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10 Who Made A Difference - 2020-12-02

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Pushing to make the world a better place

SAM BACA

STORY BY DILLON MULLAN | PHOTO BY GABRIELA CAMPOS

From supermarket picketing in Detroit to farm field unionizing in California, Sam Baca started his career in activism helping the labor movement achieve some of its biggest victories of the 20th century. After his return to Northern New Mexico, the Santa Fe native continued building from the ground up, launching the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program, a heritage preservation group and other far-reaching community initiatives. “Something that is unique about my dad is he is really good at knowing where he can be useful,” said daughter Teresa Baca. “He knows his strength is knowing where he can be of the most help.” Because of Sam Baca’s long career in volunteerism, he has been named one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2020. Baca, 73, went to the former St. Francis Cathedral School downtown and then left for a Franciscan high school in Cincinnati before majoring in philosophy at Duns Scotus College near Detroit. He later earned a master ’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. There, he heard Richard Chávez — a brother of United Farm Workers organizer and civil rights activist César Chávez — speak about plans for a national boycott of grapes and lettuce in 1973. “I was captivated, and that was the beginning of my activism and volunteering,” Baca said. “They paid with room and board in a house with six or seven other organizers and a $5 stipend for food every week.” Baca spent two years organizing picket lines and passing out leaflets outside grocery stores and speaking to church and union groups about the cause. “We would organize a couple hundred people and be able to cover anywhere from 10 to 20 supermarkets on a weekend, and this was happening all over the country,” Baca said. “It one of the first really successful nationwide boycotts. It was so widespread. I think the supermarkets got sort of tired of having people out front.” Then he left for a yearlong effort of organizing union elections in California. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which allowed most private-sector employees to create a labor union, excluded farmworkers. But the state of California formed an Agricultural Labor Relations Board and allowed farmworkers to unionize in 1975. Within a year, over 50,000 workers there took part in union elections. Baca returned home to Santa Fe in 1976 as a social worker at what was then DeVargas Junior High School. He worked with troubled teens, which made him realize the importance of mentors earlier in life. This prompted him to found Santa Fe’s first Big Brothers Big Sisters program in 1979. “The need was there. The program needed a committed and willing volunteer to get it off the ground, and that’s Sam’s nature,” said Tony Alarid, the first volunteer mentor Baca recruited to the program. Eight years later, Baca founded Cornerstones Community Partnerships, a nonprofit dedicated to helping New Mexico communities restore adobe churches from centuries past. “Several were in danger of collapsing,” Baca said. Young people had begun to leave the area, and communities were no longer able to keep up with regular maintenance on the church buildings, he said. “That’s what’s amazing about New Mexico’s churches,” he added. “They weren’t built professionally. They were built by the communities themselves.” Baca said some of his favorite work with Cornerstones involved fundraising to reopen a red stone quarry at Zuni Pueblo and train youth in traditional building skills. Since its start, the organization has helped restore around 380 historical works of architecture. “With his background as a community organizer, my dad’s best skill is getting things up and running and then knowing when he has more to offer elsewhere,” Teresa Baca said. In 2005, Sam Baca started organizing nonprofits and state agencies for the state Human Services Department’s Behavioral Health Collaborative. In 2012, he joined the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute to run a microloan program focused on helping farmers build greenhouses that allow for a longer growing season and create opportunity for more revenue. He also organized a program for Santa Fe Public Schools that allowed students to shop at the market. When he retired from the institute in 2016, Baca became president of the board of St. Elizabeth Shelters and Supportive Housing, where he had served as a board member for a decade. “He’s the best board member I’ve ever worked with,” said St. Elizabeth Executive Director Ed Archuleta. Baca and his wife, Rita Ríos-Baca, a teacher in the Santa Fe district for over 40 years, grew up in the same neighborhood in the city but did not meet until Sam sang at a Christmas party for students at Kaune Elementary. The couple have three daughters: Angelica, Marisa and Teresa Baca. In his semiretirement, Baca said he’s encouraged by current activism. “I feel like I spent my entire career trying to bring people together around doing positive work to improve people’s situations,” Baca said. “Being an optimist, I think you will see activists continue to push through division and make this a better world. I’m still hopeful.”

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