With a Presidential Appointment, An Erstwhile 'Slow Learner' Proves She Lacked Only English—Not Brains

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 13, she was considered the classroom dunce. Her I.Q. tested out to 64, and her schoolmates mocked her as a "yellow bird," or slow learner, in her border school's slang. But in adulthood, Guadalupe Quintanilla proved everybody wrong. At 32, she became a cum laude college graduate. She had a master's degree in Spanish literature at 34, a doctorate in education five years later. She became the University of Houston's assistant provost two years ago, and last June, at 45, she was named by President Reagan to the National Institute of Justice Advisory Board. (The board meets four times a year and makes recommendations to the institute concerning federal policies on criminal justice and law enforcement.)

"Sometimes it seems like another person lived my life before now," says Quintanilla, who's called "Lupita" by family and friends. Quintanilla was an infant when her parents divorced, so she was reared by grandparents who eked a living from the soil in San Luis, a tiny village in Mexico's interior. Life was primitive: There was no electricity or running water, and Lupita recalls scrubbing her clothes on riverbank rocks. Despite haphazard schooling, she showed unusual promise. She remembers that as the top student in her fourth-grade class, she was given the honor of carrying the national flag in the school parade.

Lupita's classroom problems began after she and her grandparents joined other family members in Brownsville, Texas. Because she neither spoke nor read English, she tested poorly and was put back to the first grade among Anglo pupils less than half her age. "I was dumb all of a sudden," she recalls. "I knew I would never carry the flag again." Crushed by the jeers of other students, she dropped out of school after six months.

Acceding to her grandfather's wishes, Quintanilla married a man twice her age when she was 16. By 21, she was the mother of two sons and a daughter. She became resigned to living her life just as she found it—until her kids started attending school in Brownsville. To her horror, she found that they, too, were being labeled slow learners. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "I knew they couldn't be yellow birds. I had accepted the idea that I was, but they—never."

Again, the problem was language: Quintanilla's children heard only Spanish spoken at home and thus had a hard time adjusting to English-speaking classrooms. To help them, she resolved to return to school herself to learn English. But with her meager formal education, she met only rebuffs. Finally she staked out the car of the registrar at a local community college and convinced him to give her the chance she wanted. Freshman English was just one of several courses Quintanilla tackled.

She made up for lost time with a vengeance. While studying at the community college, she enrolled at Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas, where she earned a degree in biology in just three years. Her marriage became a casualty of her single-minded drive; she separated from her husband and moved to Houston with her children. There she began graduate studies at the University of Houston, defraying costs with jobs as a student grader and instructor. "I had a goal—I wanted my children to be successful," she explains, "I wanted to give them wings, but I really didn't have a plan. It just happened."

And how! While accumulating advanced degrees, she taught Spanish at the YWCA, authored textbooks, and devised special Spanish courses for the city police and fire departments. As assistant provost, her responsibilities range from curriculum development to community relations. Framed behind her desk is a sign that reads: "Yestur day I cudn't spel coleg studnt. Today I ar wun!"

Even though her dedication and remarkable determination have brought a measure of personal success, Quintanilla remains most proud of her family's accomplishments. Son Victor, 27, is a recent graduate of Houston University's law school, where daughter Martha, 24, is currently enrolled. Mario, 26, graduated from the University of Texas medical school in Galveston and is now in residency in Waco. And Mom will be sworn in by President Reagan on Nov. 4. The yellow bird has flown.

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