Teachers College Professor Emerita María Torres-Guzmán, a pioneer in the field of multilingual and multicultural education, passed away in early August at age 67.

“María’s life was about fighting for social justice, especially for ethnolinguistically marginalized groups,” said Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education. “Part of her legacy through the Bilingual/Bicultural Education program at TC was her social justice commitment to defend and promote linguistically minoritized groups’ languages, cultures and identities, and she saw bilingual education as important educational vehicle to support the learning of children from these groups.”

“María was a fierce advocate for her program and her students” who was “the face and the heart of the bilingual education program at TC, and always will be,” said A. Lin Goodwin, TC Vice Dean and Professor of Education.

[Read a departmental tribute to Torres-Guzmán]

María Torres-Guzmán

A PROGRAM'S FACE AND HEART Torres-Guzmán was the guiding spirit of TC's Bilingual/Bicultural education program.

During the early 1970s, as a faculty member at Wayne State University, Torres-Guzmán used funding provided under Title VII of the recently passed Bilingual Education Act to create one of the nation’s first teacher education programs in bilingual education. By 2011, when she received the American Educational Research Association’s Bilingual Education SIG Lifetime Achievement Award, she had become widely known for her insistence that culture is embedded in language and that therefore children learn best when they are allowed to think, read and speak in their native tongue as well as in English.

Children need access to all the resources they have in order to learn – and their home languages are a resource.”

– María Torres-Guzmán

“Children need access to all the resources they have in order to learn – and their home languages are a resource,” Torres-Guzmán said in an interview for the Teachers College Oral History Project in 2012. “You are really tapping on richer sources when you have bilingual education programs, because the child can become more expressive about their needs or what they know when you can understand them in more than one language. And at the same time, the children also are developing better and more varied skills in bridging worlds.”

And while she conceded that “the world is turning more toward English, because English is the language of the market,” Torres-Guzmán saw language as a two- and often three- or four-way street.

“I’m very pro-bilingualism and multilingualism – I don’t just see it exclusively for language-minoritized people,” she said. “I see it also as a very important thing for language-dominant and mainstream populations, because it does give them the resources for understanding new worlds and to become more flexible.”

Yet while while she applied her ideas to cultures ranging from the Maori of New Zealand to that of Bulgaria, where she owned a home, she also spoke and wrote frequently about her passionate commitment to la lucha – her ongoing struggle to advance the cause of the Latinx community and overcome its marginalization, both in American society and in the Americas.

I’m very pro-bilingualism and multilingualism – I don’t just see it exclusively for language-minoritized people. I see it also as a very important thing for language-dominant and mainstream populations, because it does give them the resources for understanding new worlds and to become more flexible.”

– María Torres-Guzmán

“We used to say that having lived anywhere in Latin America gives you a critical eye, because the tendency in a lot of Latin American countries and in many parts of the world is not to see the United States as the center, but to see the United States as a power,” Torres-Guzmán told then-TC doctoral student Estrella Olivares-Orellana in an April 2013 interview that appeared in the journal Esteem. From that perspective, she added, “even the fact that we speak our language in the schools is already a position of resistance, even when the curriculum is the same as the English curriculum.”

To describe the position of Latinx people and the Spanish language in American society, she used the analogy of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home.

“You go in and there is a dome, and you see the grandness of this place. But then you go out through the back and underground and you see the slave quarters. When I saw that, I was emotional about it, because when Jefferson talked about education for all, he was talking about all that were on the surface, above. What was underground, the slaves, were not included in his education. So if you take that as a metaphor, the publicly spoken discourse is not real. If you look at it from below, you know that it doesn’t include you.”


AMONG FRIENDS Torres-Guzmán receiving a lifetime achievement award at her retirement in 2013, flanked by fellow TC faculty members Patricia Martínez-Álvarez (left) and Carmen Martínez Roldan.

A Comparative Linguist at 11

María E. Torres-Guzmán was born in Puerto Rico in 1951, but came to the United States at age one with her mother, a seamstress, and lived in an Irish-Mexican community in Detroit, attending a Catholic school. When she was 11, the family returned to Puerto Rico, where Torres-Guzmán attended public schools and became the first member of her family to go to college.

“I became a comparative linguist when I was 11 years old,” she recalled. “But I also think that in doing that I became aware of cultural differences. Because I lived in the Mexicano community, I understood language variations very early, but language variations related to culture. My Mexican aunt spoke in one way and made foods that were very different and would speak about her culture in very different ways than what we knew at home.”

Yet when Torres-Guzmán returned to the States to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees at Stanford University, her formal concentration was in education and education anthropology because “bilingual education was not a real discipline or program. We were supposed to go into another discipline and then have bilingual education associated with it.” 

After completing her thesis on participatory democracy, parental attitudes and bilingual education, Torres-Guzmán worked in San Antonio, Texas as a parent educator specialist for the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), founded by the pioneering bilingual educator José Cárdenas, superintendent of San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District. When she ultimately chose to pursue a career in higher education, she later recalled, it was not to pursue a journey of intellectual self-exploration, but rather as an act of solidarity: “I had to do it in conjunction with the community.”

Even the fact that we speak our language in the schools is already a position of resistance, even when the curriculum is the same as the English curriculum.”

– María Torres-Guzmán

After teaching at Wayne State, Michigan State University and other institutions, Torres-Guzmán joined TC’s faculty in 1986 in what was then the Department of Languages, Literature and Social Studies. Shortly afterward, she ended up running the College’s program in Bilingual/Bicultural Education, soon shifting its focus from policy to teacher education, with a pathway to certification. 

“Rather than trying to influence public policy, María made a conscious decision to conduct her struggle by helping students to become reflective teachers who could, in turn, listen to their students’ voices and respond to their strengths,” says her long-time friend and colleague, fellow TC Professor Emerita JoAnne Kleifgen. “That was where her heart lay.”

Spotlighting Language Decision-Making

Among her many achievements while at TC, Torres-Guzmán and Ofelia García, then a TC faculty member and now at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, brought top scholars from six continents to TC for a major conference in 2004 – the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end school segregation and the 30th anniversary of its ruling that schools must provide “appropriate relief” for students with limited English proficiency. Highlighting the fact that the United States remained one of only two countries not to have signed to the U.N. Conference on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes language as a human right, the TC gathering focused on how local and global forces combine to affect decisions about education, especially the inclusion or exclusion of different languages.

Subsequently Torres-Guzmán, García and Tove Skuttnab-Kangas, then a professor at Denmark’s University of Roskilde, published a landmark edited volume stemming from the conference, titled Imagining Multilingual Schools: Languages in Education and Glocalization. (Multilingual Matters 2006). Many pieces in the book cast a particularly strong spotlight on the issue of indigenous languages. Or, as Torres Guzmán would say later, “We think only about world languages; we don’t think about indigenous languages or other local languages” or about “the role of teacher education in any of those programs. And that is a big problem in the world. How do you do bilingual education with an African language or a Pueblo language that is not written?”

Empowering Practitioners

Another major strand of Torres-Guzmán’s work was her long-term collaboration with local schools – particularly P.S. 165, a dual-language school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that hired many of her former students and where, for years, she led a teacher study group.

“The group was an opportunity to continue to grow and explore ideas, which teachers don’t always do day to day,” said Rebeca Madrigal (Ed.D. ’98), a former P.S. 165 faculty member who now teaches at Dos Puentes Elementary School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. “María made us feel like professionals and intellectuals – she brought us to conferences, she co-published with us, and she helped us to see ourselves as advocates for families, communities, schools, and for bilingual education itself.”

Victoria Hunt (Ed.D. ’09, M.A. ’84), the founding principal of Dos Puentes, adds that Torres-Guzmán “could see the day-to-day structures of a school as important in providing the benefit of using multiple languages and students’ cultures – but she also understood the larger implications of what it means to be a multilingual person – of how children see themselves, how communities see themselves, when they see language and culture as powerful.”

Ultimately, these ideas and Torres-Guzmán’s presence at P.S. 165 were instrumental in helping the school’s principal, Ruth Swinney, forestall a threatened closure by the state and, over a six-year period remake the school into a recognized leader and widely hailed model. As recounted in Freedom at Work: Language, Professional, and Intellectual Development in Schools (2010 Routledge), which she co-authored with Swinney, the larger take-away for Torres-Guzmán from this work was that rigidly standardized curricula driven by testing and assessments were choking the potential of schools, teachers and students.

“The work at P.S. 165 taught me that we ought to spend more time and effort on assisting children in understanding the knowledge we already have and in helping them make it their own,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “We can talk about standardization and accountability as a way of achieving equity, but we have ample evidence that the freedoms within the curriculum, what is taught and what is measured, are curtailed and the outcomes are greater gaps.”

Her contributions to research and practice notwithstanding, Torres-Guzmán may ultimately have been most treasured by colleagues and former students for her mentorship. On an informal level, and then more formally through panels at the annual meeting of AERA, she instituted a practice called testimonios, or the sharing of knowledge between older and younger Latina scholars. She also co-designed a mentoring program for the AERA Bilingual Education Research SIG and worked with the New Voices program of the National Council of Teachers of English. Beyond the many careers that they helped launch and sustain, these efforts helped create a space for Latinx scholars in the broader world of education research.

“AERA was almost exclusively White and male…an intimidating space where, I decided, there was no room for people like me,” writes Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a written remembrance of Torres-Guzmán. “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, 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.”

Yet Torres-Guzmán similarly sought to empower colleagues – even those who were not Latinx.

“Even though I was fluent in Spanish and had lived in Mexico for years, I was a white woman, and while pursuing my Ph.D. as a Title VII Fellow, I wasn’t always fully accepted by the Latinx members of my cohort,” JoAnne Kleifgen says. “When I spoke to them in Spanish, they often would respond to me in English. But María regularly spoke to me in Spanish. It was her way of inviting me into her community and saying, ‘We’re on the same team.’ I always appreciated that.”