Teacher Battled in Favor of Bilingual Education

By Cleere, Jan | AZ Daily Star, January 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

Teacher Battled in Favor of Bilingual Education


Cleere, Jan, AZ Daily Star


"I was born on a cold winter night by the light of an oil lamp. A curandera was in attendance, and my aunt ... was accompanying my mother at my birth. She said I was born with a strange veil over my face. The curandera said this meant I would be able to tell the future."

Maria Luisa Legarra Urquides was born in Tucson on Dec. 9, 1908. If she could tell the future, she would have foreseen her life unfolding significantly differently than that of her parents. Her father never attended school, and her mother did not go beyond the third grade. Yet their youngest child thrived in school, even though education of Mexican children in the Old Pueblo was far from perfect.

Schoolchildren were forbidden to speak anything but English. Those like Maria who only knew Spanish were punished for using their native tongue, and many youngsters spent two or three years in the first grade until they mastered the English language.

At a young age, Maria gained a somewhat broad knowledge of her neighborhood when she went to work for local prostitutes. "When they legalized prostitution in Gay Alley," she said, "it was right in back of our property. My dad quietly built a fence, but my curiosity was aroused and I loosened the boards and pushed in. Someone hollered, 'Hi, Honey. Come on over.' So I got acquainted with the girls. I was running errands for them, getting good tips. That's the first time I ever had strawberries and cream with pink sugar."

When Maria's parents discovered her entrepreneurial enterprise, they moved.

In 1928, she received her teaching certificate from Arizona State Teachers College (ASU), graduating as valedictorian of her class. She went to work at Tucson's Davis Elementary School, her students mainly of Mexican-American and Yaqui descent. She stayed there for 20 years.

Maria was forced to teach classes in English. "If I ever go to hell," she once said, "it'll be for scolding students for speaking Spanish."

She painted the dull gray walls of her classroom with green paint she bought with her own money and enlisted the help of her students to get the job done.

The kids sold hot dogs and buns donated by Swift and Co. to buy shade trees for the barren playground. But when she returned in the fall, the trees were all dead.

In 1948 Maria began teaching at Sam Hughes Elementary. When she saw how attractive the grounds were and the book-filled library available to the students, she questioned why the Davis and Hughes pupils could not share their knowledge and backgrounds, learn from each other to enhance the spectrum of their education. She wanted to establish a bilingual-bicultural teaching program.

Along with other teachers, Maria surveyed school districts in surrounding Southwestern states to determine how they were introducing bilingual education to their students. The National Education Association published their findings, "The Invisible Minority. …

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