Natalia Ruiz remembers evenings spent at Victoria school board meetings, watching her mom advocate for equal education for Latino students in the 1980s.

Usually, she and her siblings were the only kids in the audience. The other school board members, all men, didn’t typically bring their kids with them.

Rojas' mom, Theresa Gutierrez, was the first Mexican American woman elected to Victoria’s school board. In her 12 years on the school board, Gutierrez said she learned repeatedly how important representation was.

“There has to be representation always,” Gutierrez, now 74, said about her time on the school district board.

Gutierrez was born in Victoria and spent most of her childhood in the city’s public school system, aside from a few years in Point Comfort. She went on to study literature and history at the University of Houston before returning to Victoria to raise her family. As she raised her six children, she became active in parent teacher associations, eventually being honored with “lifetime” membership in the statewide PTA coalition because of her work.

Gutierrez was first elected in 1984, less than a decade after both federal and state regulators had warned the Victoria Independent School District it needed to better integrate its schools or else risk losing state and federal funding and accreditation.

“There was nothing but white faces on the board,” Gutierrez said.

During her time on the board, Gutierrez said she was often, if not always, unpopular with some of her fellow board members and with members of the public. There was a few months, she said, where animosity toward her was so intense that she worried about her safety. But in all, Gutierrez found herself well suited to serving on the board and the intense scrutiny and debate that came with it. Eventually, after 12 years on the school board, Gutierrez was defeated by a well-funded challenger within her district.

Today, Gutierrez said she sees the same push for equality in education continuing in Victoria.

“The fight for equality is a constant battle,” she said.

This story was updated May 12, 2021 to correct Natalia Ruiz's last name.

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Ciara McCarthy covers public health and health care for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597. To support local journalism at the Advocate through Report for America, go to VictoriaAdvocate.com/report.

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Ciara McCarthy covers public health and health care for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. Questions, tips, or ideas? Please get in touch: cmccarthy@vicad.com or call 361-580-6597.

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