Born in the historic barrio libre near downtown Tucson, Arizona on December 8, 1908, Maria Luisa Legarra Urquides’ greatest pride was her Mexican American heritage and its Spanish language. Maria’s family had deep roots in Tucson; she was a third generation Mexican American. She enjoyed the racial and ethnic composition of her culturally diverse neighborhood which included Chinese, Mexicans, Indians, and Euro-Americans, and identified strongly from early childhood with the need to communicate, despite language and cultural barriers.
Maria’s family made financial sacrifices so that she could attend Tempe State Teachers College. In 1928, she was awarded a two-year teaching certificate and was named Valedictorian of her class. Eventually she earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in education from the University of Arizona. Maria obtained her first teaching position at Davis Elementary school in Tucson, with a 98% enrollment of Mexican and Mexican American children; and Yaqui Indian children were enrolled. Her bilingual English-Spanish skills enabled her to become successful in the classroom.
It was this same success that characterized Maria’s entire career as an educator and as a humanitarian. As an educator, she became a leader in spearheading a bilingual-bicultural approach to teaching language among her students. In time, she became known as “the mother of bilingual education” for her work in a new and emerging field of study at the national as well as local level. As a humanitarian, she contributed her talents, skills, energy and enthusiasm to projects that benefited the less fortunate and the under represented. Maria was recognized by her peers and by her community for her tireless efforts in mental health, continuing education, and human relations.
In 1974, the Tucson Unified School District paid tribute to Maria by naming the Urquides Elementary School in her honor.