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Historical marker at NMSU to honor Maria Gutierrez Spencer

Of the 536 historical markers in New Mexico, only five represent women.

Portrait of woman
Maria Gutierrez Spencer, a pioneer in bilingual education, traveled throughout the state helping educators develop programs for students with language and cultural barriers. This summer a historical marker will be added to the NMSU campus acknowledging her service to the state. (NMSU photo provided by Laura Gutierrez-Spencer)

This year, a historical sign will be placed honoring the legacy of Maria Gutierrez Spencer, a pioneer of bilingual and bicultural education and advocate of the indo-hispanic experience.

Located on Espina Street (NM Highway 38) between E. University Avenue and Stewart Street, a sign will be placed marking the life of one of the state’s boldest natives.

“She was one of the first teachers for Spanish for native speakers, now called Spanish for heritage speakers in the state of New Mexico, or really throughout the country,” her daughter, Laura Gutierrez-Spencer said. “It was revolutionary in the 1950s.”

During a period when ethnic and racial division was vast, Maria Gutierrez Spencer used her personal experience and education to develop a separate curriculum for native speakers of Spanish and non-native speakers through Las Cruces High School. She was the founder of the Bicultural Orientation and Language Development Program in Silver City, New Mexico, a first of its kind. The program focused on cultural strengths and the languages students brought to school while quickly developing skills in English.

“From the time I was a child, and she was starting the BOLD program, she would explain to me the advantages I had and how the culture of poverty is not about economics, it’s about how you see the world and how you plan your life, how you survive,” Laura Gutierrez-Spencer said.

In 1981 Maria Gutierrez Spencer was presented with the Wonder Woman award alongside Rosa Parks, in New York City.

“She won three national awards for excellence in education and in the same day was later fired from the Silver City School District. She was just a helper for ordinary people,” Laura Gutierrez-Spencer said.

Maria Gutierrez Spencer was a survivor of cancer for more than 50 years, yet continued to travel the country, amending the barriers for Spanish speaking in the classroom.

She passed away in 1992, passing her legacy of community service and culturally affirmative approaches down to her daughter.

“The center of my work is making rules, systems and expectations transparent to the people expected to be part of that system,” Laura Gutierrez-Spencer said, “to provide pathways through the inequalities that come as a result to that.”

Andrew Gallegos, operations engineer of the Department of Transportation is aiding in the installation, to take place this summer.

For more information on historical markers in New Mexico, visit http://www.nmhistoricmarkers.org/.