In 1969, when María Cerda became the first Latino member of the Chicago school board, some news stories called the University of Chicago-trained social worker a “housewife” who would advocate for “Latin” students.
Mrs. Cerda not only lobbied fiercely for the Latino community, but she also adroitly navigated City Hall with her strategic alliances and powerful speeches.
Mayor Richard J. Daley put her on the Board of Education.
She was an early supporter of Harold Washington and sometimes warmed up crowds before his speeches. When he was elected mayor, he made her director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training.
Mrs. Cerda died Sunday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from the coronavirus, according to her children Marta and David Cerda. She was 86.
Her daughter and her husband of 60 years, David Cerda, 93, who was the first Hispanic judge in Illinois and the first Hispanic judge on the Illinois Appellate Court, also have been infected.
“I have COVID, my father has COVID,” their daughter said. “So we have to do just an outside burial. It’s very sad that we can’t have a memorial right now. It is cruel.”
“There’s going to be a great emptiness,” Mrs. Cerda’s son said.
While on the school board, Mrs. Cerda was a strong advocate of bilingual education. To make her point, during one Board of Ed meeting, she switched to Spanish, repeatedly addressing other board members in the language she spoke growing up in Lares, Puerto Rico.
“The board members said, ‘María, we can’t understand you,’ ’’ her daughter said. “And she said, ‘That’s exactly the point. How can you learn if you can’t understand?’ ’’
In 1974, she delivered an impassioned speech to the board in which she said that, because of inadequate funding, thousands of Spanish-speaking students were “sitting like vegetables in classrooms,” unable to comprehend their lessons.
In response, the board immediately directed then-schools Supt. James F. Redmond to add $1 million to the $2 million bilingual education budget. He said he’d find the money.
That same year, she spoke during an interview with Studs Terkel on WFMT about the importance of fostering cultural pride among all schoolchildren, saying: “To tell that child, everything you are is wrong, we have to make you over again into something, and your language is not right, the way you eat in the morning, the way your parent dresses and acts is not right, the way he observes, goes to church, is not what we would like to see. . . .after we tell him all these negative things, we expect this child to open up and start learning something new. And I think very few survive that.”
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Illinois, lauded Mrs. Cerda for her work to improve funding for bilingual education and called her “a pioneer and trailblazer for the Latino community. As the first Puerto Rican woman and first Latina appointed to the Chicago Board of Education, Cerda was a pioneer in confronting and addressing educational inequalities affecting the Latino community.”
“She was absolutely inspiring,” said Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), who also grew up in Puerto Rico. “To come to Chicago and meet a woman with an accent just like the one I still have today — and she never lost it, either — and to be so influential, for a little guy coming from Puerto Rico, what else could I ask for?”
After leaving the school board in 1974, Mrs. Cerda helped found and lead the Latino Institute, believed to have been the city’s oldest Hispanic research organization.
It lobbied for improved housing, business development and job training, the organization became an incubator for Latino talent, helping its staff go on to run other not-for-profit groups.
Mrs. Cerda jetted to New York to consult on Spanish-language issues for public television’s “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” as a member of a national bilingual advisory council for the Children’s Television Workshop.
President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the National Center on Educational Research.
At City Hall, while running Washington’s jobs office, she helped a young community organizer lobbying for an employment retraining center, according to Mrs. Cerda’s children — Barack Obama.
“She was very loving and caring,” her son said. “A lot of staff members ended up calling her ‘Mom.’ ”
In 1985, Mrs. Cerda — who, like all Puerto Ricans, was a U.S. citizen — reported that a U.S. immigration agent approached as she prepared to enter the city building where she worked and asked where she came from.
Agents “were stopping dark-skinned people and asking, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen? What is the nature of your business here?’ ”’ she said at the time. “I was shocked that that could happen in America, that they could question people who come to be served in a public building.”
“I said, ‘I think what you are doing is illegal, and what you are asking is none of your business,’ ’’ she said in a Sun-Times story. “And one of them said — and it was frighteningly like something on TV — ‘I’m just doing my job.’ ”
Washington’s outrage over the incident contributed to Chicago’s continuing reputation as a sanctuary city. He announced he would ban citizenship questions for city employment and, in most cases, prohibit City Hall from helping other government agencies to investigate citizenship status.
Taking note of that, Garcia said of Mrs. Cerda: “While her professional accomplishments are well known, the role she played in turning Chicago into a sanctuary city also deserves recognition.”
After Washington’s death, Mayor Eugene Sawyer fired her from her City Hall post, spreading word that he wanted to build his own team. But the move angered some community leaders.
Mrs. Cerda also helped establish Aspira of Illinois, an organization to groom Hispanic children for college that has broadened its mission and now operates government-funded charter schools.
Born María Bacilisa, she was a studious child who grew up in a huge extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. Her mother Magdalena Rodriguez Gonzalez was the 10th of 20 siblings. Her father Luis Rodriguez was the ninth of 17 children.
He ran a successful haberdashery that sold men’s shoes and clothing, which contributed to her pride in always being well turned-out, her son said: “She never left the house unless she was well-dressed, with matching shoes and purse.”
After obtaining a psychology degree from the University of Puerto Rico, she came to Chicago in 1958 to work on her master’s degree in social work. She found friends at Holy Name Cathedral and through her work at Hull House, her daughter said, and was a public aid caseworker.
In 1966, she marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Marquette Park, according to her son.
In 1969, she told the Sun-Times she met her future husband when she filed a complaint about the police harassing young people she’d been working with through Hull House. David Cerda, who as an attorney had been hired to represent one of them, interviewed her about what happened.
“She was beautiful, gorgeous, intelligent, good-natured,” her husband said. “I wanted to get to know her.”
They raised their family at 90th and Bennett.
“He loved playing ‘Maria’ for her from ‘West Side Story,’ ” their daughter said.
He’s of Mexican heritage, and the power couple sometimes marched together in the city’s Mexican and Puerto Rican parades.
“She was an influence to both Puerto Ricans and Mexicans,” Maldonado said. “She embraced both cultures.”
In 1979, she worked with a DePaul University Hispanic alliance as the Blue Demons were about to go to college basketball’s men’s Final Four.
“My mother, who had had no interest in sports, suddenly became an astute observer of basketball,” her son said. “She would watch the game and say, ‘That’s a foul,’ or ‘They should call a timeout.’ ”
Her other interest in sports was that she loved the Pittsburgh Pirates because of Roberto Clemente, their Puerto Rican superstar.
In addition to her daughter and son, she is survived by another son, Arthur, her sisters Carmen Bongiovanni and Hilda Irizarry and three grandchildren.
Contributing: Manny Ramos