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How Tucson teacher paved way for Bilingual Ed. Act
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How Tucson teacher paved way for Bilingual Ed. Act

It was the summer of 1967 and Adalberto Guerrero, a Tucson educator, sat before a U.S. Senate committee and spoke. In Spanish.

After his brief remarks in his native language, Guerrero noted the bewildered senators’ faces. Then he told them that’s how Mexican-American children, whose primary language is Spanish, feel when their teacher instructs them in English.

From that historic testimony, and from the preceding years of pioneering education in Tucson’s Pueblo High School, came the landmark 1968 Bilingual Education Act. For the first time, Congress recognized the need to support innovative education programs to support school children with limited English-speaking abilities.

Guerrero was at the forefront of an educational revolution that helped young Latinos and other minorities achieve their goals through bilingual education. For his accomplishments in education, locally and nationally, Guerrero will be honored next Saturday by Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucsón, a non-profit group, at the Tucson Marriott University Plaza as part of Tucson’s 239th birthday celebration.

Tucson is the cradle of bilingual education, and Guerrero credited the Chicano students at Pueblo and their families for propelling it forward.

“Thanks to the students of Pueblo, we were able to to achieve what we did,” Guerrero, in his professorial voice, said over the din of chatter at Gus Balon’s on East 22nd Street. In one hour, Guerrero, who taught at the University of Arizona for 30 years, gave me the history lesson of the antecedents of the 1968 legislation.

He began teaching Spanish at Pueblo in 1958, a year after graduating from the UA and two years after the high school opened on the south side.

With a large number of Chicano students, Guerrero saw the need to teach Spanish, in a different and effective way, to “native” speakers. The new method, developed by Guerrero and teacher Faith Frikart, included Latino literature and culture.

The students made strong connections to the new curriculum, Guerrero said. It added to their confidence and improved their grades in other classes. The students and their parents insisted on expanding the program and, within a few years, Pueblo added more teachers: Henry Gamboa, Hank Oyama, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Miguel Bernal, Sarita Campos and Sarita Rodriguez.

In 1965, national exposure came to Pueblo and the new curriculum. By then Guerrero had left for the UA, to develop a training program for Spanish-language teachers under another educational pioneer, Renato Rosaldo. The National Education Association, a champion of public education, took a serious interest in Tucson’s “patented program.”

The NEA commissioned a national study of efforts elsewhere to provide quality education to English-language learners. A Tucson team fanned across the Southwest. The members were Guerrero, Oyama, Rosita Cota, Martina Garcia Duran-Cerda, Paul Streiff and Maria Urquides, dean of girls at Pueblo and a nationally recognized educator.

The group’s 1966 survey resulted in the seminal report, “The Invisible Minority.” It came in the midst of national social tumult, emergence of minority rights and the Vietnam War. The winds of change were sweeping the country.

In the fall of that year, the NEA held a national symposium on bilingual education. Guerrero said the UA’s Liberal Arts and Education colleges had no interest in hosting the summit, so educational experts, elected officials and community leaders gathered at the old downtown Pioneer Hotel.

Subsequently, Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, who attended the Tucson symposium, and Texas Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, introduced the seminal legislation. National hearings were held to seek expert testimonies and evidence in support of bilingual education.

And Guerrero ended up addressing the committee in Spanish.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella of Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187.

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