Showing the Way Up
A profile from the spring 1986 issue of the College Board Review of Carmen Terrazas, who made the dream of higher education a reality for thousands of Mexican American students
Leafing through the archive of the College Board Review is (very, very) often an exercise in humility. Contained in its pages are countless reminders of how far we've come when it comes to education in this country—and how little things have changed. The conflagrations raging today about, well, you name it, are likely to be found being wrestled with and debated in the Review's pages. There are also countless reminders that the work to make education fairer, more equitable, and accessible—from the availability of quality classwork to opportunities for pursuing higher education to basic classroom resources and so much more in between—has concerned generations of leaders, administrators, academics, and, most importantly, educators.
Many of the best pieces in the magazine are profiles of these essential heroes of American education because they speak to us and our hopes and challenges with voices that echo across the decades. One such piece, written by Review editor Jack Arbolino for the spring 1986 issue of the magazine, focuses on Carmen Terrazas, the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as principal of Bell High School in Bell, California, someone deeply involved with College Board programs, and a true champion for some of the nation's most underserved, overlooked students.
"[Bell High School] is an overcrowded, overutilized, three-track year-round school serving grades 9 through 12," Arbolino wrote. "For many of its students Bell provides the first contact with the English language. It is also, for many, their last contact with formal education. ... The school serves the tri-city area of Bell, Maywood, and Cudahy. Cudahy is the most densely populated area west of the Mississippi, and its students are from families at America's lowest economic levels. Southeastern Los Angeles, in effect, is a Spanish-speaking city where generations can live and die without speaking a word of English."
But where others may have shrunk amidst such challenges, Terrazas, a first-generation Mexican American, faced them with determination, drive, and love for her students and community. She would not let them fail, nor would she let them be denied at least the knowledge of educational possibility post-high school. In 1967, while at Roosevelt High School, she established The College Corner to expose the students to higher-ed opportunities. It was also the Los Angeles Unified School District's first full-time college advising center.
"I can tell you that Mrs. Terrazas is personally responsible for literally thousands of minority youngsters pursuing a higher education in colleges and universities," Dr. Ruben Zacarias, regional superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said in the profile.
And to do that she drew on her own experiences growing up in an immigrant household that celebrated and championed education, but existed in a community where school—at any level—could too often be discouraged. It's a reality that hadn't changed much by the time she led Bell High in the early 1980s, and it's one that countless young first-gen and migrant students around the country confront today.
For those students, then and now, Terrazas was and is an essential figure.
"No one can chart what change education will make in the lives of the thousands of minority youngsters who are pursuing higher education because of Carmen Terrazas," Arbolino wrote. "For some, education and assimilation can be twin engines of fulfillment. Others may be forced by public assimilation to private alienation. But whatever the risks, Carmen Terrazas has shown the way up to thousands of young people, and most of them must feel grateful as well as free."
National Hispanic Heritage Month is a good moment to revisit Terrazas’s story and her leadership. But let this be an occasion to add her to the larger conversation about Hispanic education in the United States—as a trailblazer, a role model, and a champion for students who are too often left without one.
Carmen Terrazas in her office in 1986.
Carmen Terrazas was the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as principal of Bell High School in Bell, California, but her appointment, made in January 1982, was notable as much as a challenge as it was a reward. Bell is in the southeastern part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest unified school district in the United States. It is an overcrowded, overutilized, three-track year-round school serving grades 9 through 12. For many of its students Bell provides the first contact with the English language. It is also, for many, their last contact with formal education.
At Bell High School the attrition rate is 60%, with the greatest loss in the 9th and 10th grades. In addition, the administration regards 50% of the students as "very low level" in English language skills.
A 1984 ethnic survey of the students there showed the following distribution:
Native American: .7%
The school serves the tri-city area of Bell, Maywood, and Cudahy. Cudahy is the most densely populated area west of the Mississippi, and its students are from families at America's lowest economic levels. Southeastern Los Angeles, in effect, is a Spanish-speaking city where generations can live and die without speaking a word of English. In the recently released Statewide Bands and Objectives, Bell is classified as "A Band" (the lowest level), and it has been described as having all the characteristics of a Chapter One school (a school with special areas and responsibilities) with none of the funding. It is also one of the 15 year-round schools in the country, four of which are in Los Angeles.
With all the handicaps and disadvantages, the 60-year-old building that houses Bell is immaculate. It was not always so. Principal Terrazas has worked closely with Owen McDonald, the plant manager. The graffiti that used to cover the walls are gone. Now the gardens and grounds are neatly clipped, and the walls and windows are spotless. The principal and the plant manager have been able to instill a feeling of campus pride in the students and in the faculty. Mrs. Terrazas has made it a habit—"it goes with the job," she says—to pick up papers as she walks in the corridors and the lunchroom. Her good example seems to work. The lunchroom, which can accommodate only 160 people at a time, serves the entire 1,209 students per track: a total of 3,627.
Because of the three tracks the badly overcrowded school is like three smaller schools, and it is possible that a family with two or three children in elementary, junior high school, and Bell may be faced by two or three different year-round school calendars.
Despite the physical limitations, the community takes pride in the school and is fiercely supportive of it. The support is demonstrated by a devoted and active group of parents. These are men and women—it should be remembered—of extremely limited financial means. Parents participate in Booster Clubs and numerous advisory councils. To be sure, parental involvement in school affairs is strongest in athletics.
Bell High School has several serious problems. It also has enlightened leadership. If Carmen Terrazas was not born for the job she has held since the beginning of 1982, she has been well prepared for it, right from her childhood. Her friend and colleague, Mary Ann Sesma, says: "In every situation, professional and personal, Carmen Terrazas is totally competent and wonderfully compassionate. She is deeply loved and respected by her staff and students as a person of great wisdom and practicality, and she is never afraid of demanding tasks."
Carmen Terrazas was born within 10 miles of Bell. In American Me Beatrice Griffith wrote, "It is in the schools that children of Mexican ancestry learn of America . . . . Here they make their dreams—and often lose them." The dreams of little girls like Carmen Terrazas had other origins, too, and not all of those dreams were lost. Carmen Terrazas fulfilled the dreams of her mother and her father. Her mother's dream was specific: She encouraged Carmen to become a teacher. That was her first wish; then she hoped that one day Carmen would become a principal. Ten years before Carmen was named principal of Bell her mother, who was living with her, died. Her father had died earlier.
Both parents were born in Mexico: her father in Guadalajara, her mother in Aguascalientes. They came to the United States, like so many other immigrants, in search of liberty and opportunity. Like so many others, too, they came by boxcar. The wry question that Carmen and her husband Richard never tire of asking one another is, "Did your parents come in or on a boxcar?"
Carmen was in the 10th grade when her father died of cancer at home. His last job was in a foundry two doors from the house in which Carmen was born. On the corner was the dog pound that gave the neighborhood the name of "Dogtown," an area of research for the aforementioned powerful sociological work American Me.
Richard Reeves in an excellent New Yorker piece on East Los Angeles, published on September 14, 1981, quoted Mrs. Terrazas as follows, "My father was sitting on the porch the first night reading his paper. Two Anglos came by with a petition to keep Mexicans out of the neighborhood. My father put down his paper and said, 'It's too late, my friends. We're already here.'"
Her father was a political activist who had survived two attempts on his life before he left Mexico for good. He was a professional singer and actor who performed on the stage, radio, and in the movies. Once in H. M. S. Pinafore at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, in which he was playing a character in hiding and in disguise, Carmen and her three sisters blew his cover by shouting "there he is" the moment he appeared on stage.
He was a man of many interests who left Mexico for his safety, a man who wrote, acted, and sang, and who was once acting Secretary of State in Aguascalientes. He directed plays in Spanish and appeared in Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects, he sang in productions in the Hollywood Bowl, and in addition to radio work acted in several movies, among them Flying Down to Rio. His daughter remembers how he loved to sing "The Lady in Red" from the movie.
He also did what he had to do to support his family. Carmen remembers the soap factory he made and ran during the 1930s. It was an aluminum and corrugated tin structure with a floor that covered a huge vat. The rudimentary factory was in their backyard in Dogtown. Carmen and her sisters used the massed, coffin-like boxes (used to congeal the soap) as a stage.
“All the kids in the neighborhood must have at some time performed on our 'stage' or sat on the balcony (the tin steps leading up to the top of the vat) to watch us and others perform,” Carmen said. “Many a performance was cancelled at the last minute because performers would have tantrums. Admission was a button, a safety pin, and only rarely, a penny.”
She remembers the "zoot suit" riots of the 1940s and the violence exchanged by the local youths and the sailors. Once, she and her sisters were terrified as sailors chased neighborhood boys right through their house.
There were six children, who grew up with the last name Macias. (Carmen’s maiden name.) During World War II, Mrs. Macias went to work in the neighborhood foundry across the street from their home. Carmen remembers her mother crying the first time she had to wear slacks on the job. At night Mrs. Macias would sew to augment the family income. After Carmen's father died in 1949, her mother was the chief support of the family. Later she took a job on an assembly line. Carmen remembers, “The Plant was Cannon Electric (later ITT Cannon). Ironically, the daughter of the owner was one of my classmates at Immaculate Heart College. We graduated in 1955—my mother worked on the assembly line and her family owned the corporation. My mother would return from work exhausted and sew wedding dresses until early in the morning. She sewed on weekends and at night. She was a marvelous seamstress. It was sad that we were never able to open a dressmaker's shop for her. She would have been a great success. She believed avidly in education. She graduated from Lincoln School in 1929, and, in a way, realized a dream of going to college by enrolling in community college for French and shorthand classes years later.
"She was active in charity work and politics and was elected to the central committee of the Democratic Party. I still have a copy of the ballot and many letters of gratitude from elected officials for her support. In recognition of her work in local politics, she received an invitation to Lyndon Johnson's inauguration. Although we wanted to send her, she decided against going.
"Mother always had room for one more at the table. She could stretch one pork chop into a meal for the family and drop-in guests. We always claimed that she placed everything in hot, spicy chili so we would eat less and the meat would stretch further.
"She taught me to love school and she involved me in leadership roles early (knocking at doors, giving out political pamphlets while she followed and registered people to vote). We probably inherited our leadership from her—my three sisters were all student body presidents—I lost the election!
"I called her 'mother dear,' which often resulted in my being teased by my sisters who would echo 'mother dear.' My father called me 'Apaga la luz' (extinguish the light) because I irritated the family by turning lights off (an early energy conservationist? or reaction to blackouts?) and by admonishing all, 'Apaga la luz!'"
Mrs. Macias spent her last years, like her husband, fighting cancer in her daughter's home. She died in 1972, before Carmen became a principal but after she was well on her way to her mother's dream. In 1972, Carmen was a fine teacher and a counselor of marked ability and recognized effectiveness.
Perhaps the single professional achievement that first brought Carmen Terrazas significant recognition was her establishment at Roosevelt High School in 1967 of “The College Corner.” In a converted classroom, the woodshop teachers and their students built racks on three walls for college catalogues. Local businessmen were solicited for furniture, pennants from colleges around the country were put up, and the College Corner was launched.
Antonio Solorzano, Jr., who followed Mrs. Terrazas as head college and financial aid counselor at Roosevelt and then followed her again to Bell as head counselor, says, “Carmen started the College Corner. She is seen as a pioneer who for many years voiced the concerns of secondary school counselors to our college counterparts. Many of us who were taught by her, in a professional sense, still see her as an individual who does not take no for an answer, and when an affirmative response is finally given, it is not to placate, but rather to acknowledge that all along she was right.
"As far back as 1967, when college and financial aid counseling was beginning to take hold in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Carmen forged ahead with the first full-time college advisement center. The College Corner was the first fully equipped, certificated, and staffed college counseling center. It was visited by many different school districts within and outside of California, and Carmen became known as an expert in her field.
“She still commands and will always command a great deal of respect from her peers.”
Her own account of her work in the College Corner, as quoted by Richard Reeves, follows:
I had to break through the idea that it was impossible for a student here to go on to college. We brainwash them. We tell them over and over again, "It's there. It's available. You can get it." We physically help them fill out the forms—there's often a language problem. But I found out that the funding was there—state funding, federal funding. Colleges had to get minority students to get federal funding. They needed what I had—minority students. In the beginning, there were Mexicans, blacks, Chinese, and Japanese in this school. Not a week went by when college recruiters weren't here. One year, we had seven students accepted into Stanford and, another year, six accepted into Yale. That was something, because here "going away" means leaving East Los Angeles. Going to U.C.L.A. is "going away."
Roy Lucero, associate director of financial aid services in the College Board's Western Regional Office, first met Carmen Terrazas in 1970 when she was the college adviser at Roosevelt and he worked in the financial aid office at California State University, Los Angeles. "Not only did she have time for her counselees at Roosevelt, she also made time to teach me the ins and outs of what college counseling was all about. She never was too busy; a classic lady.”
In recent years, honors and professional affiliations have come quickly, among them: Hispanic Woman of the Year (1982); member, Educational Seminar in Israel (1983); College Scholarship Service (CSS) Governance and Membership Committee (1982-present); Advisory Panel on Minority Concerns, College Board, vice chairman (1984-present); Presidential Scholarship Program Review Committee, U.S. Dept. of Education (1985).
The recognition and the commendations are coming with increasing frequency. William R. Anton, deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School district, summarizes the respect her colleagues express. “She is an exemplary educator who has devoted her life to the attainment of educational opportunities for her students. By raising the expectation of her coworkers and her students she presents to all around her a view of the future."
Richard Pesqueira, director of the Western Regional Office of the College Board, describes her as "a champion of students, protecting and enhancing their individual personalities. She has advocated on behalf of students, reminding all of us that schools are for students and not vice versa."
Mrs. Terrazas is a modest woman who seems unimpressed by praise, but one plain tribute must touch her. It comes from the pen of an unnamed student reporter in the Roosevelt High School newspaper Rough Rider, January 10, 1975. The writer ends the story, "What a Counselor Ought to Be," with this assertion, "It would not hurt if others at this school felt the way she does."
At a different level, one terse, astounding appraisal of her contribution comes from Dr. Ruben Zacarias, regional superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. "I can tell you that Mrs. Terrazas is personally responsible for literally thousands of minority youngsters pursuing a higher education in colleges and universities."
Carmen Terrazas in the ninth grade, 1947, left, and at her high school graduation, 1951.
Carmen Terrazas' memories of her childhood are still vivid. The deaths of her parents will always be with her. She shared with her mother a special sadness and regret that her father's requests for "a glass of wine" were denied. Only just before his death did her mother understand that there would be no harm in granting that request. Carmen Terrazas' work and her education never tended to alienate her from her parents. That is not always true of first-generation students who succeed.
Carmen and Richard Terrazas are very proud of their two children. William, 23, is a geography major at The University of California, Santa Barbara, Estella, 20, is an environmental biology major at California State University at San Luis Obispo. Both are working to pay part of their college expenses. The pride Carmen takes in her children's education is a continuation of what her mother and father, indeed what her whole family feels in her educational accomplishments. All of them were supportive. She remembers countless five-dollar bills, or a blouse, or a pair of shoes, all gifts from her family to help her survive in college. When she won second place in the California State Fair modern oils competition, her brother, Jess, offered to pay her expenses to Sacramento to accept the prize, and when she was in college she would be offered baby-sitting fees whenever she stayed with her nieces or nephews.
All evidence and testimony indicates that Carmen Terrazas' educational achievements brought her family closer together. That loving, happy experience of pride in a loved one's success is in contrast to the experience—no less loving—so painfully and beautifully described in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. In the prologue to his book Richard Rodriguez writes:
Once upon a time, I was a "socially disadvantaged" child. An enchantedly happy child. Mine was a childhood of intense family closeness. And extreme public alienation.
And near the end of the book in a letter to his mother: "I think education has divided the family ... "
No one can chart what change education will make in the lives of the thousands of minority youngsters who are pursuing higher education because of Carmen Terrazas. For some, education and assimilation can be twin engines of fulfillment. Others may be forced by public assimilation to private alienation. But whatever the risks, Carmen Terrazas has shown the way up to thousands of young people, and most of them must feel grateful as well as free.
She takes seriously her work with the College Board's Advisory Panel on Minority Concerns. She feels that although the panel has the potential for truly helping minority students it must, "be ever alert to avoid rubber stamping with a seal of approval all projects proposed by the College Board staff and committees. The Advisory Panel," she continues, "has not done enough to ensure a broader representation of Hispanics, American Indians, and Asian and Pacific Islanders on the Board of Trustees and on policymaking committees. Black representatives, though underrepresented, have been allotted more slots."
Just before school reopened in the summer of 1985, Carmen Terrazas was appointed administrator of operations for the Senior High School Division of the Los Angeles Unified School District. This major elevation puts her in charge of the operation of 26 Senior High Schools. One of them is Bell, to which, and then from which, she ascended. The new recognition was the occasion for a family party. "Lupe, Connie, and Rosie (Carmen's three sisters) put together a glorious celebration at Connie's home in Downey, to celebrate 'our' promotion. Their theme, 'We're so proud,' was on the cake, balloons, banners, and on a beautiful desk set which they had engraved for me." Carmen continues, "The whole family (aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and extended family) celebrated together their efforts (as reported in numerous hilarious speeches) and the results of helping one of us Macias girls. It was a wonderful nostalgic evening.”
With the promotion and the increased responsibility, one can expect, on the basis of her past achievements, that she will continue to grow. Her professional goals include the start and the completion of a doctoral program whenever she finds one that fits her personal and professional obligations. "The degree is a personal goal," she says, "so it can wait—but I also feel a professional need to help increase the number of Hispanics with advanced degrees."
Increasing recognition is bringing more public responsibility to Carmen Terrazas. In education the award of one big medal has always been sure to be followed by at least two little ones. When asked how she would handle more success and recognition if they came to her, she said, "Carefully and with respect." That day may never come but now she is steadily ascending, and she continues to be singled out and praised. Maybe never with more eloquence than by the student reporter who wrote in 1975, "It would not hurt if others at this school felt the way she does."