By Jaime Margolis
When Elena De Peña was growing up, her parents emphasized the importance of a good education. Her father was a mechanic and her mother ran a grocery store in San Benito, Texas; De Peña said they set a good example for her and her siblings.
Born Elena Tamez, she and her sister Rosa wanted to be nurses after they graduated from high school, and their mother insisted they follow their dreams. They attended George Peabody University in Tennessee, where they received training in public health.
"We were the first Spanish-speaking students in nurses training. We had to prove ourselves," De Peña said.
She transferred to Incarnate Word College and earned a degree in public health nursing. And in 1942, she married Hector De Peña.
During World War II, she entered Corpus Christi's school of nursing, where she became a registered nurse. She worked for the State Health Department in Corpus Christi, as well as earned her master's degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
After the war, she noticed more Spanish-speaking teachers and professionals.
"They were just as American as any other American here. We might have been a little darker, but that didn't make any difference. What mattered was what we had to offer," she said.
Children of post-war families with two professional, bilingual parents had opportunities her peers didn’t, De Peña added.
"They had advantages growing up that we didn't have. We (as parents) were able to give them an education ... and they can achieve all their goals," she said.
Her children have gone on to success: Hector Jr. is a county judge, Carla has her master's degree in counseling and psychology and Charles is a neuroradiologist.
Mrs. De Peña was interviewed in Corpus Christi, Texas, on August 18, 2001, by Erika Martinez.