María García believed that the actions of individuals could make a difference. She was born in Mexico in 1898. She grew up in Chihuahua where she attended the Instituto Cientifico Literario and studied to become a teacher, then worked in Juarez as a teacher. In the early 1930s, she moved to Yuma where she worked at the Immaculate Conception Catholic School as a teacher’s aide. While living there, María met Albert García, who later became her husband. He served as Secretary for the Latin American Club of Arizona, an organization whose goals were to support Democrats in political offices who could help eliminate the racism encountered by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Maria was influenced by Albert’s civil rights and political work, and she, too, became a member In 1937, after Albert earned a law degree, the couple moved to Phoenix and joined the small Mexican-American middle class.
While living in Phoenix, María met Plácida García Smith, who directed a social service agency called the Friendly House. The Friendly House opened as a settlement house in the primarily Latino Grant Park barrio in 1922. It focused on Americanizing immigrants through English and citizenship classes, and training immigrant women in preparation for employment. In the 1930s and 1940s, Latinos composed 15 percent of Arizona’s population. At this time, they had little political power in Maricopa County and often faced prejudice, discrimination and segregation. This prejudice and discrimination led to the curtailment of their civil rights. It was in this setting that María and Plácida founded Phoenix’s first chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Council #110 in 1940.
In 1941, with Maria and Placida in leadership roles, LULAC Council # 110 traveled from Phoenix to Miami, Arizona to meet with members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 586, to help them form LULAC Council # 111, join in efforts to combat the unequal dual wage system of work and pay, and to end discriminatory practices at the copper mine sites there..
LULAC emphasized patriotism and integration into the American mainstream, but also vigorously denounced discrimination and pursued equal treatment of Mexican-Americans. María formed the Council’s “Discrimination Committee,” and it didn’t take long for her and her committee to roll into action following an incident in Tempe where an unwritten segregation policy resulted in two Mexican pilots training at Williams Air Field to be denied entrance to the Tempe Beach pool. María and the committee pursued the issue through the court. The case went to trial in 1943 and a federal court ruled that the segregation of residents of Mexican descent from the Tempe Beach pool was unconstitutional. The Tempe Beach Committee refused to cooperate. Three years later, the pool’s segregation policy was successfully abolished thanks in part to the earlier work of María and the discrimination committee.
María continued to fully support the Friendly House’s role as a place where people could come to learn English and civics. She advocated for the Friendly House to be allowed to offer citizenship classes. María, along with others, formed the agency’s Americanization Committee and secured materials to teach citizenship classes in the evening to accommodate those who worked. These classes welcomed immigrants of all backgrounds. At the end of the program, the new citizens were encouraged to register to vote. María also advocated for women to become educated, to learn English, or to enroll in job training classes at the Friendly House. One of the main purposes of the agency was to provide domestic training and job placement for immigrant women. She championed the idea of creating an “apartment” in the Friendly House with modern appliances included, so women in training could get practical experience in operating these machines before they went out for domestic jobs.
In the late 1940s, the Garcías continued to push the boundaries of the city’s racial restrictions and moved into a home in the primarily all-white Coronado neighborhood. María’s nephew, Charlie García, recalls “I always call her the Rosa Parks of the Mexican community because she was very adamant about our place in society.” The Garcías were among a few families who began to move into non-Mexican areas and initiate the gradual process of integration. While living in Phoenix during the 1940s and 1950s, María García stood out as a woman who courageously spoke up for social issues, even though she was an immigrant and spoke with a heavy accent.
Used by permission from Arizona State University
“My name is Placida Garcia Smith. A good American name. A good Mexican name.”
— A favorite self-introduction used by Mrs. Smith in the Friendly House classes she taught.
There are certain characteristics common to all patriots:
Above all, those who remember Placida Elvira Garcia Smith describe her as a patriot, a woman who lived her life teaching, sharing, and caring for others. Born August 7, 1896, in Conejos, Colorado, she began her teaching career at about age 19, shortly after graduating from Loretto Academy in Pueblo, Colorado. From then until 1928 she taught, rising to the position of principal at Conejos Grade School and later becoming deputy county treasurer of Conejos County. Meanwhile, she continued her education, studying summers at Greeley State Teachers College and the University of Mexico in Mexico City before receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1927 from the University of Utah.
In 1928, Placida Smith moved to Phoenix when her husband, Reginald G. Smith, took a job at what is now Phoenix Newspapers Inc. She became involved with the community, first working as a substitute teacher in Phoenix Elementary School and Phoenix Union High Schools.
Her major civic contribution began in 1931 when she assumed the directorship of Friendly House, a center for immigrants trying to learn the ways of their adopted country. At Friendly House, men found help in getting jobs; women learned American housekeeping skills, and some found domestic service jobs. All learned English and what it meant to be American citizens.
Placida strived to impress those in her classes that they were special. “You came to this country because you wanted to and now you want to become citizens,” she would say. Under her tutelage, 1,400 people became United States’ citizens.
“In helping them attain their goal … she instilled in them an understanding that freedom to an American is more than merely a word. It is a spirit and a way of life,” said U.S. District County Judge Valdemar A. Cordova in a letter nominating Placida Garcia Smith for the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.
While much of her teaching concerned the philosophical, she wasn’t blind to the everyday necessities of people struggling to make a living. “I remember while walking past Friendly House on my way to Lowell Gammar School hearing babies and small children,” Cordova recalled.
“I wondered why there were so many children there. Later I learned they were being cared for while the mothers worked. This must have been a forerunning to the modern concept of day-care centers for working mothers,” he said.
But Friendly House and newcomers to the country were not her only concerns. During the 30-plus years she spent as Friendly House director, Mrs. Smith also worked constantly to build pride among Mexican-American people and to help them better their social conditions through education.
She organized the first Spanish-American Boy Scout Troop in the city in 1932 and established the Mexican Dance Project in 1934. That same year, she helped form the Mexican Orchestra under the Works Progress Administration Program and participated in the Slum Clearance Project.
In her spare time, she taught Spanish for the American Institute for Foreign Trade and did social work at the Gila River Japanese Relocation Center near Chandler. For her efforts, in 1953 she was presented with the Daughters of the American Revolution award of merit, and in 1962, she was chosen Phoenix Woman of the Year by the Phoenix Advertising Club.
Placida Elvira Garcia Smith died July 17, 1981, in Phoenix.
See below for women who have been inducted for their achievements with education in Arizona.