Elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and, later, to the state senate, Polly Baca-Barragán (born 1943) was the first Hispanic woman elected to those offices. She remains active in politics working on behalf of Mexican Americans and dealing with housing issues.
Polly Baca-Barragán is a pioneer in the growing field of Hispanic woman politics. A Colorado State Senator for 12 years, Baca-Barragán was the first woman chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and in 1985 she was elected chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. She was the first and only minority woman to be elected to the Colorado Senate and the first Hispanic Woman to serve in leadership in any State Senate in the United States. A long-time activist at the local, regional, and national levels with civic groups, she is nationally known for her leadership skills and motivational presentations.
Baca-Barragán was born in Greeley, Colorado, in 1943. She is the daughter of Spanish Americans José Manuel, a former migrant farm worker, and Leda Sierra, a strong and fiercely independent woman. From her mother Polly learned that "a woman must be her own person, independent and able to care for herself," Baca-Barragán stated in a 1988 interview contributor Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.
One of Baca-Barragán's early memories is from grade school, where she first began to notice racial discrimination. She and her family went to church and saw little girls inside in white dresses; somehow, Baca-Barragán knew she wanted to be seated with them. But the ushers came and told her family they had to sit on the side aisle because they were "Mexican Americans." The center aisles were reserved for the Anglos who went to that church. In her interview, Baca-Barragán recalled clearly the experience: "They assumed we were Mexican American from the other side of the tracks. They didn't want us there. My mother forced my father to move into a low-income, racially mixed neighborhood, but it was not the Spanish neighborhood. We called it the Spanish American colony because we were from Colorado and from the old Spanish families. My mother was the strength in my family."
At fourteen, Baca-Barragán's father was killed in an accident, and shortly after her mother died. She literally had to assume the role of an adult even though she had no role models. She raised her three younger brothers using common sense. She loved them and she did what she thought her mother would have done. Motivated by her neighbor, Baca-Barragán finished high school and won a scholarship to attend college. She recollected in her interview that she "wanted to go to Colorado State University and major in Physics. My chemistry teacher told me about Madame Curie and told me I couldn't succeed in public life because I was 'Mexican American,' but I could in the scientific field because they had to judge you by what you were. So that's what I decided to be, a physics major. The principal at that high school was very bigoted. She tried to discourage me from applying to the state university."
Although Baca-Barragán began university studies with a major in physics, she was soon drawn back to her ninth-grade desire to enter a field of power—law and politics. She plunged into campus politics, taking the vice presidency, and later the presidency, of the university Young Democrats; she was also secretary for her freshman class. Active as a volunteer for congressional campaigns, Baca-Barragán was a student volunteer of the Viva Kennedy Clubs for John F. Kennedy and worked as an intern for the Colorado Democratic Party.
After receiving her B.A. in political science in 1962, Baca-Barragán was recruited to work as an editorial assistant for a trade union newspaper in Washington, D.C. Shortly after, she was recruited to work for President Lyndon Johnson's administration as a public information officer for a White House agency. Next she joined the national campaign staff of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy in his bid for President of the United States in 1968. That same year she served as the director of research and information for the National Council of La Raza in Phoenix, Arizona, where she met her husband, Miguel Barragán, a Chicano activist and former priest. The marriage produced two children, Monica and Mike, before ending in divorce. A few years later, adding to a long list of "firsts," Polly became an assistant to the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Shortly after, she opened a public relations business in Adams County after returning to Colorado, where her professional experiences blossomed into her political career.
In 1974, Polly Baca-Barragán won Colorado's 34th district seat in the state's House of Representatives, and four years later she was elected to the Colorado State Legislature as the first Hispanic woman senator. In 1977, she was elected the first woman chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and in 1985, she was elected chair of the Senate Democratic caucus. She was the first minority woman to be elected to the Colorado Senate and the first Hispanic woman to serve in leadership in any State Senate in the United States.
In her interview Baca-Barragán recalled a personal note Senator Edward Kennedy sent to her with his best personal wishes during her Legislative campaign, saying, "We need more representation of the Chicano community in public office as we need more women, and Polly's the best of both. … She will represent a progressive, bright, and effective addition to the state legislature, one who will speak for all the people of her district."
As a freshman legislator in the Colorado House of Representatives, Baca-Barragán broke an old rule of the seniority system which imposed a "watch and wait" attitude on first termers. In the 1975 session of the Colorado Legislature, she introduced nine House bills and carried six Senate bills in the House. Two of these House bills and three of Senate bills were passed by both houses and signed into law by the governor. Throughout her term she sponsored 201 more House bills and 57 additional Senate bills. Of these, 156 passed both houses and are now law. Some of her most notable bills are Senate Bill 118, providing for the protection of deposits of public monies held by the state and national banks (1986); Senate Bill 87, providing authority to the Colorado district courts to enforce foreign subpoenas, (1985); Senate Bill 139, concerning assessment of civil money penalties by the state banking board, (1985); House Bill 1117, continuing the short-term-loan revolving fund in the division of housing, (1985); House Bill 1336, regulating the operation of non state post-secondary institutions in Colorado by the Colorado Commission of Higher Education, and many others.
As the Denver Post summarized, Baca-Barragán was known in Colorado as "a democratic senator representing 63,000 Adams County resident. On the other hand, she is the Colorado politician who has the closest ties to the nation's Democratic Leadership in Washington, D.C. … In fact, Barragan, has better, more open links to the White House than Gov. Dick Lamm and other Democratic leaders in Colorado." Throughout her work Baca-Barragán won the respect of many leaders in the state of Colorado and nationally. By any standards, she must be judged a good policy maker.
Part of her success is attributable to her many volunteer and civic activities, which she has pursued throughout her career and which she views as a basic training ground for any politician. These activities included Chicano and minority activism, party politics, women's rights, professional and business development, and political and community organizing. Locally, she worked on the Board of Trustees of Labor's Community Agency, the Latin American Research and Service Agency, the Mile High United Way, and she has been on the Policy Advisory Council on the Division of the State Compensation Insurance Fund. On a broader scale, she served on the boards of the National Chicano Planning Council and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and many others.
Baca-Barragán told the Denver Post that she is especially proud of her part in the founding of the National Congress of Hispanic American Citizens, better known as "El Congreso," the country's first and only full-time Latino lobby at the nation's Capitol. Her experience at the state legislative committee level reads like a Who's Who of committee assignments: Rules; Business Affairs and Labor; Finance; Local Government; Agriculture, National Resources and Energy; Transportation; School Finance; State Affairs; Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions; Legislative Audit; and Education. Baca-Barragán's legislation, moreover, has always been people-oriented. For example, in 1986 Polly Baca-Barragán introduced innovative legislation to correct inequitable financial burdens on Colorado property tax-payers, while still providing quality education. In addition, she introduced legislation to protect public monies in state national banks. In 1980 and again in 1984, she was elected Co-Chair of the Democratic National Convention and chaired the Colorado delegation to the 1978 Democratic Mid-term Conference. Baca-Barragán also gladly shared her extensive foreign affairs experience as a participant and panelist to major international conferences in Columbia, Mexico, the USSR, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Canada, Belgium, and West Germany.
It was her track record of performance and success at the national level as Senator that motivated her to be a candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1986. In a personal interview for Hispanic Women Breaking Ground and Barriers, Baca-Barragán commented on the disappointment she felt after losing the race: "I've had two great pains in my life. The divorce was rejection by a male … but that's how I perceived it. The other was when I lost my race for Congress. This was rejection because I was an Hispanic woman. That's the only reason I lost that race. It's a great deal of pain. I don't know of a pain that is greater and that's why people don't take risks. It's a lack of confidence that you can't succeed or the willingness to withstand the rejection if you fail."
After the long campaign, Baca-Barragán retired from public office and became President of Sierra Baca Systems, a consulting firm specializing in program development and assessment, leadership training, issue analysis and motivational presentations. In addition, Baca-Barragán has frequently appeared as a political commentator on both television and radio. She is nationally known for her leadership skills and for breaking ground in the area of politics for Latinas in the United States.
In 1988, she was honored as one of the original 14 members to be inducted into the National Hispanic Hall of Fame and being listed in the World Who's Who of Women. Though Baca-Barragán has no political aspirations at present, she continues to be active with national civic groups and serves on a bipartisan Commission on National Political Conventions. More recently, Baca-Barragán has been devoting her time to heading up the Colorado Institute for Hispanic Education and Economic Empowerment, whose mission is to "create a pool of Hispanic leaders who are sensitive to cultural differences and gender issues, and who will jump on the fast track to leadership positions," according to Mercedes Olivera in Vista. "If we are to have social cohesiveness as a nation," Baca-Barragán related in Vista, "I feel strongly that we have to value the other people, their value system, culture, history. If we honor those differences, then we can look at the human thread that unites us all as human beings." □