When María Torres-Guzmán walked into a room, you felt her presence immediately. María lit up any space she walked into, whether a friend’s home, one of her graduate classes at TC, a 4th grade classroom, a dance party, or an conference session. María didn’t look for attention; it just naturally came to her. I suppose it was her enthusiasm for life, the way she embraced it in spite of all its warts and imperfections, that drew so many people to her. We were lucky to be in her orbit.
In my remembrance of María, I choose to focus on the totality of what she brought to this world. Yes, of course, she was a stellar scholar who relished discussing the knotty issues of the day, including inequality and injustice and the promise of education for liberation. Her scholarly contributions to our field are more than a testament to her intellectual commitment to these concerns. I think I met María at an AERA conference, probably in the early to mid-1980s. In fact, I had been at an AERA conference in 1980 to present my dissertation research and I swore never to return. I found it to be an alienating environment for several reasons, not the least of which was the almost total absence of scholars of color and people who shared my scholarly interests. At the time, AERA was almost exclusively White and male. It was an intimidating space where, I decided, there was no room for people like me. I returned only because of María: in 1989, she told me she would be receiving the AERA Early Scholar Award from the Committee on the Role and Status of Minorities in Educational Research (now the Committee of Scholars of Color in Educational Research) and she sent me an invitation to attend the reception where she would be honored. It was an inspiring event, not only because my friend María was receiving this prestigious award, but also because I met other scholars of color who were doing exceptional work. I finally felt I belonged. I credit María for helping me see that perhaps AERA was a place for people like me. Except for the years where I’ve been on sabbatical, I’ve returned to AERA every year since.
But María was also fun. She exuded playfulness and joy. There were so few Latin@s in AERA in those early years that María, ever the organizer, along with Luis Moll, Estebán Díaz, and a few others, decided to organize a Latin@ party at the conference. A party at AERA was unheard of in that staid, serious, scholarly space, but María was undeterred. With her partners-in-crime, they organized the first AERA Latin@ Party, which for the first several years was held in the suite of the Executive Director. He had agreed to host it but obviously didn’t know what he was letting himself in for: the party grew from a couple dozen to hundreds within a few years. I remember María and the others sneaking food and drink up to the suite (only food catered by the hotel was allowed), choosing the stairs for part of the trek so they wouldn’t be noticed. Imagine not noticing a bunch of Latin@s with cartloads of food trying to be unobtrusive – impossible! The party was always a joyous event and, from the start, it attracted not only the few Latin@s at the conference, but also our Black, White, and other friends. It had a typical Latin@ flavor: food, dancing, lots of talk, and cariño. It’s still the only party of its kind at AERA and it has endured. Now in an off-site venue, it attracts hundreds of people, Latin@s and friends. It’s probably the most multicultural event at AERA. Attendees at the conference probably wonder why there’s a Latin@ party in the first place – there’s no such party for other groups at the conference – and this is where it started. I think of María now dancing in heaven and organizing a Latin@ party there as well.
In those early years when Latin@s were a rare sight at the conference, and Puerto Ricans were nearly invisible, especially Puerto Rican women, María was also instrumental in organizing another event that has become a yearly staple: The Puerto Rican Women’s Brunch. One year, probably in the early 1990s at another AERA conference, María, Ursula Casanova, and I met for brunch, as we tried to do whenever we were at a conference together. We had a great time catching up, as we always did, and I suggested we start this as a yearly tradition. I remember people laughing at us when we shared the idea: “But you’re the only Puerto Rican women here!” they would say. That probably wasn’t completely true; I think Carmen Mercado, María Fránquiz, Iris Olmedo, and perhaps a few others were there in the early years, but there hadn’t been any organized activity for us. I offered to organize the first official Puerto Rican Women’s Brunch at the next AERA conference. We saw this not only as a great way to get together with other Boricua women but also as a way to mentor young scholars. The yearly event (now organized by Sandra Quiñones who volunteered to do so a few years ago) now attracts upwards of 25 women a year, sometimes fewer and sometimes more, but it’s a far cry from 3 lonely Boricua women looking for a space to honor our compañeras at AERA.
As we honor María for her intellectual brilliance, let’s also remember her love of family, friends, and colleagues, her spirit of solidarity, and her joyfulness. And let’s remember María sneaking up the stairs at an AERA conference bringing food to the Latin@ Party, dancing, singing, and celebrating life.