Blanca Burgos, 66, teacher at Hernandez School in Roxbury
When the Rafael Hernandez School opened as a bilingual public elementary school in the 1970s, Boston’s school department “was grabbing anyone who knew Spanish” to work in its classrooms, recalled Mary-Lynda Daley of Cohasset, who formerly taught there.
One of the new hires was Blanca Burgos, who had arrived in the United States from Guatemala at age 15, speaking no English. She was a young wife and mother of two who had earned a high school equivalency diploma when she began working as a paraprofessional, or teacher’s assistant, in the Roxbury school’s first-grade classes in 1974.
“Paraprofessionals for us were the voice of the community,” Daley said, adding that they were often the main source of communication between Spanish-speaking parents and their children’s teachers. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Mrs. Burgos took on a classroom of her own in the 1980s. She taught many grade levels and subjects before retiring in 2012 from the Hernandez.
“She was a stellar educator who could turn anything into a learning experience,” Daley said. “Blanca was like the Pied Piper — kids were attracted to her, they followed her. She always made learning a joyful and fun experience.”
Mrs. Burgos, who also taught in a bilingual program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, died of cancer April 24 in Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care in Milton. She was 66 and lived in Jamaica Plain.
“She was not only the voice for her students, but for their parents,” said her daughter Michelle,of Roslindale, who teaches fourth grade at the Hernandez School. “She was able to connect with them because she was an immigrant and also because she was a mom. She understood what it was like for them.”
Many former students stayed in touch with Mrs. Burgos until she died, including Oscar Santos, head of Cathedral High School in Boston. He was the third of five siblings in a family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who all learned to speak English and to read under Mrs. Burgos’s tutelage.
“Having Blanca for a teacher was really like having a parent in the classroom,” he said. “She was so loving, caring and supportive.”
He recalled her visiting his house and helping to arrange extracurricular activities for him and his siblings, and said she was “like a sister” to his mother. “She was an extension of our family, and of so many families in the community,” Santos said. “The beauty of Blanca was that she had lived it; she knew how important this was. She was so much more than a teacher.”
Born in Guatemala City in 1950, Blanca Alicia Obregon was one of nine children of Angel Obregon and the former Alicia Reynosa. When her godmother invited her to travel to the United States in 1965, she accepted.
“She left behind a whole life in Guatemala, and I’m sure many of you do not know that she was a great basketball and soccer player,” Michelle wrote in a eulogy. “She left behind secrets of a childhood — sneaking out at night with her sister Marina to hang out with friends, a deep intimacy with a grandmother who had a powerful character and belief in possibility. At the tender age of 15, Mami brought with her a kind of resolve that would inform the rest of her life.”
Mrs. Burgos and her godmother lived in California for a short time before settling in Roxbury, where the teenager took a data-entry job in lieu of attending high school classes.
“You didn’t have to speak English to work there, you just had to know numbers,” her daughter said of the Massachusetts Avenue company where her mother once worked. “And she was always very smart.”
Blanca soon “fell madly in love” with Luis Burgos, who was then a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Michelle said. They married in 1967 and eventually settled in Jamaica Plain, where they raised three daughters.
After Mrs. Burgos began working at the Hernandez School, she took classes at Roxbury Community College before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She received a master’s in education from Simmons College.
Former Hernandez School teacher Jim Carvalho of Roxbury, whose classroom was next to Mrs. Burgos’s, described her as a “marvelous, wonderful woman” who was known for her level-headedness and positive attitude, especially during difficult periods, such as the strife that resulted from court-ordered busing to desegregate the Boston public schools in the 1970s.
“At times things were quite hectic, but Blanca always approached everything in the calmest way possible,” Carvalho said. “And all her students loved her. She had such an impact on them.”
Mrs. Burgos worked even when school was out of session, teaching at a summer camp in Roxbury and through Project Alerta, a program founded at UMass Boston. Alerta holds classes for English-language learners before and after school as well as in summertime. Mrs. Burgos’s family said she helped organize many community programs, including Hispanic Writers Week, an annual UMass Boston event that brings Latino authors to Boston to meet with students.
After Mrs. Burgos retired, she volunteered in the city’s schools and devoted herself to hobbies such as reading, gardening, and cooking, especially Dominican dishes.
“The kitchen was the preferred spot in our home,” Michelle wrote in her eulogy. “It was the epicenter of abundance and intense emotion. It was a gathering place, the place to be, Blanca’s house and Blanca’s cocina.”
Dancing and singing in the kitchen was common. “Even when Mami’s cancer had progressed and began to weaken her, she’d muster up energy for one more song, one more dance,” Michelle wrote.
Mrs. Burgos traveled often, returning several times to Guatemala to visit family members, to whom she often sent money. “She always had to make a choice,” her daughter said. “Travel, or take that money and send it back home?”
A service has been held for Mrs. Burgos, who in addition to her husband and daughter Michelle leaves two other daughters, Rochelle of Brookline and Blanca of Jamaica Plain; seven siblings, including Marina Obregon of Guatemala City; and seven grandchildren.
“As a friend she was loyal, she was fun, she was always someone you could turn to,” Daley said. “And raising her children was her driving force. She was an amazing friend, educator, and mother.”