Segregation broke spirit of students
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 5, 2005
Margaret Bernal Sepulveda is part of Gilbert's history.
Sepulveda grew up in Gilbert, not far from the water tower in the Heritage
District. She met her future husband outside Liberty Market.
She was forced to attend the town's "Mexican School" for two years as a
child, because of her Hispanic heritage. Nevermind that she spoke English
better than she spoke Spanish, and that her family had been in Arizona for
generations. Gilbert's schools were segregated until 1949, and her parents,
Ray and Adela Bernal, were instrumental in petitioning the district in 1947
to begin desegregating the schools.
Question: What do you remember about those years at the Mexican School?
Answer: Our Dad didn't like it, and we didn't like it. The officials
insisted we had to go there to learn English, but English was our primary
language. If you spoke Spanish at the school, you were hit by the teachers.
It really broke your spirit. My brother, Ramon, told me that he would ask
the other students questions because the teachers wouldn't explain anything.
So he started taking his papers home to Mom to ask her how to do things. I
was only 6, and I didn't learn anything there. Our parents transferred us to
Queen of Peace Catholic School in Mesa until Gilbert was desegregated.
Q: Did you experience any racial tension or discrimination growing up in
A: My father was a successful businessman, he had a hay-baling and trucking
business. A lot of Mexican people were intimidated by the Anglos. He wasn't
intimidated. I didn't have problems in school really, because I could speak
(English) well and my skin was lighter. But I know a lot of kids did, and it
made me sad. The other kids would make fun of those who couldn't speak
Q: What role do you think Gilbert's Hispanic population has played in the
town's history and its development?
A: My grandparents, Clara Granillo Bernal and Ramon Bernal Sr., settled in
Gilbert in 1915. There were a lot of people who had their own businesses,
very successful. A lot worked in the town's big business: Hay. My Aunt Taffy
(Estefana Bernal) had a beauty shop in downtown Chandler, and my grandfather
had his own business in Tempe.
Q: What are your other memories of growing up in Gilbert?
A: We lived on 2 acres east of the Liberty Market in an adobe home. My
grandparents lived down the street on a farm, with citrus and apple trees,
cows and horses. My brothers had to help with the farm chores, but I didn't,
thank goodness, because Dad didn't think girls should do farm work. I was in
the choir at St. Anne's Catholic Church. I got married there too in 1958 (at
its original location downtown, before it moved to 440 E. Elliot Road). The
Catholic Church was our social life.
Q: Why did you choose to move back to Gilbert?
A: After my husband, Manuel, retired from the U.S. Air Force, he gave me a
choice: His hometown (Miami) or mine. We had lived in Phoenix for 36 years,
but it was getting too big. Well, I picked Gilbert because a lot of my
family is still here. It is a different Gilbert now. But every now and then,
when I am driving around to do errands or get my hair done, I get excited
and feel like a kid again because a lot of it is just the same.