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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Maurilia “Molly” Ortiz Blakely is being recognized with a new mural in downtown Grand Rapids.
Molly, who left a legacy in Grand Rapids’ Hispanic community, helped organize the city’s first Mexican festival more than 50 years ago.
“Beyond words seeing the mural,” Molly’s son, Arturo Armijo, said.
The mural, located on an alley named after her downtown near Fulton Street, was created by local artist Arturo Morales Romero. It took him 65 hours to complete the 50-foot mural.
Molly overcame many struggles in her life.
The Beeville, Texas native’s parents died by the time she was six. Molly and her siblings were sent to an orphanage in San Antonio. Her aunt eventually adopted the siblings.
“Very influential on my mom, education, religion, culture more than anything else,” Armijo said.
Her culture brought her a sense of pride. Molly’s mother was Mexican American.
In the late 1960s, she co-founded Grand Rapids’ Mexican festival.
Before the creation of the festival, there was a yearly gathering celebrating the culture, mostly by the city’s Mexican population.
“My mom saw in a different perspective,” Armijo said. “We got to bring out to the community, expand our vision, expand our horizons about Mexican culture, I guess you could say, and start tearing down the barriers that exist between Mexicanos and language, and customs and things of that nature.”
The present-day festival is a three-day event featuring numerous performers and attracting thousands of visitors.
After dropping out of high school, Molly returned to school to earn her GED while working and raising her own kids as a single mother.
“Her father always told her education is key to success, even way back in (the) 30s and 40s,” Armijo said.
After receiving her GED, Molly attended Grand Valley State University.
“A little unsettling, a 47-, 48-year-old woman going back to college with students,” Armijo said. “Stuck with it and completed a degree in social work.”
Her involvement in the Hispanic community wasn’t limited to the festival.
“She always wanted to help kids, to help community,” Armijo said. “She worked in the Hispanic Center (of Western Michigan), other areas providing help and assistance to needy.”
Former WOOD TV8 community affairs director Eva Aguirre Cooper met Molly on the job at a homeless shelter Molly ran for migrant workers.
“Immediately, I felt wow, there was a force about Molly,” Aguirre Cooper said. “She told us what she was doing and how we had to help families.”
Molly died in 2015 at the age of 87. Whether it was raising awareness about Mexican culture or helping others, Armijo says he feels a sense of pride seeing his mother get recognized.
“Always been very proud of my mom and what she’s accomplished and what she’s gone through to accomplish,” Armijo said.