By KIT FASSLER
Margaret Zavala appears hesitant discussing her past. She never wanted to revisit the hardships she went through while growing up, but that changed after she got married and had children.
By sharing her personal stories, she hopes her children will follow a better path than her own.
Zavala now attends Pima Community College alongside her oldest daughter, Mariah Zavala.
“Some friends mistake us as sisters,” Mariah Zavala said. “We motivate each other to succeed in our classes and set a good example for my siblings at home.”
Margaret Zavala was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. Her grandparents were in the first generation of Fresno’s Pasqua Yaqui tribe.
“We were very poor,” she said. “Working in the fields became a priority to put bread on the table.”
Her single mother and her two older sisters worked in the fields while she attended elementary school. When she missed two weeks of school to help harvest crops, it was hard to catch up with class work.
The Pasqua Yaqui tribe wasn’t recognized by the federal government until 1978. There are 500 members of the tribe living in Fresno.
Zavala becomes emotional when she discusses Indian nations.
“Native American people suffered land loss,” she said. “They are struggling and they seem to lose their identity.”
Fresno schools grouped her with Mexican immigrants.
“I was regarded like other students, presuming that I don’t know English,” she said. “I already knew how to speak English.”
Zavala experienced racism and prejudice at an early age.
“If you are a migrant worker, they belittle you,” she said. “My classmates regarded me as a throw away.”
After her mother died when Zavala was 14 years old, she lived on her own and moved around a lot. She stayed in close contact with her sisters and managed to finish high school.
“I accepted failures and losses,” she said. “I pressed on and didn’t give up.”
Zavala moved to Washington state after high school and met her future husband, a military aviation mechanic of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent. After they married, Zavala’s life began to turn around.
They relocated to Tucson for her husband’s job, and Zavala became a devoted mother to four children. She raised them with high expectations for their lives.
“I was glad we moved to Tucson and started a new life,” she said.
Mariah Zavala, a runner with Pima’s cross-country team, remembers the importance her mother placed on learning to read.
“She read children’s books while I was still in her womb,” she said. “My mother emphasized the value of education, hard work, respect and faith in God. She inspired me to go to college.”
Her mother, in turn, is proud of her daughter. She is amazed that she joined the cross-country team as a freshman and had an opportunity to compete at nationals.
Margaret Zavala began further schooling after years of raising her children. She took dental assistant classes and also worked at the Pasqua Yaqui reservation for about six years.
“It was in these years that I thought of learning more about Pasqua Yaqui tribal heritage,” she said. “If I learn more, I’ll love my cultural heritage better.”
In Tucson’s early history, Yaqui families lived in the Gila and Santa Cruz river valleys. Seven communities formed, with Guadalupe established in 1880.
“My family belongs to the Guadalupe community,” Zavala said. “The tribal members are so welcoming to my family.”
Because her husband has little interest in Yaqui culture, she took it upon herself to pass her native heritage to her children.
Her children participate in many cultural activities, including the famous Pasqua Yaqui deer dancer Easter celebration.
This semester, Zavala’s class load includes Western Civilization. She attends with 19 other students majoring in anthropology, history and American Indian studies, and says she is inspired by her instructor, Randall Munsen.
Zavala stays in touch with her two sisters in Fresno, who applaud her choices and goals.
“It’s amazing that our sister Margaret continues to study,” Yolanda Barraza said in a telephone interview. “The moment she sets her goal, she is determined to reach it no matter how long it takes.”
The Zavala family lives on the northwest side of Tucson, and the children attend neighborhood schools.
Zavala taught her children not to be afraid or nervous and to never bow down. She wants her children to develop self-confidence, opposite from her journey.
Her happiest moments are being at home with her children as they help each other in their school work.
“My children are responsible and respectful,” she said. “They are smart.”
The journey continues for a strong mother like Zavala.
“I always advise my children not to forget the past,” she said. “Know who you are, where you come from and where you are going.”