When Graceila Olivarez recalls her 18 years as a secretary, heat crisps her tone. "The door to the bosses' offices closed," she begins, still exasperated though 16 years have passed.

"I envied the traveling salesmen, the guys who would come back and talk about the road. The secretaries typed their reports, never got to see the field," she continues, tapping the secretary's envy - perfect, long fingernails - on her office coffee table. "But I hated that door. It indicated that the secretary wasn't important enough or trusted enough to hear. I try not to close my door, except when I am on the phone."

The frustration of that long lesson emerged as a determination to push her way out of the minority backseat and the typing pool. She has scored: As director of the Community Services Administration, she is the highest-ranking Hispanic-American and the third highest-ranking woman in the Carter administration. This week she has been leading the administration's observation of National Hispanic Heritage Week with a series of town meetings across the country.

What she needs above all are double doses of that fiery determination at CSA, the national anti-poverty agency that succeeded the Office of Economic Opportunity. The old OEO, born with the loud cry for social healing in the 1960s, was beleaguered in its infancy and quickly pulled apart by its own internal bumbling, the weariness of confrontation tactics and conservative reluctance at subsidizing the poor. The job was tough and directors from Sargent Shriver to Howard Phillips, the architect of the dismantlement, were maligned by various factions.

Olivarez, the ninth director in 10 years, has inherited a fractured agency that may be phased into oblivion by the administration's federal reorganization plan. She was challenged, she says, by the uphill strug gle and intrigued by President Carter's tactic of interviewing her in Spanish.

"I had lost track of OEO/CSA. I knew it had been through battles, a lot of gutting," says Olivarez, her brown wide-set eyes staring intently, "but what I saw was the chance to get a nation to understand that the poor are not lazy, shiftless, living on someone's tax dollar. I understand the frustration of the taxpayer, as well as the person on the bottom."

In the early days of OEO, Olivarez was working for a private foundation in Phoenix, earning $5,000 a year, and supporting her mother, a sister, a brother and her son. A radio show on an all-Spanish station had earned her a reputation as a community leader and she was appointed to the first advisory committee for OEO.

In the company of Hubert Humphrey, Whitney Young and John Kenneth Galbraith, Olivarez was the only poor person. "I tried very hard to emulate them. I didn't want to stand out like a sore thumb. If you saw pictures of me from that time, I looked like a 'cat-eyes' - all made up. I would always have my hair done in the latest bouffant style," says Olivarez, moving her arms above her currently curly hair.

Not only was she trying to belong but she was compensating for what she considered "inferior looks. For a long time, I was tall, skinny with buck teeth and acne."

"Eventually I changed, I wasn't afraid to speak my mind, in my language. And Shriver once said I was the 'pepper' of the commission. And I said he better hope that I never became the chili."

It took some years for Olivarez, now 50, to develop that peppery feistiness.

She grew up in the segregated mining town of Sonora, Ariz., during the Depression and was forced to leave high school to support her family.

Her father, a machinist in the copper mines for 35 years, had emigrated from Spain. Her mother, a Mexican American, gave piano lessons to stretch the family budget for five children. "We had role models, and I grew up feeling anyone who discriminated against me was losing out."

When her parents split up, she moved to Phoenix, where certain forms of discrimination were legal. "There the public pools were closed to blacks and Mexicans and both groups had to sit in the movie theater balconies. It was a gradual erosion of my confidence in the system."

At age 20, after spells of unemployment and odd jobs, Olivarez ended up at a radio station, where she worked as a secretary, engineer, announcer and talk show host. The mail she received from the show opened her eyes, she says, to the complexities of discrimination. Defying moderate Mexican-American strategy, she joined the black civil rights leaders who were picketing a Mexican restaurant that didn't serve blacks. In 1962 activist Robert Choate, who was starting a children's concerns foundation, asked Olivarez to be his liaison with the Hispanic community and she left radio.

Despite the progress her annual salary remained in the four-figure range.

When she met Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame University in 1966, he told her, "I wouldn't make it in a union card society withoug the card.He promised to waive the entrance requirements if I wanted to go to law school," says Olivarez. "I hadn't thought about any other schooling. I was bitter, frustrated and I felt: Why should I give up three years of my life?"

But in 1967, with her son from a brief teen-age marriage and a nephew, she registered. She was one of few brown, female, divorced and older students. "I went through a lot of self-analysis.It was the first time I was alone. And this will fly in the face of the feminists but I loved being domestic," says Olivarez. "The most important thing was I discovered the library, a whole new world of reading. I almost ruined my eyes." Her activism continued as she forced the university to open the sports facilities and the infirmary to women.

In 1970 Olivarez became the first woman graduate of the Notre Dame Law School and, as predicted, the doors opened.

She returned to Phoenix to direct an OEO-funded program and part of her $22,000-a-year salary went to buy her dream machine, a 3/4-ton Ford pickup truck.

Before her appointment to CSA in 1977, she worked in New Mexico for five years, teaching at the state university and working for Gov. Jerry Apodaca.

"Everytime we would send Grace out, the press secretary would say, 'Don't forget to mention the governor.' When President Carter told me he was taking Grace away from a couple of years, I said 'you can have her,'" recounts a chuckling Apodaca, who retains considerable fondness for Olivarez, despite her frequent inability to follow the press secretary's orders.

Some might call the assembly window-dressing but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would surely smile on the motley battalion in Olivarez's office.

Three black males, two white males, one white female, one Indian female one Spanish-American male, one Cuban female, one Japanese-American male. And, she says, as she rattles off this list, "A Buddhist, two Jews, one Bahai. Also a man who is having a sex-change operation."

Internally, there are some grumblings that the make-up of her isn't proof that Olivarez has mastered the art of impartiality. Charges of a "Mexican Mafia" have floated in recent months and some black employes fear that they will lose their ranks to Hispanics in an internal realignment. Yet she is regarded by some civil rights activists as important to any alliance between blacks and Hispanics, who expect to be the nation's largest minority by the late 1980s.

In her first 18 months at CSA, Olivarez has concentrated on boosting morale, sprucing up the agency's reputation, trying to make peace with her congressional critics and eliminating any overlap in the work of CSA and ACTION. Both Olivarez and Sam Brown, the director of ACTION, the combined volunteer programs agency, deny the rumors of a rivalry.

Once again Olivarez finds herself involved in the world of the poor - but this time as a viceroy of the government's social engineering.

"I am very apprehensive about being the problem solver. I am acutely aware of the fickleness of upward mobility. I can be poor again, anytime,' says Olivarez, quietly. "In this job I see the fine line more clearly. I know I can walk out my apartment, get hit, be handicapped, and not have services."

Her concern and her insistence on procedure fused interestingly last May.

For five days a half-dozen Mexican-American farmers were camped outside CSA's office on 19th Street, their families and babies in tow. They wanted to see Olivarez. She refused, insisting they go through channels, meeting her general counsel first. But she made sure the children had orange juice and food. When the farmers finally agreed to see the counsel, she agreed to join the meeting.

In her apartment on upper Connecticut Avenue, Olivarez has a growing collection of Afro-Cuban jazz albums, nearly 150 now, and a jungle of plants - pineapples, sweet potatoes and avocadoes.

Books abound: Plenty of pop psychology, "Your Erogenous Zones," "Love and Addiction," a bevy of running books. "I like to help the staff identify their problems and then direct them to the professional help," says Olivarez who carried "Aristole For everyone" in her tote bag last week.

One of her constant worries is her son, Victor, 19, now a college student in the Southwest. "This is the first time we have been apart," she says quietly. And she prays. "I still light my candles at home," she says. "But as I become older the less I want to practice my religion in public. Occasionally I stop off at St. Matthews." (Her Catholic upbringing partly shaped her staunch anti-abortion stance, which in 1975 caused the National Women's Political Caucus to rescind a speaking invitation to her.

In other areas related to her background Olivarez hasn't been quite as self-confident.

Once she considered Mexican food "poverty food" but now serves her dinner guests tacos and enchiladas. "Eventually I became more secure about who I was," says Olivarez. Now, for instance she laughs, "I don't care anymore about beauty. I have found that the minute you accept yourself, you find people have been accepting you all along."

What she enjoys are long walks, a habit helped along right now by her carless state. "Washington is the pretties city in the U.S., no other city is a garden," and she looks out the window at a wall of concrete but insists on finding some poetry nonetheless: "Coming from a desert, any blade of grass and patch of water is a miracle."