As dozens of kids played together on the front lawn of a Corpus Christi home, their mothers gathered in the living room. There, nurse Apolonia “Polly” Abarca displayed pamphlets and showed an educational film about family planning. The women played games, with winners taking home prizes that included books on birth control.
It was the mid-1960s, and the FDA had just approved the birth control pill a few years before. While the pill swept the nation and became an instant success, these women, largely young Latina mothers in rural and lower-income regions of Corpus Christi, still hadn’t received basic sex education, let alone information on birth control. As the executive director of the South Texas chapter of Planned Parenthood, Abarca believed her calling was to help women get this type of education, which was still widely considered taboo. “At that time the word ‘birth control’ was a no-no. I was daring, I guess,” she later told an interviewer. That included taking the initiative to host weekly “house parties” to reach women at their homes. Abarca’s landmark achievement, however, was on a bigger scale: in 1964, she helped secure the country’s first federal grant for family planning, and used the money so effectively that it became a national model. Throughout her three-decade career, she worked tirelessly to funnel information and resources to the women in her community who needed it most.
The need was especially dire in South Texas. An Associated Press story from 1965 reported that the clinic’s average patient was a 26-year-old woman with five children, a third-grade education, and a family income of $35 a week. Abarca told the AP reporter about a young woman who had visited her clinic, asking how she could prevent pregnancy. The woman already had eighteen children and was pregnant with her nineteenth. “Neither she nor her husband had ever heard of any method of contraception,” she said. “We couldn’t help her this time, but she promised to come back after the baby is born. She and her husband live on a farm in a three- or four-room house. They just survive. As I recall, she was married when she was fourteen and had been pregnant ever since.”
Abarca knew the challenges of growing up poor in a large family. She was one of ten kids on a ranch in the border town of Mission, just west of McAllen. Her father raised cattle and owned a meat market, and her mother stayed home to take care of Polly and her nine siblings. Because of her father’s job, the family always had fresh food, but money was tight.
Abarca’s parents insisted that she and her siblings focus on their education. The kids weren’t allowed to miss a day of class, and their lives revolved around school and extracurricular activities. At the time, South Texas schools were still segregated, and Abarca went to an underfunded school with other Latino kids. The first time she attended an integrated school was in high school, where Abarca flourished, becoming captain of the volleyball and baseball teams. She was an active volunteer, once helping a public health nurse transport disabled children to hospitals in Galveston for better care. Abarca also volunteered at the Department of Immigration, helping migrants and refugees fill out legal paperwork.
After graduating from high school in 1939, she enrolled at the Corpus Christi School of Nursing at Fred Roberts Memorial Hospital. As she packed her bags for the 150-mile move from the border to Corpus Christi, Abarca was nervous to move so far away from her family and friends. It didn’t calm her nerves that she would also be the only Latina in her nursing class.
On the first night in the new dorm, her roommate, who was from Virginia, tossed and turned. The roommate didn’t shut her eyes the whole night, suspicious (she later admitted) of her new Latina bunkmate. “She had never been around Latinos,” Abarca recounted. “She came [to Texas] because she thought she would see a lot of cowboys. And she heard that Mexicans would kill you.”
But Abarca, just as she had in high school, managed to excel in college both scholastically and socially. She and her roommate even eventually became friends. While she felt like her light skin helped her stave off some of the outright racism that some of her Latino peers faced, Abarca privately worried about her accent. She always spoke with perfect grammar, but there was a slight lilt that she hadn’t kicked. “I felt that we always had to work a little bit harder to prove ourselves,” she said about Latinos.
During college, she met her future husband, Antonio “Tony” Abarca. He left Corpus Christi to serve in World War II, and when he returned in 1946, the couple immediately married. Polly had started practicing as a nurse two years before, and her husband worked as an interpreter at the county courthouse in Corpus Christi. Although they were financially stable, Polly knew she only wanted one child. She and Tony planned their family and waited nine years before having their son, David, in 1955.
Early in her career, Abarca gave free home nursing classes in English and Spanish, a program that was the first of its kind in the United States. She also worked at Corpus Christi’s City-County Memorial Hospital, helping to establish the city’s first eye and cancer clinics. In 1965, she was offered the job of executive director of South Texas Planned Parenthood. She enthusiastically accepted.
Abarca dedicated herself to the job—sometimes not coming home until close to midnight, her son remembers. Something about her caring and relatable nature encouraged women to confide in her. A 35-year-old who had just had a miscarriage told Abarca that she couldn’t add another baby to her family because she already had thirteen children and was living on $35 a week. Abarca sent her home with free birth control pills, a packet of which ran for about $1.50 at the time, telling the woman “to use that money to buy milk for the babies.” She sometimes slipped birth control to her Catholic family members. Abarca was religious too, but she thought that women should have autonomy over their bodies.
In the early 1960s, Abarca helped apply for a family planning grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program. The office approved the grant application, making Corpus Christi the first place in the United States to receive direct federal funds for family planning. A portion of the $300,000 grant allowed Polly to open four women’s health clinics, each open one day a week, in high-need neighborhoods.
Bunny Forgione, interim dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, notes that this grant not only gave Latina women greater access to health care, but also liberated them. “Family planning activism assisted women in decision-making about their future,” Forgione says. “Eventually this would lead to other decisions about their life, such as seeking education and/or employment, breaking the chain of poverty.”
The program drew attention from all over the nation. Abarca traveled to New York City to speak at the Waldorf Astoria hotel during an international conference on family planning clinics. She would also feature in newspaper headlines, both in Corpus Christi and nationwide, for her efforts. Within the fledgling field of public health advocacy, all eyes were focused on how the federal funds played out in Corpus Christi, and Abarca’s efforts paid off. The grant allowed many more women to get physical exams and oral contraceptives. In addition, the educational house parties grew in popularity during this time, swelling from about ten people per session to sixty.
Abarca’s work was desperately needed. In 1968, four years after the South Texas grant was awarded, the federal Office of Economic Opportunity estimated that 5.3 million U.S. women below or near the poverty level were in need of family planning services, but only 773,000, or less than fifteen percent, had access to care. The majority of those who had access relied on public health departments and public hospitals, which researchers found were largely inadequate and slow to meet women’s family planning needs. The outcome from the Corpus Christi grant and the vast number of women nationwide who still lacked family planning justified advocates’ push to expand the community-based model. The government recognized that special interest groups, like the South Texas Planned Parenthood, were more efficient in distributing the funds and reaching women in need than state and local health departments.
Just six years after the trial grant in Corpus Christi, Congress passed legislation in 1970 that allowed both public and private providers, including Planned Parenthood chapters throughout the U.S., to apply for federal funds for family planning. Even President Richard Nixon backed the program, saying that “involuntary childbearing often results in poor physical and emotional health for all members of the family.”
Although there was mainstream support at the national level, Abarca’s activism caused a stir in the Corpus Christi community, which was about sixty percent Catholic in 1965. David remembers a couple of Catholic girls turning him down for dates because their parents didn’t approve of his mom’s work. There were even rumors of a movement within the Catholic religious community to excommunicate Abarca. “The problem was Mom was Methodist, so that didn’t bother her at all,” David says.
Despite the pushback she faced, Abarca remained strong in her advocacy for women’s rights. And her work paid off: in 1964, the South Texas Planned Parenthood recorded a 24 percent decline in births over the three years prior. “The moms were saying, ‘I spent twenty years of my life pregnant. This allowed me to advance myself. I was able to go to school and get my education, and we became double-income families,’” David recalls. “So it was not only a transition of health, but it was also an economic game-changer for many families.”
Poverty, access to care, and racism continue to be huge barriers today, but Abarca’s work continues. Women of color are still leading the charge for reproductive justice. Echoes of Abarca’s activism can be seen in the work of organizations like SisterSong. The collective has gathered women of color who advocate for improving reproductive policies and meeting the needs of marginalized communities, especially in the South, where Texas and other states are seeing an increased push to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood.
After her retirement in 1974, Abarca continued her community activism as a volunteer. When she was in her seventies, she even won the “Methodist Man of the Year” award at her church for her efforts in raising funds for the construction of a new building and single-handedly installing the sprinkler system there.
In a video from 2001, eight years before her death, Abarca spoke to the University of Texas’ Voces Oral History Center about her life and her work. When asked whether she was still involved in nursing work or volunteering, she laughed and replied, “I’m 81 years old. I think I’ve done my share.”