Rosario Anaya. Photo courtesy of Mission Language and Vocational School.

When budget issues plagued the San Francisco Unified School District in the early-80s, former San Francisco Board of Education member Rosario Anaya’s vote would decide one of two things –  across-the-board salary cuts for members of the teacher’s union, or eight teachers would lose their jobs.

“The union was very powerful – you knew better than to go against them,” said Ray Sloan-Zayotti, a former public policy advisor and the Acting Chair on the board of the Mission Language and Vocational School (MLVS).

He remembers Anaya as a ‘beacon of truth and justice,’ explaining that back then, she voted to protect the eight jobs at the expense of the well-organized union – a move that not only jeopardized her popularity, but also cost her the union’s backing.

“It was her principle–she saw that it was the right move, knowing very well the heavy burden she was going to carry as a result of it,” said Sloan-Zayotti.

Compassionate and firm in her convictions – Anaya’s life is marked by such stories. The longtime leader in education and immigrant advocacy died of lung cancer on August 5, at the age of 70.

Hand-appointed to the San Francisco Board of Education by former Mayor George Moscone in 1977, Anaya left a legacy that was fondly recalled by those who witnessed her efforts to improve the lives of immigrants, children, and the poor, through education.

“She was a constant flame perking in the community day and night, giving hope and guidance and a sense that things will work out,” said Sandy Close, executive director at New America Media and a longtime friend to Anaya. “People trusted her — not exactly a characteristic widely shared (in politics) at this point.”

An immigrant from Bolivia, Anaya was born in 1944 in the old Andean city of Cochabamba and immigrated to the United States with her family in her late teens. She did not speak English when she arrived in Oakland — a struggle that would shape her life’s work and became one of the links that she had with the community.

“She understood what that meant to come from a different Latin American country, to learn English, to figure out how to work and live here successfully and to demonstrate courage within that struggle,” said Daniel Brajkovich, interim director at MLVS, the vocational institution that she oversaw as executive director for over four decades – up until her death. “Rosario was not dissimilar in that way to the community she served.”

As the first Latina to serve on the San Francisco Board of Education and also the first Latina elected to public office, Anaya entered the city’s political landscape at a contentious time. It was 1978 and voters approved California Proposition 13, the statewide proposition that limited the District’s capacity to secure locally generated funds.  Already, students scored alarmingly low on achievement surveys and over her 12-year tenure on the board Anaya, who also served for two terms as its president, did her best to raise scores.

“It was always 4-3,” said Carlos Cornejo, who served as San Francisco Unified School District’s interim superintendent in 1985-86, referring to the board’s division at that time.  “What she wanted were additional services – computers, after school programs, tutoring services. She was the one asking question after question to make sure what we were proposing was going to be workable for all kids – but especially for the poor children, because they didn’t have that leveled playing field.”

Those questions included why certain communities and schools weren’t making it.

Cornejo remembers a time when Anaya questioned why qualified teachers were being assigned to the outer periphery of the city instead of the inner city, where expert educators were desperately needed.

“Most politicians and members of the board were talking favors only,“ said Cornejo. “She was misunderstood because they thought she favored bilingual education – they were not sold on the concept and tried to brush her aside and make other deals.”

But Anaya proved unwilling to cave to political propositions that did not align with her vision of improving education for the disadvantaged.  “‘I’m sorry you can’t see it, but I see it,’ she would say,” added Cornejo.

Her positions often left her alienated from City Hall.

Jill Wynns, commissioner on the Board of Education and former president of the San Francisco Parents’ Lobby, recounted that Anaya was not afraid to go against her political alignment in order to “do the right thing.”

A strong supporter of Robert Alioto, SFUSD superintendent from 1980-85, Anaya acted on concerns from the Parents’ Lobby, which discovered that SFUSD was one of the few big school districts that did not require an evaluation of its superintendent.

“The superintendent completely opposed the Parents’ Lobby, and he asked his supporters  including Rosario – not to vote for an evaluation,” said Wynns. “But she broke with him on that and voted for it, because that was the professional thing to do.”

After losing the election to the School Board in 1990 for what would have been her fourth term, Anaya focused her full attention on the Mission Language Vocational School (MLVS), where she served as executive director since 1973.

It was there that Anaya focused on offering a foundation for thousands of immigrants and non-native English speakers to learn the vocational and language skills needed to enter the workforce.

“Rosario was one of those people that opened doors for people like me – if she could get elected and do what she was doing in the 70s, before anybody else was doing it – then it was possible for someone like me to be successful today,” said District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who worked with her on securing funding for MLVS over the years.

The as executive director, the school became Anaya’s life’s work – she hustled for funding, challenged her staff to push themselves beyond their own capabilities, personally counseled her students and strived to create programs that would ensure employment in an ever-changing job market.  

“Rosario was a visionary who felt that education with a purpose was a great equalizer. She had the ability to believe in people more than they believed in themselves,” said Brajkovich, who referred to her leadership methodology as “the Rosario mindlock.”

“She had the unique ability to ask in a very everyday tone to accomplish and unreasonable request – she knew in her mind that she asked you to do something that maybe you didn’t think you could do,” he said. “It was accountability. She saw something in each of us and had the courage to ask.”

The school’s philosophy, cultivated by Anaya, includes teaching immigrants several subjects at one time, implementing language training that focuses on a vocation, not just language.

Moreover, Close pointed out that Anaya – who on the board of New America Media for 20 years –  “was really one of the first in the Mission’s predominantly Hispanic community to … really reach out to the Asian and African American communities.”

“I think that her experience on the School Board gave her a sense of connection with the entire city,” added Close.

Some of Anaya’s accomplishments include establishing the Latino Cuisine Culinary Academy, which has educated about 8,000 students since it started in 1998 – some of whom are now spread out as instructors and trainers in other vocational programs. In addition, she implemented training programs in the clerical and medical assisting fields. Some 300 students enroll at the vocational school every year.

“The ripple effect of Rosario’s work is felt in the tens and thousands of lives she touched over a 40 plus-year span,” said Brajkovich. “It’s multi-generational, and when you talk about building a Latino middle class here in San Francisco’s Mission District, who could possibly have had a greater empowerment factor than Rosario?”

A public memorial service is scheduled to be held on September 19,  from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Mission Dolores, 3321 16th St., San Francisco.

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