Apolonia “Polly” Muñoz Abarca, nurse, women’s health and family planning activist, was born in Texas on September 5, 1920, to Antonio and Apolonia (Villareal) Muñoz. She had nine siblings, and her family resided in Mission, Texas, where she attended segregated, Hispanic-only public schools. In high school, Polly played sports and became captain of her volleyball and basketball teams. She also worked part-time at a dry goods store. Her lifelong interest in public service began at age fifteen, when she offered to help transport disabled children to a hospital in Galveston for treatment and later volunteered at the Department of Immigration. Polly Muñoz graduated from Mission High School in 1939.
At the age of twenty, she enrolled at the Corpus Christi School of Nursing at Fred Roberts Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi, where she was the only Hispanic in her class. In a 2001 interview, she reminisced that her roommate and future friend was initially scared of her, having been informed, “Mexicans would kill you.” Finances, not discrimination, however, almost stopped her education. When Polly’s brother, Antonio Muñoz, learned of her need, he sent money that enabled her to complete nursing school.
After graduation in 1944, Polly Muñoz commenced her thirty-year career in Corpus Christi. Her first position was at the newly-constructed City-County Memorial Hospital, where she worked as a nurse in the operating and emergency rooms. In 1945 she took a job as director of nursing services at a United States Public Health Service venereal disease clinic and treated soldiers, sailors, and war-time prostitutes. After the war, she returned to Memorial Hospital to serve as director of services at the hospital’s outpatient clinic. During this time, she helped establish the first eye clinic and cancer clinic in the city. She also volunteered to teach bilingual home nursing courses at the privately-run Corpus Christi Community Settlement House and was an officer in the Amicita Club, a local group of young Latinas involved in various community programs. In 1950 she began working for the City-County Health Department.
Polly Muñoz married Antonio “Tony” Abarca in 1946. Tony Abarca served in the United States Army during World War II and later worked as an interpreter at the Nueces County courthouse in Corpus Christi. They had one son, David, born in 1955.
Throughout her career, Polly Abarca advocated family planning to alleviate poverty and provide women with positive health choices. In 1964 she helped lobby for federal family planning funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), newly-created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program. As a result, the Community Action Agency (CAA) of Corpus Christi received a $300,000 grant, making Corpus Christi the first city in the nation to receive a direct federal grant for family planning services. This initial distribution by the OEO to the CAA of Corpus Christi became a model for future disbursement of millions of dollars in aid to family planning programs throughout the United States and convinced Congress to designate family planning a “special emphasis program” within the War on Poverty. The South Texas Planned Parenthood Center, where Abarca was hired as executive director in 1965, received a sizeable portion the initial grant. The funds made physical exams and oral contraceptives more readily accessible and facilitated expansion of the center’s consultation programs. Originally, an average of ten individuals attended each informative session held by the clinic. Just four years later in 1969, the number swelled to sixty per session. Young couples also started to visit the center for pre-marital family planning. As a result, abortion rates and birth rates began to decrease significantly in an area where chronic, systemic poverty was often exacerbated by family size. This in turn lessened the burden on local, state, and federal public assistance programs. Expanding on the initial success of the South Texas Planned Parenthood Clinic in Corpus Christi, Abarca helped establish OEO-funded programs throughout South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Additionally, she traveled to Peru, Chile, and Argentina in 1966 to converse with medical personnel and people from different economic sectors about the necessity of birth control and to visit medical facilities. Reflecting on her actions, Polly acknowledged, “At that time the word birth control was a no-no. I was daring I guess.”
Polly Abarca resigned as executive director of the South Texas Planned Parenthood Center in 1969. In 1970 she became the first director of nursing at the newly-opened Corpus Christi State School, a state-run residential facility for the mentally disabled. Abarca retired in 1974 but continued to volunteer; she served as chair of the council on ministries at Kelsey Memorial United Methodist Church. She died in Corpus Christi on December 10, 2009, and was buried at Rose Hill Memorial Park. In recognition of her contributions in the public health sector, the Apolonia Abarca Nursing Scholarship Fund was established by the Del Mar College Foundation in Corpus Christi. See also BIRTH CONTROL MOVEMENT IN TEXAS.