Alicia Lopez ’91 Receives the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award from the Massachusetts Teachers Association

June 23, 2015
Alicia Lopez ’91 and her mom, Sonia Nieto

Alicia Lopez ’91 said she felt “proud, energized, humbled, excited, and happy” when she received the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award from the Massachusetts Teachers Association on June 19. Her mother, Sonia Nieto, smiled broadly from the audience. Twenty-six years earlier, she had received the same award.

“In some ways, it felt like I was closing a circle,” said Lopez, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English Language Learners (ELL) at the Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst, Mass. “But I also knew that I was in just the right place.”

As a teenager, Lopez would never have imagined saying such a thing. She was adamant about not becoming a teacher, partly because she had seen the challenges her parents faced. Her mother, now retired from the University of Massachusetts, where she taught in the education department, often spent long hours in meetings or advising students. Her father taught public school in Holyoke, Mass., where some of his students dealt with difficult situations such as teenage pregnancy or jail time. “I think it took a lot out of him emotionally,” Lopez said. 

When Lopez arrived at Wellesley, she felt as if a door to the world had opened. “Suddenly, I saw so many possibilities, and I felt a sense of female empowerment being among so many high-powered women,” she said. “I really found a home with Mezcla, where I found like-minded Latinas who were bicultural like me.” (Lopez’s mother is Puerto Rican, her father is Spanish. She grew up in a bilingual household.)

Lopez, who double-majored in French and anthropology, spent a semester in Aix-en-Provence, France, as a junior. After graduation, she planned to live in Paris for several months before finding a job in the United States.

A few weeks before her departure, Lopez and her mother heard Jonathan Kozol speak about his book Savage Inequalities, which examines the differences between school systems in wealthy and poor districts. “After his talk, I told my mom that I felt I needed to become a teacher after my time abroad,” she said. “It was like hearing a calling to the profession.” 

Lopez asked her parents to vet her first lesson plan when she was applying for her first teaching job. She also drew from their example as activists who incorporated civil rights lessons into daily life. “At home they always presented and talked about the perspectives of the people we often do not hear about—people of color, women, indigenous people, gays and lesbians,” she said. “It was just the norm in my house.”  

Lopez taught French for nine years in New York City before moving with her husband and three children to Amherst, Mass., to be closer to family. There, she taught Spanish for eight years, before switching to ELL three years ago.

Throughout her career, she has incorporated lessons about the importance of empathy and understanding other cultures. “When I started teaching, I’d tell my students about Quebec, and also about the Inuit people,” she said. “Or when I was teaching about Francophone culture, I’d have the students research Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other French-speaking countries. I knew how important it was for young people to hear perspectives that are different from their own.”

“Alicia is my inspiration not only as a daughter but also as a fellow educator,” said Nieto. “She is a gifted teacher who loves and cares for her students, from spending countless hours to create a meaningful curriculum, to using her own money to buy a bathing suit for a young girl who needed it to pass the school’s swimming test. In return, they love her and, more importantly, they work hard for her.”

As Lopez held her Lifetime Civil Rights Award, she said she felt honored, and more committed to teaching. “I want my students—even the most challenging ones—to know that I like them, I believe in them, and I hold high standards for them,” she said. “If they know that their teachers believe in them, and that they can achieve their goals even in middle school, maybe it will give them the confidence some of them will need to succeed in other ways.”

Learn more about Lopez through her blog, Maestra Teacher, or a recent profile in the Amherst Bulletin.