Maria Bordas, who was born in Nicaragua, arrived in the United States in a banana boat at the age of four. Today, 38 years later, she is a moving force in helping Hispanic women and girls in Denver to a better education, better jobs, and a better life.
Although she entered school in Tampa, Fla., speaking only Spanish, Ms. Bordas quickly learned English and earned scholarships which took her through high school and college. After graduating from the University of Florida in 1964, she spent the next two years with the US Peace Corps in Chile, teaching poor women how to work together and gain more economic freedom by marketing their goods through cooperatives which she helped them form.
She is still, two decades later, helping poorer women improve their lot. Only today it is in Denver, where the population is 20 percent Hispanic and where about 54 percent of the students in public schools are Hispanic, black, or Asian-American.
After earning a master's degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin, Ms. Bordas became the first Hispanic woman to pass state board requirements to become a licensed social worker in the State of Colorado.
She soon discovered that many Hispanic women were on welfare and that they married much younger and had twice as many children as Anglo women. She found that only 52 percent of them had a high school education and that 88 percent of working Hispanic women were in clerical, food service, or other low-paying occupations.
In an effort to change these circumstances, Bordas, together with a group of community women and interested professionals, formed the nonprofit Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver to help Hispanic women acquire job skills, education, and business experience.
Those who work at Mi Casa believe it is important that a minority woman keep her cultural identity, but also cross cultural lines to learn what she needs to know to be successful in the dominant Anglo society.
``It is essential, if we are to change women's status in society, that we prepare and teach our young women,'' Bordas said in an interview at the modest bungalow that is Mi Casa. ``We try to teach the women and girls who come through our door how to earn their living, how to keep their dignity, and how not to be dependent on government poverty programs. We teach them how to set goals and how to believe they can overcome obstacles to reaching them. It takes a lot of counseling and encouragement to do that.''
Director of the group since 1981 -- the year federal funding of such self-development programs was drastically reduced -- Bordas has found corporate and private contributors who have funded Mi Casa programs with more than $200,000 each year.
One such program is Mi Carrera, the only youth employment program in the country that helps train and place Hispanic teen-age girls in higher-paying, nontraditional jobs such as carpentry, electronics, and computer technology. Training is done at the Career Education Center of the Denver Public Schools.
Bordas is working on a program manual that will enable Mi Carrera to be replicated in other parts of the country. She has also written a training manual on ``growing up female'' to assist young women in breaking cultural and sex stereotypes when making career choices, developed training programs for school personnel and youth workers on the same subject, and launched an annual citywide career conference for young minority girls.
The Mi Casa Center also provides job preparation and placement for adult women with 250 employers in the Denver area, both corporate and private.
``Recently, we had 14 women here who were being screened for Highway Department jobs,'' says Bordas. ``And this year, as an economic development project, we started a croissant vending business'' at a local mall. Four women at a time go through a sales training course, work a year, then go on to other jobs in sales. The group has also helped other women set up their own cleaning services, through which they earn $8 an hour.
In addition, Mi Casa offers employment focus groups for both youth and adults, supportive services where they offer counseling, and high school completion classes.
In the process of looking at a national program, Bordas has contacted other Hispanic women's organizations and service centers all over the country and would like to coordinate a national network of Hispanic women's organizations that would share expertise and resources. The models developed at Mi Casa, she believes, could well be utilized by other groups.
Bordas has won national recognition for her work at Mi Casa, including a 1984 Wonder Woman Foundation award for leadership. She was appointed by the mayor of Denver to the city's Youth Council and also serves on the Council for Public Television.
``I grew up as a Hispanic youth and I had to learn to deal with society,'' she recalls. ``But I had plenty of good role models who always assured me that I could make it. Now I have a commitment to making sure that other young Hispanic women also have doors opened to them. For the majority of minority women things still haven't changed that much. I look at how racism and sexism still affect the Hispanic population and I know I have to go on working to change things.''