During a time when most women, especially Hispanic women, were expected to stay home and raise a family, Macaria de la Garza Gorena did the unthinkable according to her community: she went to college.
Macaria attended Edinburg Junior College, now The University of Texas-Pan American, from 1937-1939. People were shocked when she enrolled at the two-year institution.
"They told my dad, 'You're going to let her study?' You didn't see that back then, but my dad said, 'She is going and that's final,'" Macaria said. "My father wanted me to keep going to school and he always got his way."
Macaria, now 92, has had a passion for learning since she was a child, and became a trailblazer for Latinas who dreamed of pursuing a higher education. Macaria further shared her knowledge as an educator for more than four decades as a teacher and special education advocate in Edinburg.
Born in 1919 in Ciudad Camargo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Macaria immigrated to the United States with her family when she was only 4 years old. Her father's twin brother encouraged the family to settle in Edinburg to lend a hand with their slaughter house and grocery store.
"My father saw the opportunities here and he wanted that for us," she said.
Macaria enrolled in Austin Elementary in Edinburg and though she knew no English she embraced school.
"I was always interested in learning. I was a very dedicated student," Macaria said.
Though she helped with daily chores at the family businesses, the precocious Macaria treasured her classroom assignments. Teachers with the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District (ECISD) spotted her willingness to learn and encouraged her to pursue a college education.
"I was the only one of 12 kids who continued going to school," she said.
After Edinburg College, Macaria went on to Texas Woman's University in Denton where she received her bachelor's degree in home economics education. She later returned to her alma mater, renamed Pan American University, and earned a master's degree in counseling and guidance in 1977.
"It's important to go to college to succeed in our daily living," she said.
Macaria married her childhood sweetheart and had five children, three boys and two girls. She began her teaching career in Falfurrias but ultimately returned to her hometown of Edinburg. During her 47 years with ECISD, Macaria taught at several campuses including Edinburg Junior High, Austin Elementary and Edinburg Intermediate School. She worked as a Spanish and classroom teacher, a special education instructor and retired as a visiting teacher in 1989.
She said special education students tugged at her heart. Macaria's job was to gather developmental and medical information and to plan an educational program for special needs children. ECISD pioneered the Special Education Program in the early 1940s and Macaria was a key member of the program's staff.
"I loved it. I talked to the teachers and counselors and made a plan for these students. I'd make my little notes and I would talk to the parents about the problems facing their children and we would decide together how they could progress and advance in their school work," she said.
Her daughter, Mariella Gorena, followed in her footsteps and graduated from then Pan American University in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in education.
She recently retired after 40 years with the McAllen Independent School District as a teacher and principal.
Another two of Macaria's children and a granddaughter also graduated from the institution: children Macaria "Caro" Gorena Palmatier (BS '74, education), and Daniel David Gorena (BA '85, government)(deceased), and granddaugher Kassandra Gorena (BS '11, biology with a minor in chemistry).
Mariella said her mother's vision inspired her, especially her unwavering commitment to secure scholarships for needy students.
"She's always been out to help children," Mariella said. "She helped to get monies at the state level to provide scholarships for students and even teachers in Mexico to get their master's degrees."
Macaria's dedication to education led to a distinct tribute last year when an Edinburg elementary school was named in her honor.
"We were elated because it's on her merits. It wasn't politics or doing a favor. She was acknowledged all on her own merits," Mariella said.
The longtime educator also touched many lives through her involvement in countless civic organizations. Macaria was part of Delta Kappa Gamma, Zonta Club of West Hidalgo County, the Pan American Round Table, United Methodist Women's Organization, and the UTPA International Women's Board. She was the first Zonta Shining Star for Education, and named one of the 100 Women of the Rio Grande Valley, and the Outstanding Woman of the Year in Edinburg. A master juggler of her time and responsibilities, Macaria also taught Sunday school at El Buen Pastor Methodist Church for more than 60 years.
"I tried to do it all," Macaria said.
In addition, the grandmother of seven has been recognized numerous times by the University, and will be inducted Feb. 17 into the UTPA Pillars of Success, a prestigious honor given to outstanding alumni. The University will celebrate the new inductees during its UTPA Alumni Ball.
Macaria credits much of her lifelong success to her education at the University.
"My main goal was to talk to my students and my own children and remind them about giving back and helping here at home," said Macaria. "Education and your family and community are everything."
Mariella said that strong sense of civic duty was instilled in her at a very young age.
"She told us you need to be a citizen of quality and you need to give back. It was an expectation just like education was a priority," Mariella said.
Having a groundbreaker in education paved the way for the entire de la Garza Gorena family.
"Mother made an impact on a lot of people. Her nieces and nephews, a lot of them went to school simply because she went to school," Mariella said. "We were taught to be productive members of society. We had to make something of our lives and give back. We were told to leave the world a better place than the way we encountered it."
Macaria clearly followed her own advice.
"Service is what my whole life was about," she said.