For Black History Month, the Globe is featuring profiles on the living civil rights leaders who were named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds the Embrace sculpture.
Frieda Garcia probably won’t mention the South End park named after her in 2013, but she will tell you about the nearby Harriet Tubman Park, a space that keeps her busy in retirement.
She led the effort to revitalize the park, which is just one example of her decades of activism.
“There were a lot of battles to be fought,” said Garcia, 91, a civic advocate since the 1960s. “You had to respond, you had to try to make some improvements. And obviously, I was there.”
Born in the Dominican Republic in 1932, Garcia arrived in New York City at age 8. She moved to a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood in upper Manhattan with her mother and brother and became the first in her family to learn English.
“I would end up being asked to translate for people going to the hospital,” said Garcia. “You end up finding out a lot about people’s problems and how to resolve them, so I knew, from day one, that I wanted to be a social worker.”
When she was 12, Garcia sought out, applied to, and enrolled in Mount St. Dominic Academy, a prestigious Catholic high school in Caldwell, New Jersey. It was the first time she was fully exposed to American culture, and Garcia said it made “all the difference in the world.”
During parent conferences, Garcia’s teachers would ask her mother what she imagined for her daughter’s future.
“My mother would say ‘a secretary’,” said Garcia. “And the nuns would say, ‘Oh no, she’s going to college’.”
She spent two years at Fordham University before earning a bachelor’s degree from The New School, also in New York, in 1964. A year later, Garcia moved to Boston, and two months after that, she was working at the Grove Hall welfare office.
Garcia advanced to the Roxbury Multi-Service Center and played an instrumental role in the inception of La Alianza Hispana in 1971, an organization dedicated to helping poor Hispanic families with everything from mental health to workforce education.
In 1981, Garcia became the executive director of United South End Settlements, an organization established to break the cycle of poverty in the city’s most marginalized communities. After a 20-year tenure at USES that included founding the city’s first open-access computer center, Garcia retired in 2001.
“I still run into people at the grocery store who tell me what the impact was of [USES],” said Garcia. “That’s incredible, isn’t it?”
Garcia has served on over 80 committees, including several mayoral commissions. She is an emerita director of the Boston Foundation and received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2016. Still, she was surprised to find out that she had been named as one of the Heroes in the 1965 Freedom Plaza.
Garcia’s favorite part of The Embrace, which she called “extraordinary,” was the unveiling ceremony on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January 2023. The weather was unexpectedly cold and rainy, but Garcia couldn’t believe what she found when she got to her seat.
“There was a plastic bag on every single chair,” said Garcia, who opened the bag to find a blanket and a set of hand warmers. “It’s a little tidbit, but to me, it conveyed how thoughtful the planners were.”
Garcia still has the blanket.
These days, Garcia spends most of her time in Harriet Tubman Park. She helped erect a bronze memorial to Tubman, the first statue to honor a woman on city property. New projects have a funny way of finding their way to Garcia, even though she swears she isn’t looking for them.
One of these projects is a Juneteenth celebration that Garcia is planning with the city’s Canadian Consulate.
She still lives in the South End with her partner, Byron Rushing, whose name is also inscribed on the Freedom Plaza.