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Gracia Lillan Fernandez de Arias was raised in Maine and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Maine. She moved to Arizona in 1900, where she passed the Arizona State Teacher’s examination. She became an English teacher at the Tule School, where her father was a trustee. Well-liked by parents and colleagues, she was named Principal of School District #1.
She became a Professor of Spanish at the Tempe Normal School, its first. She is the only faculty member at Tempe Normal School to be photographed in cap and gown! She advocated for the teaching of Spanish in schools, writing that “a practical knowledge of Spanish has become a recognized factor in modern education.” Gracia held a joint appointment for many years as Librarian of the Tempe Normal School library—the first bilingual-bicultural Hispanic woman to be appointed librarian--and as Professor of Spanish.
Gracia’s advocacy for teaching Spanish in schools continued throughout her life, eventually legitimizing Spanish as a course of study. With support from her principal, Arthur John Matthews, she integrated the Tempe Normal School into the larger Normal School movement in the United States, thereby opening higher education to students from diverse cultural, economic an religious background—especially for women. Historian Christine Marin concludes that she affirmed for her Mexican American students the value of their own Spanish-language skills and encouraged them to strengthen their bilingualism and improve themselves and their own communities.