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Focus on Faculty: Dr. Maribel Lárraga

Maribel Lárraga got her miracle with the help of a nun, a priest, a professor and a mother with a third grade education.

When she came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 13, Maribel did not know a word of English. Today, she has three college degrees. While growing up in Harlingen, Maribel could barely see beyond high school. Today, she’s in her 17th year of teaching at Our Lady of the Lake University. Her English-speaking students are not only learning a new language, they’re dreaming in Spanish.

“That’s my greatest joy,” she says.

Her story unfolds like a rainbow after a storm, aglow with heavenly color. It begins with a daring escape from Vera Cruz, Mexico. It winds across the border and settles in the Rio Grande Valley, a mother taking a job as a seamstress to support Maribel, her two younger sisters and brother. It continues with Maribel learning a new language, succeeding in school and dreaming of a life as a nurse.

The story turns when a high school friend suggests Maribel consider Our Lady of the Lake University. She arrives in fall 1989 and changes her major to Spanish. She forms a bond with a Sister of Divine Providence, finds favor with professors, graduates in three and a half years and aches for a job to support her family. Dr. Antonio Rigual, former professor of Spanish and OLLU administrator, advises and strongly guides her to pursue a doctorate in Spanish. A priest further intervenes and gives her a one-way plane ticket to Albuquerque, N.M.

“Don’t come back,” said the Rev. Msgr. Balthasar Janacek, “until you have a PhD.”

When Maribel returned in 1997 – with a master’s and a doctorate – a providential opportunity awaited. The retirement of her former Spanish professor and mentor, Dr. José Miranda, created an opening on the OLLU faculty. Dr. Lárraga accepted a position teaching Spanish, and Dr. Miranda gave her the key to his old office in the Fine Arts and Humanities building, Room 214.

Four years later, Dr. Lárraga became chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Mexican American Studies. She brought a profound understanding of Mexican and Mexican American culture, literature, language and history to her students. As an undergraduate, Dr. Lárraga traveled with two of her favorite mentors to the La Junta de los Ríos, old Spanish settlement, in the border towns of Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Chihuahua and throughout colonial Mexico to research colonial Missions for the OLLU Special Collections which is housed in the Center for Mexican American Studies. Those mentors, Msgr. Janacek, better known as “Father Balty,” and Sister Maria C. Flores, CDP, PhD, professor of history and Mexican American Studies, made an immeasurable impact.

“Father Balty used to take me to formal dinners he would attend as the director of the San Antonio Missions,” Dr. Lárraga says. “He became an important part of my life as a spiritual and professional adviser. Sister Flores became my adviser, friend and most authentic critic and supporter. Whenever I need a straightforward, honest opinion, I know I can count on her.”

The journey from trepid teenager to professor and program director is steeped in persistence and providence. The catalyst was an uneducated woman, Amparo Lárraga, a mother of vision and fierce determination. Amparo wanted her daughters to have what she didn’t: an opportunity to learn and grow and develop talent and skill.

“The main reason Amparo knew she had to move was because our father did not believe in having ‘the girls’ continue our formal education beyond secondary school, the equivalent to middle school in the U.S.,” Dr. Lárraga says. “He was a nice man, highly educated, gracious and a great sense of humor, but he really believed that we would be better off getting married and having a man take care of us as he did with my mom. When mother decided to bring us to the U.S., most of our immediate family, including our grandfather, disowned our mother.”

Years passed. Amparo’s oldest daughter started college. Maribel’s younger sisters, Ana and Haydee, followed her to OLLU. More time elapsed. All three sisters earned multiple degrees. Today, Ana is pursuing a PhD in history at Texas Tech and Haydee serves as the director of guidance and counseling at La Feria Independent School District. Their brother, Roy, earned a bachelor’s degree and teaches bilingual education in Harlingen.

Amparo? She endured hardship and heartbreak and sacrificed much for her children to fulfill her dreams. And now her oldest, Dr. Lárraga, is telling her students in her elementary Spanish classes: “When you begin to dream in Spanish, let me know, because that is a breakthrough for me.”

Her students have broken through – and so has her mother. Amparo remarried and had another son, Eric Garza, who is a couple of classes away from completing his bachelor’s degree. “My mother is happy and is very proud of all of us,” Dr. Lárraga says.

As the Lárragas prospered in the U.S., relatives in Mexico began to let go of their anger.

“As the years passed, the disappointment that my maternal great-grandmother, grandfather and father felt either faded or disappeared,” Dr. Lárraga says. “Years later, when I married Javier Segura, we went back to see our family. And Javier and I had our wedding in Mexico to honor all of them.”

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