Segregation broke spirit of students
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 5, 2005

Cary Aspinwall

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 Gilbert?

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 English well.

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.