(From left) Olga Madrid and Lila Cockrell.
Olga Madrid (left) receives the Women of the Decades award alongside former San Antonio mayor Lila Cockrell. Credit: Courtesy / YWCA

The history of San Antonio’s West Side is the history of strong women, and this past week we lost one of those leaders. Olga Madrid, passionate educator, advocate for women, dedicated community volunteer, and the guiding force behind the YWCA’s Olga Madrid Center on the West Side, passed away at 91.

Olga Madrid’s connection to YWCA San Antonio began in her childhood, when it served as a safe haven for her, her mother, and her siblings when they entered Texas, having immigrated from Mexico. Later, it was where her mother took classes that helped her to become a U.S. citizen. The impression it left was lifelong for Madrid.

“I felt like I had a debt to pay,” she told the San Antonio Express-News in 1991, “since I went there with my mother all those years.”

The YWCA USA was founded  in 1860, and the San Antonio affiliate — one of 215 affiliates of the national organization working toward the mission of eliminating racism and empowering women — opened its doors in 1910. Today YWCA San Antonio continues that mission by providing services to low-income women in marginalized communities to work toward self-sufficiency and break the cycle of generational poverty, offering everything from low-cost (or free), high-quality child care and after-school enrichment to financial literacy, high school completion and self-esteem building programs for girls, senior health services, and access to health care for uninsured and underinsured women.

Madrid, who became a board member of the local YWCA in 1969, helped shine a light on the importance of the YWCA in her community. When urban renewal efforts led to the demolition of the downtown headquarters in 1972, Madrid spearheaded efforts to find a new space, meeting with government officials, contracting with architects and builders, and raising funds through the capital campaign that led to the construction of the 20,000-square-foot facility on Castroville Road in the Las Palmas neighborhood.

In 1977, the YWCA’s new home, christened the Olga H. Madrid Center, became a West Side hub, offering child care, summer camp, programming for girls, youth, and seniors, along with sports leagues and swimming lessons. Some of the most gratifying moments for Madrid were seeing the center come alive with children running around the playground and swimming in the pool.

Madrid’s leadership in building the new YWCA for San Antonio impacted other local women leaders, including Choco Meza, who became the first Hispanic executive director of YWCA San Antonio and later Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Henry Cisneros, and Rosie Castro, who brought her sons Julian and Joaquin to the YWCA’s child care center.

“When a group of artists and activists wanted to paint a mural to honor women who served as community leaders on the West Side, we immediately thought of Olga Madrid,” said Rebecca Salazar Rush, who served as volunteer coordinator for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center at the time and helped commission the mural on Burleson Center for Innovation and Education on the West Side.  “Olga volunteered for as many as 15 organizations simultaneously and inspired residents of the West Side and beyond.”

A mural on the side of the Burleson Center for Innovation and Education pays tribute to Olga Madrid.
A mural on the side of the Burleson Center for Innovation and Education pays tribute to Olga Madrid. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When I committed almost a year ago to leading YWCA San Antonio toward its next phase of growth, I learned that YWCA recommends that affiliates refer to themselves as “YWCA” rather than “the YWCA” to reference a movement rather than a particular place — the movement of eliminating racism and empowering women that continues to be as relevant and as critical as ever.

“Our goal is to carry on the passion and legacy of Olga Madrid,” said Soña Ramirez, YWCA Board Chair and partner at Clark Hill Strasburger. “We hope to build on 40 years of strong relationships on the West Side and help women lead their families out of poverty through services provided by YWCA San Antonio.”

Olga Madrid, an influential San Antonian who retained her passion for YWCA’s mission throughout her life, understood how uplifting women strengthens communities. Her legacy, through the YWCA Olga Madrid Center, will live on as a testament to her passion and activism on behalf of her community. We are proud to carry her legacy forward.

Francesca Rattray serves as CEO of YWCA San Antonio. A transplant from the Northeast, she has lived in San Antonio for 14 years, working in nonprofit management, the arts, and community development.