Belinda Garcia founded Sisters of Color United For Education as a second family

Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.

The first time Belinda Garcia was confronted by racism, she was in a public pool. During elementary school, she, her parents and four siblings walked into a Denver YMCA and stood there roughly five minutes before everything changed. "They shouted at us," Garcia says. "They yelled, 'The greasers are here! Everybody get out of the pool!'"

Today, the executive director of Sisters of Color United For Education is the founder of Denver's oldest promotora program dedicated to providing health and emotional service for the city's Hispanic community. But it took a while for her to recognize that community: "Living in West Denver, they egged our house and toilet-papered it and called us spics," she pauses before pronouncing the word. "I wondered how they knew my mom cleaned our house with Spic 'n Span."

Her naïveté didn't last long. In second grade, Garcia's teachers expelled her from school after she retaliated against another child's assault by pushing him to the ground and spitting on him. Worried about her future, her parents transferred her to Catholic school and warned the nuns about her temper. Throughout the following years, Garcia transformed her anger into drive, positioning herself as a young activist in the Chicano movement.

By the time she graduated high school, Garcia's family neighborhood was surrounded by a larger Hispanic community, she says, and its influence drove her to the University of Denver, where she earned a Masters in social work and took classes in Chicano studies. Today, she teaches them: At Metro State, Garcia organizes programs through which students learn about emotional health and holistic medicine.

Through topic and intention, these sessions are linked to the Sisters of Color, who provide community outreach for issues such as AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence and reproductive health rights. In the organization's first ten years, Garcia provided all of the funding, and though public grants have kept it afloat, she worries she might have to do so again soon. When she founded the program in West Denver in 1989, it was an immediate response to her then-job as a teacher in a local Spanish-language school. She points to her students' class photo, framed behind her on the wall.

"Two of my boys got AIDS and died, and I just couldn't do it anymore," Garcia says. "So I had to do something else about it. And when I started Sisters of Color, the first woman to enroll in our program already had AIDS, too. It never seemed to end."

That struggle was reflected in her personal life, which continued to convince her of the importance of community. In 1976, her husband, still in his twenties, died from after-effects of Agent Orange exposure while serving in Vietnam. In 1982, her daughter, still a toddler, passed away in a gasoline explosion. The next year, a drunk driver hit her nine-year-old son and killed him.

In an effort to deal with these tragedies, Garcia moved briefly to Nicaragua, where she lived with the Sandinistas and learned to cope. "When I traveled, I was pretty much suicidal, but I got up the next morning and cooked and prayed and smiled and cried and just continued," Garcia says. "I survived, and I learned that my community could, too, with my help."

Today, all of Sisters of Color's outreach programs branch from the rainbow-colored offices and glass doors of the group's sprawling Eighth Avenue office. Inside, despite frequent funding cuts, a handful of promotoras provide services including acupuncture, massage and body talk for members who visit the building regularly. Almost every program title includes the word "corazon," or heart.

"We will continue to act as ambassadors and social workers to Denver's people of color until we make that connection and people can understand that this is a giant family," Garcia says. "It took losing mine to realize that -- and to start a new one."

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More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."