Polly Baca was born on a farm in Weld County in 1941. A Mexican-American, she was raised in Greeley during segregation, facing daily discrimination for her race, gender and class.
“Mexican Americans had to sit on the side aisles in church. There were signs like, ‘no Mexicans or dogs allowed’ in the businesses,” Baca said. “It was not an easy living for my family, although we had lived in Colorado and northern New Mexico since 1600.”
As a grade schooler, Baca was taunted by classmates and called a “dirty Mexican.” As a high schooler, she was discouraged from applying to colleges by her racist principal. As a career woman, she was sexually harassed and passed on for jobs that had already met their “Mexican quota.”
But nevertheless, she persisted.
Today, now nearly 80 years old, Baca has been awarded the Vanguard Legacy Medal by Gov. Jared Polis for her lifetime of philanthropic and community leadership as part of the 2020 Colorado Governor’s Citizenship Medals.
“The greatest gift God ever gave me was being born a female child to a poor Mexican-American family in a bigoted community,” Baca said. “It was the pain of that bigotry that made me decide that I had to do something about how people treated each other, and that's basically what I dedicated my life to.”
Baca graduated from Colorado State University in 1962 with a degree in political science. During her college career, she served as student body secretary, president of CSU Young Democrats, secretary of Colorado Young Democrats and was the first Mexican-American woman to be named a CSU Pacemaker.
As a sophomore, Baca was one of six students in the state selected for an internship in which she worked for the John F. Kennedy campaign at the Denver headquarters.
After graduation, Baca struggled to find work in Colorado because the Denver Public School system in which she was applying had already reached its quota for Mexican workers. So, she moved to Washington D.C. and became the first woman editor of the labor union newspaper, The Pulp & Paper Worker.
“Her legacy will be forging forward step by step against all odds,” said Sandy Younghans, who volunteered politically with Baca after high school.
“We did not grow up with a lot of role models, so Polly will be a role model to many.”
Soon after she began working for the newspaper, Baca was recruited to work for President Lyndon B. Johnson as a public information officer for the White House Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican Americans.
Baca then went on to become national deputy director of the 1968 Viva Robert F. Kennedy Presidential Campaign, in which she worked with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Bert Corona to campaign for Kennedy in California.
In the following years, she joined the National Council of La Raza, worked for the Democratic National Committee and organized the first Hispanic Caucus of any major political party.
“She's never forgotten where she came from,” said Baca’s childhood friend Deb Suniga. “She's never forgotten about the Latinos or the people of color.”
Baca was the first Latina to co-chair two National Democratic Conventions, served as vice chair of the National Democratic Party for eight years, was special assistant for consumer affairs to President Bill Clinton and director of the United States Office of Consumer Affairs.
“She's like our Forrest Gump in the Latino community,” Suniga said. “It doesn't matter what the part of history was, she was there. … The stories and the history that we can learn from her.”
Returning to Colorado in 1972, Baca served in the Colorado House of Representatives for three years and the Colorado State Senate for seven years — being the first woman chair of the Democratic Caucus for the state house and the first woman of color elected to the state senate.
During this time, Baca founded the Colorado Democratic Chicano Caucus which preceded the Colorado Democratic Latino Initiative.
After leaving the state legislature, she became the executive director of the Colorado Hispanic Institute and the president and CEO of the Latin American Research and Service Agency.
Baca now serves as the president and CEO of Baca Barragan Consultants, a consulting firm specializing in political campaigns, multicultural leadership development, diversity training, motivational presentations, policy and government relations.
The Vanguard Legacy Medal is far from Baca’s first prestigious recognition; however, she said the honor still came as a shock.
“I would have never dreamt that I would be recognized in this capacity,” Baca said.
Baca has also been included in the Colorado Latino Hall of Fame in 2018, the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000 and was one of the original 14 members to be inducted into the National Hispanic Hall of Fame in 1988.
Looking back at her life, Baca said she was able to overcome the obstacles and discrimination because she felt she had to.
“I felt a responsibility because I was given opportunities that most women and minorities were not given,” she said. “The responsibility that I have to try to improve the lives of people around me.”
“I want folks to know that it’s not the challenges that you face in life, but how you respond to those challenges.”