Laura Barrera’s students have built Aztec museums and altares (altars) for Dia de los Muertos. They have crushed herbs and other plants for remedios (remedies).

Last year, when her fourth-grade students at Brewer Elementary School in the San Antonio School District recreated the relics, rituals and traditions of their Hispanic heritage, Barrera wanted them to make an existential connection between their native language and culture.

“They do a lot of things with their families, but they don’t know why they do them,” she said. “People are looking for validation. It’s OK who we are. Somos Mexicanos. (We are Mexicans.) We were here first.”

Barrera’s passion for teaching and relating to her students as a “Mexicana” is the reason she was chosen the 1998 Texas Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Texas Association for Bilingual Education.

Her journey down this road came by accident. She mistakenly registered for a bilingual education course 20 years ago at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her instructor spoke about identity and language. That lecture inspired her, Barrera said, because she had lost her sense of identity.

There was a time when Barrera was ashamed of her heritage. She was a military brat. While her father was stationed in North Carolina, children taunted Barrera with a racial epithet because her maiden name was Negron.

Her teacher explained that she had two strikes against her. One was her name. The second was the color of her skin.

“I was so hurt and so embarrassed about being dark,” Barrera said. “I would never do this to a kid.”

In the eighth grade, Barrera became pregnant. She dropped out of school and married. By age 17, she had three children.

When her toddler daughter attended the Jose Cardenas Center, an early childhood campus in the Edgewood School District, someone asked if any parents were interested in getting a General Education Development certificate, or GED. She studied and obtained one.

Then, it was time for college. She worked all day and attended the University of Texas at San Antonio at night. On weekends, she cleaned houses. At age 30, she graduated.

Barrera can’t compete for the National Bilingual Teacher of the Year title because she was transferred to an administrative position this school year at Connell Middle School.

Instead, she is working with teachers in developing better instructional techniques, strategies and resources. She is working with parents whose middle-school-aged children are battling peer pressure during the crucial transition from childhood to adolescence.

Her next venture will be to form a Chicano Studies club at Connell. Parents also have expressed interest in joining the club.

“Anyone who knows me knows I always say, ‘I’m brown and proud,'” Barrera said.

Her pride is obvious in her office at Connell Middle School, where she is an instructional guide.

Although she is no longer a bilingual teacher in a classroom, she has brought the classroom to her office.

A papier-mache Aztec calendar is propped on top of a bookshelf that also acts as a wall, or divider, to an adjoining room. Calaveras (skulls), velas (candles) and a print of Mexican artist Diego Rivera with his wife, Frida Kalo, are among the mementoes adorning her office bookshelf and walls.

Those walls also pay homage to farmworker’s union leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez’s call for a boycott of grapes.

Books on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee and South African President Nelson Mandela also are part of her ethnic mosaic.

“My classroom was like a multicultural center,” she said.

Other accents enrich her teaching of cultures.

Barrera said she respects the Native American people’s belief in the earth as mother and the Asians’ dedication to peace.

Rosa Rabago, SASD director of bilingual education, said Barrera epitomizes what a good bilingual teacher should be.

“She did an excellent job with the children, teaching them their language and culture, bridging their native culture with their culture,” Rabago said. “She has served as a mentor to other teachers and is always willing to share ideas (and resources) with her colleagues.”

Barrera believes in multiculturalism in education and helping students develop a sense of self. When students think about their heroes, Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan or San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson might come to mind.

But she said youngsters should remember the unsung heroes who toiled, sometimes in ridicule, to give them the freedom they take for granted today.

Chavez, Sorjuana Inez de la Cruz, who could have been one of the first feminists, and novelist Sandra Cisneros could be those heroes, she said.

“These were real-life people that look like you and like me, working to create change in our community,” Barrera said.

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