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Park Hill Character: Matriarch Of Elm Street

A 2014 photo of the Mejias with kids, their partners and offspring

Ophelia Mejia: Educator, Innovator, Mom

By Jack Farrar

The gene pool of Ophelia Mejia, who has lived in Park Hill for 56 years, runs wide and deep.

She is one of 11 siblings (six of whom are still alive). She bore 13 children. Most of her children went to Blessed Sacrament in Park Hill; all attended Gove Junior High and East High School. She has 30 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Many still live in the Denver area and are educators, keeping alive the legacy of their now 85-year old matriarch.

Despite living in poverty and extreme cultural prejudice, Ophelia beat the odds. She became one of the most respected educators in the metro area, teaching early childhood teachers how to work with young children, in particular at-risk minority students and students with disabilities.

Ophelia Mejia

Mejia was raised in Weld County in Northern Colorado, the daughter of proud, hard-working migrant worker parents, Petra and Magdeleno (Mack) Garcia, who tended sugar beets and other crops from sunup to sundown. Before landing in Colorado, her father fought with the rebel army of legendary Pancho Villa, instead of attending the University of Mexico, and was ostracized by his family. The Garcias moved frequently and lived in structures that could barely be described as homes.

“It was very difficult. We had no electricity, no running water,” says Ophelia. “The ‘wallpaper’ often consisted of newspapers and magazines pasted on the wall. My brothers and sisters and I would play a game based on how many ads we could find on the walls. I did my homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. Racism was a daily reality in our lives. We were constantly reminded of how different we were, of our place. All of us were pressured in school to anglicize our names. So, I, Ofelia, became Ophelia. Belen became Betty. And so on. We were never allowed to speak Spanish in class. Discrimination made me shy.”

David Mejia

Overcoming low expectations from many of her teachers, Ophelia realized early in life that education was her ticket to a wider world. And she kept surprising people. “I was usually at the top of my class. I especially enjoyed English. Most of my teachers were encouraging, but I don’t think they thought I was going anywhere in life. A few saw my potential and challenged me.”

Ophelia won numerous awards in school for her writing skills. After graduating from high school and enrolling at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado), she applied for a job at the Greeley Tribune, a highly audacious thing for a young Mexican-American woman to do. Her editor, Floyd Merrill, was skeptical at first, but hired her at 96 cents an hour. Ophelia worked at the paper for a year as a general assignment reporter, covering a variety of beats. She was the only Hispanic on the staff.

Ophelia’s career was interrupted when she married her longtime boyfriend David Mejia, who was drafted following his junior year at CSCE. He served with the Marines in the Korean War. When the war ended, he finished his education degree and went on to teach for 39 years, 29 of them at West High School.

But Ophelia postponed her education to focus on her children: Mary, David Michael, Anne, Teresa (who has died), Patricia, Robert, Margaret, Pauline, James, Louise, Steven, Catherine and Thomas. All 13 are named after saints.

She also helped raise many other neighborhood children, operating a home childcare business. “A lot of Park Hill kids grew up in my living room.”

Not surprisingly, five of her 13 children ended up in the education field. All went to college, six received masters degrees and two have earned doctorates. James went on to a political career, which included a run for mayor in 2011. Ophelia is proud to point out that in Park Hill, James Mejia received more votes than the ultimate victor, Michael Hancock.

Back to school

Ophelia went back to school when her youngest child was in sixth grade. She taught preschool at Wellshire Presbyterian Church and then became director of the church’s Parents Day Out program. After several detours, she eventually completed her bachelor’s degree at Regis University at age 54 and her masters in Language and Communication, also at Regis.

Ophelia Mejia’s parents, Magdeleno (Mack) and Petra Garcia, in an undated photo.

She has held a wide range of positions in education, including coordinator of the Early Childhood Department at Community College of Denver, consultant for Head Start (where she was assigned to help 16 management and curriculum programs in a six-state region), and consultant for Worthy Wages, which advocates for fair pay for teachers, especially those who work in challenging schools.

While teaching, she wrote grants to underwrite scholarships for teachers, and to fund full-time nursing positions in public schools. She is especially proud of her work helping teachers learn methods for dealing with students with disabilities and long-term illnesses.

“We came up with many strategies and creative activities,” she says. “We showed them how to help children with special needs gain confidence. We were coaches.”

Ophelia also launched a Latino club. She joined the Community Development Institute in 1989 as a resource specialist for Head Start programs. Following a four-year stint at COI she was hired by the Piton Foundation to manage the Early Excellence program focusing on four low-income neighborhoods Emphasis was placed on helping monolingual parents gain their self-confidence and increase their interaction with their young children.

Teachers who listen

Mejias with their 13 children, circa 1979. Front row, left to right: Catherine, Thomas, Ophelia, David, Louise, Steven, Teresa. Middle row: James and Pauline. Back row: David Michael, Patricia, Robert, Anne, Mary and Margaret

As you might imagine, Ophelia has some strong political opinions. “Our nation is impoverished by our choice of a ‘leader,’” she says, shaking her head. “[The current president] reminds me of the bullies I dealt with when I was a child. Most Mexican-Americans certainly don’t feel he understands, much less represents them.”

Retirement has slowed her down only a little. Ophelia spends much of her time helping her husband deal with the effects of a stroke. She works out regularly at a recreation center. And she is an accomplished watercolorist and oil painter.

Why has she lived in Park Hill for more than five decades?

“I like the diversity – language, ethnicity, the mix of different social groups, the schools.” What does she not like so much? “The traffic. It’s horrible. And I wish most of the motels on Colfax would disappear. They’ve been trying to ‘fix’ Colfax for years, and they’re still trying.”

Any heroes in her life? “My mom was my hero. She was gentle, accepting, talented and smart, even though she never got past the third grade.” Political heroes include Cesar Chavez, the iconic leader who organized farm workers throughout the West. “With my background, I could really relate to him.”

Ophelia and David agree on one political leader in Denver they never cared for: Corky Gonzalez, head of the Crusade for Justice. “When David taught at West, his students were threatened by Corky’s crowd if they refused to participate in his marches. One of them pulled a knife on David, but backed down when he said he would respond.”

All of us can remember teachers who really listened, who didn’t judge, who helped us love to learn – teachers like Ophelia and David Mejia.

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