Arizona minority women leave exceptional contributions

Maria Urquides greets two of La Frontera's "godparents" at the La Frontera Center building dedication.  Arizona Daily Star file photo taken 01/09/83 by Joe Vitti
Maria Urquides greets two of La Frontera’s “godparents” at the La Frontera Center building dedication. Photo courtesy of Arizona Daily Star

Having greatly improved the lives of those around them and at times elevated entire communities, the women listed below are Arizona women of color who have, locally and nationally, made history. From Northern Arizona to the Southwest, many of these women are educators, others community activists, and most do both.

Maria Urquides (1908 – 1994)

Maria Urquides, a Tucson native, was an educator known as “the mother of bilingual education.” In 1968 – 10 years prior to Urquides’ retirement – the Bilingual Education Act passed, which served “as the first official federal recognition of the needs of students with limited English speaking ability,” according to the National Clearing House for Bilingual Education. Throughout her career, Urquides’ bilingual pedagogy helped students at many schools including Davis Elementary School and Pueblo High School, where she taught for periods of time, noted in a 2015 article published in the Arizona Daily Star. Urquides mobilized bilingual pedagogy outside of the classroom as well. In her lifetime, several U.S. presidents appointed Urquides to serve on national committees and conferences attending to civil rights, youth, and of course, education, according the Arizona Daily Star. Urquides’ lasting influence on bilingual education in widely recognized.

Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910 –1997)

Born in Arizona, Annie Dodge Wauneka was the first female to serve on the Navajo Tribal Council, according to Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. Wauneka is nationally recognized as a public health advocate who dedicated a great portion of her time combatting incidences of tuberculosis throughout the Navajo Nation, which is concentrated in Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico. The reservation experienced high rates of tuberculosis for a period of time and at the time of Wauneka’s election into office – “200 cases of tuberculosis on the Navajo Nation” were reported in 1955 – according to a 2011 article published in the Navajo Times. In addition to completing public health research, Wauneka provided health counseling to Navajo families and relayed public health information to the Navajo Nation via radio broadcast, according to Frontiers. Among many awards, Wauneka received the Medal of Freedom given by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, according to the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame. Wauneka also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arizona for her work in public health that improved the lives of many.

Vernell Coleman
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Vernell Coleman (1918-1990)

Known as “Mother” Coleman and “Mayor of Projects,” Vernell Coleman moved to Phoenix in the late 1940s and spent 40 years mobilizing and caring for her neighbors to collectively improve the quality of their lives in the Matthew Henson Housing Project, according to the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame (AWHF). For a city of its size, Phoenix had the third highest poverty rate (17.6 percent) in the country in 2013. In addition, 41,983 Arizona households receive federal rental assistance, according to Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. Coleman’s work was steeped in recognizing and mobilizing the needs of those whose needs are widely unacknowledged. Organizing a tenants’ council, later organizing a strike, and constructively reporting crime are actions initially taken Coleman to improve her neighborhood. Coleman also held city leadership positions including, “a commissioner of the Leadership and Education of the Advancement of Phoenix (LEAP)” and “area chairwoman and council treasurer for the Phoenix Human Resources Department,” according to the AWHF.

jahumada image
Photo courtesy of Josefina Ahumada

Josefina Ahumada 

Josefina Ahumada’s long line of activist work began at the Los Angeles County Health Department when she was 6-years-old. Ahumada, accompanied by her mother, volunteered at immunization clinics in the early 1950s amidst the polio epidemic.

While in graduate school at UCLA, Ahumada was a member of Comisión Femenil, a feminist organization. Along with other members, Ahumada “wrote a grant and developed a child care center for working women.”

In 1975, Ahumada moved to Tucson and has since mobilized GLBT rights, women’s rights, and Latino rights in Southern Arizona. In addition, she has served as state chapter president and national treasurer for the National Association of Social Workers.

Among many events and rallies organized, Ahumada’s community involvement includes her work at the Pima County/Tucson Women’s Commission, Wingspan, Southside Presbyterian Church, and Planned Parenthood, to name a few.

Ahumada currently holds the position of field education coordinator at Arizona State University School of Social Work.

“The beautiful thing about working with people is walking alongside people, sharing what you know, watching that person develop and find their own sense of power, find their own voice, and then they go and do what they need to do,” Ahumada said. “Activism that helps facilitate others empowerment – that’s the beauty of it.”

Tani Sancheztani.sanchez

Tani Sanchez is an associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, one of the founders and past members of the Tucson Chapter Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and a past member of National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Sanchez’s grandmother, Mary Wright Euell, was an active member in the National Association of Colored Women’s Club in the 1950s and 60s. Euell’s involvement generated Sanchez’s interest in the organization.

“I became involved because it was an organization that allowed her [Euell] to be an activist in many ways to agitate for issues of black women and black people and it was a time period when black women were joining groups and making these really strong associations to try to change American society,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez earned a doctorate in Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies and has taught classes in African American history, hip-hop cinema, and African American women’s history, to name a few.

“What I like [about teaching] is introducing students to the theories, the people who have researched it, and I find that they’re able to match it to their experiences or they’re able to use it to extend their experiences and their understanding,” Sanchez said. “I think one of the best things about being at a university is having access to different ideas.”

Kassandra Manriquez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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