Born Manuelita de Atocha Romero (Mela) in Villanueva, New Mexico, Mela spent her formative years with her grandparents in Colonia, New Mexico. By the time she was four years old she could read Spanish, which she did by reading newspapers to her blind grandfather. She was a monolingual speaker when she entered school and, although New Mexico’s constitution prohibited discrimination against Spanish speaking students and encouraged teaching methods to work with them, she learned that reality was a different matter. Nevertheless, the intelligent Mela was a good student and went to college in Denver where she received a degree in sociology from Loretto Heights College.
A college counselor suggested that she consider majoring in education to become a teacher but Mela refused. Her mother was a teacher and Mela appreciated how much work that profession entailed. She wanted to be a social worker. Love and family, though, accomplished what the counselor could not. Back in New Mexico, she married and had seven children. She realized that teaching was her calling, if not her passion, so she enrolled at New Mexico Highlands University where she earned a teaching certificate and a Master’s degree. Once she began teaching, the passion came.
Perhaps harkening back to her early years reading for her grandfather and her own early education, bilingual education became her lifelong priority. Invited to Miami for a symposium about bilingual education, she learned of a pilot reading program designed to teach English reading to Spanish-speaking children. She brought the program home and adapted it to New Mexico.
She then traveled throughout the state; meeting with educators, lawmakers, and parents to convince them that bilingual education was good for their children’s future. In collaboration with the state’s leaders she developed guidelines that became state law in 1973 and remains so until the present.
Mela Lucero Leger taught in the classroom with young students as well as trained future generations of teachers in bilingual education. She directed the Teacher Training Center in Las Vegas. Later she trained teachers in her pioneering bilingual methodologies at the University of New Mexico.
In an environment that was full of adversity, Mela persevered. She developed model programs and became the cornerstone as well as anchor for New Mexico’s bilingual education. Her work was part of the cultural resurgence and recovery in New Mexico that has preserved the state’s multi-cultural mix. She contributed to the reinforcement of New Mexico’s sense of identity.