Margarita Electra Rivas Huantes
Pioneer in Literacy Education
Margarita Huantes was an educator, a social worker and powerful literacy advocate. As the founder of the San Antonio Literacy Center, she worked tirelessly to provide access to literacy programs, especially among Mexican Americans living in the Westside.
She was born Margarita Electra Rivas on March 21, 1912, in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, Mexico. Her parents were Octaviano Rivas and Maria Reyes. Her family named her Margarita because March 21 was also the birthday of celebrated Mexican President Benito Juárez. However, her father didn’t want to name her Benita, so he decided to name her after Juárez’s wife Margarita.
Margarita was the fourth of five girls: her older sisters were Aida, Magnolia, and Angelica; her younger sister Oralia was born in Texas. Her family moved to San Antonio when Margarita was an infant and settled in the westside. Her father worked as a tailor and music teacher, and they lived at a few different locations on South San Saba street. It seems that her mother died at some point before 1920, as Octaviano is listed as a widower in the 1920 census. Margarita attended Navarro elementary, where she became close friends with another future educator, Arcadia Hernández López. She then went on to Lanier Junior High and Main Avenue High School (now Fox Tech). After high school graduation in 1929, she enrolled at Westmooreland College, a junior woman’s college that was part of the West Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (later the college was merged with Trinity University in 1942). It appears that by 1930 her father may have passed away also; her sister Aida became the head of the household in the 1930 census. She worked as a seamstress. Her sister Magnolia became proprietor of the tailor shop, Angelica became a kindergarten teacher.
Margarita earned a degree in education. She taught briefly at an elementary school in Martindale, Texas, then at the Presbytarian School for Mexican Girls (called Pres-Mex) in Taft, Texas, in about 1933. The school was founded in 1924. At the time, Mexican Americans were segregated from their Anglo peers in separate schools and neighborhoods. Their education largely emphasized industrial skills rather than college preparation. The curriculum at Pres-Mex included academic as well as vocational training, along with a heavy emphasis on biblical studies. Margarita taught Spanish, mathematics and history, and served as first director of the school’s kindergarten program. She also became active in the Presbytarian church, supervising youth groups and directing bible schools in area churches. While she was teaching, she earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939, and she became a U.S. citizen in 1941.
In 1943 Margarita moved to Austin to work as director of religious education activities at the Austin Presbytarian Theological Seminary. Then she moved back to San Antonio in 1946 to teach at St. Mary’s Hall, and to attend graduate school at Our Lady of the Lake University. While at the university she met her future husband Santos Huantes at a local dance. She then transferred to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Ohio,where she earned a master of science degree in social administration in 1948. That same year she and Santos married on September 30.
After graduate school Margarita once again returned to San Antonio to work at the Girls Club. She then became program director at the Mexican Christian Institute (now the Inman Christian Center) at 1214 Colima Street. Here she organized educational and extracurricular activities for at-risk youth, along with English language and citizenship classes for adults. She and Santos lived above the center. Margarita served as a social worker and case director at the same time as she directed the program, and many young people remember her influence. Her niece, Josephine Arredondo Holden, remembers when her friend Ernesto Gomez (who would become head of Centro del Barrio) said that if it wasn’t for Margarita, he would have been in jail. He had been a gang leader, but Margarita helped lead him out of that life. Bob Garcia, who would later lead Head Start and Communities in Schools (CIS) in Brazoria County, also credited Margarita with changing his life. In an article in the Brazosport Facts, he notes that she handed out hugs along with learning; he remembered how they not only learned English, but got to go to concerts and the zoo. He was inspired “to be like Margarita Huantes, to give back to kids in the way that I was.”
“My biggest accomplishment is that I think I have been able to keep the problems of illiteracy in front of the public for years.”
--Margarita Huantes, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News, 1990
"She had a heart made of gold."
--Arcadia Hernández López