Education was a field of accomplishments for Dr. Theresa Pérez

Dr. Theresa Pérez blazed an early trail for Latinos.
Dr. Theresa Pérez blazed an early trail for Latinos. Special to Vida en el Valle

Dr. Theresa Pérez’s accomplishments were the accomplishments of her adopted San Joaquín Valley, from saving the Chicano Studies Department at Fresno State to getting pioneering Latino politicians like Al Villa and Armando Rodríguez elected to office.

Pérez, the daughter of a migrant farmworker mother and a U.S. Navy father, died Jan. 13 at her Fresno home of ALS. She was 85 years old.

“I come out of a different environment, a different mindset,” said Pérez during a Chicano History Revisited forum in 2013. “I was a mother, a wife living in the community, raising children and not involved in much of anything.”

That changed when she and other parents began to take interest in school issues like the lack of programs for monolingual, Spanish-speaking students. That was the birth of the Chicano Advisory Committee, which coaxed federal officials to investigate the Fresno school district for being out of compliance with federal programs.

“We had rallies, we marched around the schools. We were pretty active in that way,” said Pérez, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a master’s in Linguistics and Bilingualism at Fresno State.

She earned her doctorate in Curriculum and Teacher Education from Stanford University.

Pérez was an assistant professor of La Raza Studies at Fresno State (1971-80), then spent 16 years at the university in the College of Education and chair of the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Educational Technology.

She then spent 14 years at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte as an ESL professor before retiring in 2011. She had moved there to be closer to a daughter who got cancer.

Pérez was heavily involved with the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

“The one thing that happened as a result of getting involved is that they brought in special people who knew how to run campaigns,” said Pérez. “We learned so much. We were like students. We didn’t know how to run a campaign.

“We learned so much, we were able to use what we learned in the local campaigns of Chicanos. We were determined that things were going to change in this community; that we were going to have Mexican, Latino-elected representatives.”

She also recalled the turmoil at Fresno State in May 1970 when the La Raza faculty was fired.

“They can’t do that to us,” she said. “We became very, very incensed and wanted to get involved,” said Pérez.

Her friends showed up at the university’s boys gym along with their children to support the faculty. A local Catholic priest showed up as well, but announced he’d have to leave early.

“I said, if Jesus were around here, where do you think he would be? Father, you know he’d be with us,” Pérez recalled telling him.

He stuck around.

Dr. Theresa Pérez

The student-led activism eventually forced the university to change its minds. The students even interviewed candidates for La Raza Studies.

“I was never interviewed by any administrator at Fresno State,” said Pérez, who noted she was interviewed by student Leo Gallegos, who went on to become a political powerbroker under Gov. Jerry Brown.

Five years later, the La Raza teachers staged a sit-in inside the university president’s office over a dispute as to whether the program would get departmental status.

The staff won.

The president “knew he had to deal with us,” she said.

People who knew her were amazed she accomplished so much, especially in earning her college degrees, while raising seven children. When she was studying at Stanford, she took her three youngest children with her.

“If you are around me for more than give minutes, you will notice that I either talk about my children or my work,” she often said. “It must be that I am proudest of these two accomplishments.”

Pérez worked in the fields to earn money to pay for her school clothes.

“It was very unpleasant work. There were no toilets, and we had to drink water out of the same cup. I knew that wasn’t probably the best thing,” she recalled at the 2013 forum.

Her mother stopped working in the fields after Pérez’s grandfather got ill, and the family moved into Fresno.

“Up until that time, we had been following the migrant trail, living in tents, living in camps,” she said. “It was a wonderful life actually for me. I was with my mother. I was with my grandparents, and life seemed really good to me.”

Pérez was apprehensive about attending school at first because she didn’t know much English. “I was quite worried that nobody would understand me,” she said.

However, she adapted well in school and made her grandmother proud by learning how to read in the third grade.

“When I came home, I told her I could read, and she invited all the neighbors to come in and hear me read. It was a great day,” recalled Pérez.

Pérez is survived by her husband of 66 years, Manuel Pérez; six children, Dr. Sandra Pérez, Andrea Pérez-Lemus, Tim Pérez, Salle Pérez Saíz, Raquel Pérez, and Tino Pérez; 15 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren.

Her burial was held last Saturday (Jan. 26), the same day Fresno State flags were lowered in her memory.