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Yvonne Abraham

Activist makes a name for herself

It was classic Frieda Garcia: Minutes after I met the longtime community leader in the smashing new South End park named for her, she had a vice-grip on my arm and was proudly leading me around a different park, named for somebody else.

Make no mistake, Garcia is chuffed about the new Frieda Garcia Children’s Park, at Clarendon and Stanhope streets. Who wouldn’t be? Funded to the tune of millions by John Hancock Financial Services, the long-delayed park is gorgeous — a well-designed and unexpected wonderland, with bright bird murals, rope-and-steel climbing structures, sweet gardens and — despite the thrum of the Pike nearby — serenity.

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“This park is the most unbelievable thing,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this, but I’ll take it.”

But Garcia is even more proud of Harriet Tubman Park, a couple minutes down Columbus Avenue. In many ways, the park named for the abolitionist explains the one named for the effusive, Dominican-born activist.

Garcia is largely responsible for the Harriet Tubman Park, and for so many other things that make Boston the city it is today. This state of affairs seemed pretty unlikely when she first arrived here, in 1965. In her early thirties, and looking for work as a social worker, she felt decidedly unwelcome.

“I came here and ran into what any other person of color knew,” she recalled. “It took me two months to get a job.”

But within a few years, the city’s Latino population had grown so large that Garcia was much in demand. Hubie Jones, who ran the Roxbury Multi-Service Center back then, snatched up Garcia and became a mentor.

In 1971, he nudged her into the top position at the new La Alianza Hispana, one of the city’s first organizations dedicated to poor Hispanic families. Ten years later, Garcia took over United South End Settlements, the storied organization dedicated to serving the most vulnerable people in the neighborhood. By the time she took over, those people were surrounded by runaway gentrification. Garcia and her people pushed for affordable housing, expanded programs for neighborhood children, and stepped up literacy and job training programs. In the early 1980s, long before most people realized how important computer skills would be, she began the city’s first open-access computer center.

Over the decades, Garcia amassed an army of people across the city who could not say no to her, especially when she was raising money.

“When she gets her mind made up that something is going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Kevin Lee Hepner, who has known Garcia for 22 years and now leads the organization.

And so in the late 1990s, when some South End residents wanted to fix up the ugly, sunken Harriet Tubman Park on Columbus Avenue, Garcia hit up all kinds of people who could not say no. The pit became a pretty space — and a living reminder of the depths of injustice, and of women who have fought to correct it. Though she is retired, Garcia still chairs the group that maintains the park.

Garcia has been at the center of countless civic moments. She served on a judicial nominating committee for Governor Michael S. Dukakis. She led the Boston Foundation. She has served on a whopping 70 boards. She became an example for two generations of civic leaders, Hispanic and otherwise.

“She just quietly became a force,” says Jones, now professor emeritus of social work at Boston University. “And most people wouldn’t even know her name.”

More will know it now, chiseled into a stone wall near the entrance to the new playground on Stanhope Street, a tribute to a trailblazer who sees what needs to be done and does it.

Before she left the new park on Thursday, that trailblazer paused a moment, then bent slowly to pick up some trash.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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