Colorado Proud: Honoring Polly Baca, a woman of many firsts

During Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, RTD recognizes contributions by Hispanic Americans, Latinos, Latinas and Latinx-identifying people to our culture and society. Hispanic Americans are the largest minority group in the United States today, and generations of Hispanic Americans have consistently helped make our country strong and prosperous. 

RTD salutes Polly Baca, a woman whose career has been marked by many firsts. She was the first Latino – and the first minority – to be elected to the Colorado Senate, and the first Latina to serve in the leadership in any state senate or to be nominated by a major party to run for U.S. Congress. She was the first Latina in the United States to serve in both chambers of her state legislature: the Colorado House of Representatives from 1975-1978, and the Colorado Senate from 1979-1986.

Baca has worked for three U.S. presidents: as a public information officer for a White House agency during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration; the Rocky Mountain States coordinator for Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign; and Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Consumer Affairs and Director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. She served as a national co-chair of Catholics for Barack Obama during his 2012 presidential campaign.

Baca, a lifelong Coloradan, grew up in a poor Mexican American family in Greeley in the 1940s and ’50s and faced racism as a child. She recalls having to sit on the side aisles in churches or in the balconies of theaters, and that she was not allowed in certain business establishments with signs that said, “No Mexicans or dogs allowed.” From a very young age, Baca felt a responsibility to do whatever she could to change the way people viewed Mexican Americans.

Baca began her work in politics as a college student at Colorado State University with the 1960 "Viva Kennedy" campaign, the first campaign to harness Latino voters. That experience led her to work with unions, then with the Democratic Party and the United Farm Workers, all of which she drew from when she successfully ran for the Colorado House of Representatives in 1974 and the Colorado State Senate in 1978.

When Baca left public service in 1998, she began her own consulting firm and worked as a full-time volunteer with the Center for Contemplative Living. She holds honorary degrees from the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley and Wartburg College. In 2000, Baca was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame.

Baca has said that the challenges in her life have made her stronger. She believes that everyone can develop their own special talents by working and studying hard, learning from others and taking risks.