In November 2009, I had the privilege of attending the Thanksgiving play at the Rafael Hernandez School, a bilingual elementary school in Roxbury where Margarita Muñiz was the principal. This annual musical is a long standing tradition, and in 2009, the play was about Margarita’s life, travels and journeys as an educator in the Boston Public Schools.
The play chronicled her departure from Cuba as a young girl as part of the Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) children, her landing in an orphanage in Louisiana, her eventual reunion with her parents, her graduation from college, the beginning of her career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, and finally her directorship of the Hernandez school. It also included wildly funny times with all of us in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
It was magnificent to watch the total enjoyment on the faces of the students, from kindergarteners to eighth graders, as they played different aspects of the life of their world-traveled principal. Whether it was struggling to learn English in the orphanage, learning how to order food in Japan, or running from elephants in Zimbabwe, the children danced and sang their way through the script, both poking fun at Margarita’s demands during her travels and demonstrating compassion and understanding for the many cultures and countries she visited.
Besides the outstanding performances of the students who played Margarita, two things stood out for me: 1. the incredible love and devotion that Margarita’s students and staff had towards her, and 2. how the play demonstrated Margarita’s deeply rooted beliefs in education: that all children can reach high levels of literacy, that the arts are essential for a good education, and that family involvement is key for a positive school climate.
When I think about her beliefs (and mine) about what makes a good school, I will think of the Hernandez. This play was a wonderful tribute to Margarita, but more importantly, it was a tribute to the hard work of fantastic teachers, families, and students. I was proud to be involved in some small way.
Margarita Muñiz died on Friday, November 18, 2011. Just that Tuesday, Boston Public Schools announced the September 2012 opening of the first dual language high school- Margarita Muñiz Academy (MMA). It will be led by Dania Vazquez, who coached principals and school change teams for many years at the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE).
Margarita was one of the most compassionate, dedicated and insightful educators whom I have ever known, and I am grateful for her friendship and guidance. We realized somewhere in Zimbabwe on our Barr Fellows trip that we both shared a love for the same 19th century Spanish poet, Antonio Machado. This verse – one of our favorites – sums up much of who Margarita was:
No hay camino
Se hace el camino al andar
My clunky translation:
There is no path
We make the path by walking.
Margarita made new paths each and every day and I hope to honor her memory by doing the same. Margarita, te quiero mucho.