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.