Plácida Elvira García Smith
“A Good American Name. A Good Mexican Name.”
The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 is remembered as the most crucial turning point in Arizona’s history. For Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Phoenix, it is remembered as a dramatic time full of heroes (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal) and Latina heroine Plácida Elvira García Smith. Her place in the annals of Phoenix is linked to the post-World War I history of the Phoenix Americanization Committee and the history of Friendly House, established in 1920 and directed by Carrie Ferris Green, Plácida’s mentor.
From 1910 to 1920, the population of Phoenix more than doubled, increasing from 11,134 to 29,053. The reason for this dramatic change was the construction of the nation’s first major water reclamation project, the Theodore Roosevelt Dam northeast of Phoenix. Construction of the dam began in 1903 and was completed in 1911. Its purpose was to provide water storage for the Salt River Project and flood control throughout the Salt River Valley, which boosted the agricultural economy in the Phoenix area and made the cotton industry essential in meeting the demands of World War I. Thousands of workers from Mexico were brought to the Salt River Valley to pick and harvest the much-needed cotton. They joined other immigrants already living in the Valley who forged their livelihoods in and around central Phoenix.
During the 1920s, an Americanization movement began to take hold in Arizona. In the Salt River Valley, the Phoenix Americanization Committee was its tool to teach the language, customs, manners, laws, and ideals of America to immigrants, or the “foreign born.” The idea of maintaining a “community house” or a “settlement house” or a “friendly house” in a Mexican neighborhood south of the city’s railroad tracks that would serve as a facility for Americanization programs became a reality. In 1920, Friendly House, sometimes called Friendly Settlement House, was established. It was a small, woodframe house located at 9 West Sherman Street. In 1928, the Phoenix Americanization Committee purchased a new wood-frame house at 862 South First Street, directly across from the original Friendly House, and Carrie F. Green was the first director. It served as a center for Americanization classes, job-training programs for men and women, citizenship classes, homemaking and hygiene classes, and neighborhood meetings for Mexican and Mexican American organizations.
Plácida was born on August 7, 1896, in Conejos, Colorado, the state’s county seat and the historic site of Spanish colonization, located in the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado. Plácida’s paternal grandfather founded Conejos, and her father served as its sheriff and probate judge. Her mother’s family, the Espinosas, came from New Mexico and settled in the area. The family was very politically prominent. As a young girl, Plácida was influenced by her father’s legal work; she became conscious of the disparity between the rich and the poor, and she learned about the conditions of the working class. The differences disturbed her.
Plácida attended elementary school in Conejos and continued her education at Loretto Academy, a Catholic religious institution in Pueblo, Colorado, graduating as class valedictorian in 1915. She received her teacher’s certificate and taught second grade at an elementary school in Antonito, not far from Conejos. Plácida obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Utah in 1927 with a major in Spanish and a minor in sociology. She later completed graduate work in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, and her love for education led her to study in the summers at Greeley State Teachers College and at the University of Mexico in Mexico City.
Plácida married Reginald G. Smith in 1928 and arrived in Phoenix in 1929. She began substitute teaching at local elementary and high schools. Their son, Reginald, was born in 1930. Disturbed by the poverty and racism she witnessed within the Mexican and Mexican American community in South Phoenix, Plácida soon became a volunteer social worker for Friendly House, working closely with its director to provide essential social services to those in need. But the work took its toll on Carrie F. Green, and poor health forced her to resign the directorship of Friendly House, leaving Plácida to become its director in 1931. Plácida quickly engaged herself in her full-time work, using her English-Spanish bilingual skills to teach classes on the U.S. Constitution and the English language, encouraging immigrants to seek American citizenship. Her favorite self-introduction for classes she taught was: “My name is Plácida García Smith. A good American name. A good Mexican name.”
Early in the Great Depression, the federal government had no social programs in Phoenix to meet the needs created by the economic crisis. Plácida worked with private social service agencies and changed that. With New Deal funds, she established job training and hygiene programs for adults, and enabled her staff to work with the U.S. Public Health Department to establish “well-baby” and pre-natal clinics for Spanish speaking families. Under Plácida’s direction, Friendly House acquired federal relief funds to provide essential programs and services for the community, making it a major relief center in Phoenix. In addition, Friendly House was a major distribution center, working closely with the Red Cross to distribute food commodities to people and families in need. Hungry people received flour, lard, cornmeal, and occasionally milk and butter when they were available.
In 1940, Plácida and her friend, journalist María A. García, founded the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council #110, the first in Phoenix. They knew about the impoverished living conditions of Mexican immigrants in Phoenix and believed that many became easy targets of derision and discrimination. The women became convinced that they could raise the standard of living of underprivileged Mexican families by forming a LULAC council and working with national leaders to solve the problem. Plácida served as the first president of LULAC Council #110, which held its first meeting at Friendly House. In efforts to encourage American citizenship, LULAC Council #110 and Friendly House co-sponsored a series of lectures on citizens’ rights and responsibilities. In 1941, LULAC’s state convention was held at Friendly House, drawing delegates from the copper-mining towns of Clifton, Superior, Globe, and Miami. The convention marked the first time that Mexican Americans from mining-town communities shared their concerns about political issues with their compatriots in an urban setting.
Wartime challenges in the 1940s offered new avenues for Plácida to continue to help others. She served on the board of directors of the United Service Organizations (USO), created to serve the educational and religious needs of the men and women in the armed forces. In 1945, Plácida spent time as a social worker at the Gila River Japanese Relocation Center, helping former Japanese American internees rebuild their lives after the war.
In 1956, Plácida was appointed to the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board and was often recognized for her long-time work in the Valley. She received the Daughters of the American Revolution Award of Merit in 1953 and was named the Phoenix Advertising Club’s Woman of the Year in 1961. During that same year, Friendly House realized a goal it had been working toward for many years: it moved into a new building constructed at the site of the original Friendly House. The old wood-frame structure Friendly House occupied for more than 30 years was dismantled and moved to Surprise, Arizona, for use as a church. Plácida served as director of Friendly House from 1931 to 1963. She became its director at age 35 and dedicated 32 years of her life to the organization.
Plácida’s dedication to Friendly House was strong, but her dedication to her family was stronger. As a widow, she raised her son while continuing her Friendly House directorship, and Reggie accompanied her to work on many occasions. Those who knew Plácida then have fond memories of seeing her son at her side. She was a dedicated, loving mother, and then a loving grandmother. After her death in 1981, Plácida’s accomplishments were described in a local newspaper as having “helped 1,400 people to learn English and to become American citizens.” Her legacy lives through her work and through her family.
In 1982, Plácida was admitted to the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame. The number of people she touched and her contributions to the community affected generations of not only Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but all immigrants who walked through the doors of Friendly House. She dedicated her life to those less fortunate, not only giving her time, but building a community of support, a community that would help people better themselves by teaching them independence and self-sufficiency. Today, nine decades later, Friendly House continues with many of the original programs and services, and it continues Plácida’s legacy of serving the community she w as so passionate about.
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