Photograph by Robert H. Martin
For those of you with an interest in women's history, I want to share a story I read about last week. A woman named Maria Concepción Ortiz y Pino de Kleven died on September 30 at the age of 96, and her life really told the story of the 20th century. She was born in what is now New Mexico before it became a state. Her family had been here for nine generations--her (however many greats that is)-grandfather had come from Spain as a member of the army that reconquered New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In 1811, her great-great-grandfather served as the representative of New Mexico to the Cortes, Spain's highest governing body.
But it's Doña Concha's own story that I find most interesting. At the age of 22, she traveled with the 1932 Roosevelt Caravan across New Mexico, and was elected to the state legislature in 1936, 1938, and 1940 (as New Mexico's third female legislator). In 1941--young, unmarried, and Hispanic--she became Democratic majority whip--the first woman in the US to hold such a position in state government. Her causes were causes which remain important today--women's rights, school funding, bilingual education, the rights of the disabled, and the preservation of native culture. She lobbied for the rights of women to serve on juries, worked to equalize funding for urban and rural schools, and promoted mandatory Spanish instruction for junior high school students in the state. During the Depression she helped to set up workshops to preserve the traditional arts, crafts, and folklore of New Mexico.
She also helped pass legislation to establish the School of Inter-American Affairs at the University of New Mexico. She enrolled at the school in 1942 at the age of 32 and became its first graduate.
On a lighter note, Clark Gable once sent her a handwritten note suggesting she come to Hollywood to take a screen test, and she was officially named Albuquerque's best-dressed woman.
She married late for the era (at the age of 33)--her husband for the next 13 years until his death was Victor Kleven, a Rhodes Scholar who helped establish the League of Nations. He was a professor at the University of Mexico, and she taught etiquette (!) there during the 1940s.
In 1951 she became "boss lady" of Agua Verde, her family's 100,000 acre ranch, when her father became too infirm to continue its management. In the five years she ran the ranch, it went from near bankruptcy to prosperity. She introduced electricity, plumbing, and telephones to the ranch, and bought a TV which she invited the ranch hands into the house each night to watch. (Doesn't Barbara Stanwyck in Big Valley or Mercedes McCambridge playing Luz Benedict in Giant come to mind?)
When her husband died in 1956, she returned to Albuquerque and dedicated the rest of her life to political, social, and cultural causes, serving as a Board Member of more than 60 organizations during the next 50 years. She had no children, but her cousin, state Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, says that she "used all her maternal energies to be absolutely maternal to lots of people, especially the poor."
Five US presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter) named her to national boards such as the NIH, the National Commission on Architectural Barriers, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
She was inducted into the New Mexico Women's Hall of Fame, and named "Latina of the Century" in 1999 by Vista Magazine. In 2004, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson named a state building in Santa Fe in her honor. “Doña Concha is a true New Mexican treasure,” said Governor Richardson. “Her pioneering work as a legislator, advocate for her fellow women, educator, and community activist has improved the lives of countless New Mexicans, and has forever changed New Mexico for the better.”
She remained involved in politics until the end of her life, attending a fundraiser for Patricia Madrid, candidate for Congress from New Mexico, the month before her death.