Fresno County trailblazer, first Latina to run for supervisors seat loses battle with ALS

Photo courtesy of Tom Uribes

It was rare to see many Latinas pursuing higher education in the 1970s, but it wasn’t uncommon in those days for Theresa Perez to be seen with her children at the library, or in class at Stanford University working toward her doctoral degree.

Perez, who ultimately became the first Latina to run for Fresno County’s Board of Supervisors, was an inspiration and role model to many, according to those who knew her.

It was around that time when Clovis resident Juan Garcia, who occasionally still teaches at Fresno State, met Perez while attending Stanford. He was in his mid-20s, Perez was in her early 40s.

“I always wondered how she did it,” Garcia said of Perez being a mother, being a leader and juggling a doctorate degree with her youngest children with her. “She does leave a legacy in terms of can-do attitude.”

Garcia and many others who knew her described Perez as a strong, determined woman who wouldn’t let obstacles get in the way of achieving what she set her mind to. As she strove to reach her goals, she inspired many others along the way, especially other Latinas.

The community activist died in her Fresno home from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on Jan. 13. She was 85, and had been diagnosed with the illness in 2011, her family said in her obituary.

She is survived by her husband, Manuel Perez, and six out of seven children the couple had together during their 66 years of marriage.

Fresno State President Joseph Castro has ordered university flags to be lowered Saturday in Perez’s memory, said spokeswoman Lisa Boyles. A moment of silence will be observed on the same day during the Chicano Youth Conference, which Perez played a major role in developing.

Sallie Perez Saiz, 55, is Perez’s fifth child. She remembers living at the Stanford campus with her two younger siblings and her mother. Perez Saiz was 13 at the time.

“I think that was normal part of growing up,” she recalled of attending classes with her mother. “My mom has just been a role model our whole lives.”

Perez Saiz remembers her childhood revolved around adult conversations, hearing about civil rights and taking part in finding solutions to community issues. She also remembers her mother always being there for students.

Frances Pena-Olgin met Perez around 40 years ago when she as a freshman at Fresno State. At that time, Perez’ husband, Manuel Perez, was the Educational Opportunity Program director at the university, and he later became Pena-Olgin’s supervisor.

Pena-Olgin and Perez became good friends.

In 1975, she ran for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, Pena-Olgin said. Perez, unfortunately, didn’t win the race, but taking the stance to run for public office and being Latina was unheard of at the time.

“When you think of the 70s, you don’t think of Latinos running for public office,” she said. “I just think she was an amazing person who accomplished a great deal.”

Pena-Olgin said Perez would overcome obstacles other people saw as barriers to getting things done.

Pena-Olgin described Perez as a “trailblazer.” Perez “really enjoyed working for the Latino community,” and doing what it was right for Latinos, she said.

Marina Magdalena, who met Perez in the 70s, said she was “an inspiration to everybody” in a time “when Latinos didn’t have a lot to say.”

“She wasn’t afraid,” she said. “ And I think that’s part of her legacy -- don’t ever be afraid of going after your dreams.”

Former Fresno State spokesman Tom Uribes met Perez in the fall of 1975 while he was a student at Fresno State, and working for the school’s Chicano students’ newspaper.

“She was active in the community ... taking on issues like affirmative action,” Uribes said. “She was certainly a champion of our community... She was also a role model for many Latinas.”

During the academic year of 1971-72, Alex Saragoza was asked to restart the La Raza Studies program at Fresno State. Perez was among the small group he hired to help get the program off the ground. The program later became the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department.

Perez brought many different dimensions to the program, Saragoza said, who then went on to the University of California, Berkeley, where he still occasionally teaches. She was a woman and a strong feminist, she was a mother and knew the Latino community in Fresno very well, among other unique contributions she brought to the table.

“She’s a huge loss to the community,” he said.

Saragoza choked up when he recalled Perez moved to North Carolina, in part, because one of her daughters was diagnosed with cancer. Perez ended up raising her grandchildren and starting a career in North Carolina, he said.

“That was so much of her character” he said.

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro