconventional. In 1965, she became State Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Arizona, a department responsible for overseeing federally funded social welfare programs. While working for OEO, she met Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame University. He encouraged her to apply to law school, despite lacking her 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 from Notre Dame Law School, Olivárez took a position in Phoenix as a consultant for the National Urban Coalition and later as Director of Food for All. In 1972, she moved to New Mexico 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 the National Council of 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 Planning Office, making her the highest ranking government official in New Mexico. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Olivárez 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 and supported numerous charitable causes including youth programs, cancer education, and programs dedicated to socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
Olivárez 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.
Derr, Mary Krane. “Her Story Worth Repeating.” The American Feminist, 5:2, Summer 1998, p.18.
Gurule, Jimmy. ““Amazing Grace”: A Tribute to Graciela Olivarez.” Notre Dame Lawyer, Fall 2006, pp. 18–19.
Hardy, Gayle J. American Women Civil Rights Activists: Bibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1826–1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1993.
Ruiz, Vicki L. and Virginia Sánchez Korrol. Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, H–P. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006.
Samora, Julian and Patricia Vandel Simon. A History of the Mexican-American People. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.
Telgan, Diane and Kim Kamp, ed. Notable Hispanic Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1993.