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Mary Esther Bernal (1935-2022): Champion of bilingual education

Mar 15, 2022

Mary Esther Bernal (BA 1956, MEd 1973) was an early champion of bilingual education, a fierce advocate of dual language instruction when speaking Spanish in Texas schools was against the law.

A gifted pianist, Bernal taught choir in San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) and did so with a creative flair for her Mexican American students.

“She would use tunes that were common in Hispanic culture, but she would use English words to teach (the students) music,” her son, Patrick Bernal, told the San Antonio Express-News. “So she wasn’t allowed to use Spanish. But she could relate to them in the form of music.”

Bernal died of natural causes at her home on March 10. 

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music at Our Lady of the Lake College, she met her future husband, Joe Bernal (MEd 1954). As a state Senator, Joe authored the first Texas bilingual education act in 1969.

“In every step of the way, there were people who tried to stop it,” he once told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “You could be spanked or taken out of the classroom for speaking in Spanish.” 

Mary Esther served two terms on the SAISD Board of Trustees. She received numerous honors for her work as an educator and civic leader, including: induction into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Hispanic Heritage Hall of Honor.