Policarpia Gaspar, a Guatemalan civil war exile who co-founded a Florida organization mentoring Indian refugee children and connecting pregnant women to doctors has died, her family said. She was 53.
Her son, Glenn Mendez, said his mother had been battling leukemia for more than three years and died last week. She was buried Wednesday.
Gaspar gained a prominent role in helping many Guatemalan families adapt to a new life in Florida during and after their country’s brutal armed conflict. She continued to speak her native Maya language and dress in traditional indigenous garb.
“She was all about helping Guatemalans transition properly into the U.S. culture and helping their kids to advance,” said Mendez. “But she wanted them to still maintain their heritage.”
Born to peasant farmers on Dec. 3, 1965, in the village of San Miguel Acatan, Gaspar and her family fled their country’s hostilities in 1980, when the Guatemalan government was systematically destroying villages seeking to root out leftist guerrillas.
According to the United Nations, about 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, which ended in 1996. The conflict forced thousands of Guatemalans to escape, and many exiles settled in Florida.
Gaspar attended high school in California, where her family originally arrived, before moving to Florida. She then graduated with an associate’s degree from Palm Beach Community College, now known as Palm Beach State College.
Gaspar and a Catholic priest who ran the diocese immigration and refugee office in West Palm Beach founded the Guatemalan Maya-Center in nearby Lake Worth in 1992. Father Frank O’Loughlin had already worked with the petite Guatemalan woman assisting other refugees with immigration procedures in Indiantown, where many Guatemalans worked in the farm fields.
Growing up speaking the ancient language of Kanjobal, Gaspar would help translate information between immigrants and lawyers. She also drove pregnant women to doctor’s visits, so they wound understand the medical orders.
The nonprofit has grown since its creation and now serves 1,000 families monthly. There are some 80,000 Guatemalans living in Florida, many of them are concentrated in Palm Beach County, home to Lake Worth.
Known as Polly, Gaspar and her husband Juan Mendez also began a Saturday mentoring program to help refugee children with little schooling and limited English.
Gaspar was known for wearing traditional long and loose tunics designed with vivid patterns of birds, flowers or geometrical shapes, known as huipiles.
“She was unapologetic. She was taken out of her country, but the country wasn’t taken out of her,” said her daughter Mallyn Mendez.
Gaspar is survived by her two parents, her husband, eight siblings and three children.
Exiled Guatemalan who Started Florida Refugee Nonprofit Dies