CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Mary Helen Berlanga is more than a name, she is a strong presence.
“She is amazing to our teachers and our students. She also makes it a point to give every single student on our campus a Christmas gift,” said Mellissa Clearman, principal of Mary Helen Berlanga Elementary.
The school opened in 2011 and serves 496 students. About 98% of them are Hispanic.
“Oh my gosh. I've got a school named after me? I thought I had to die first. It is a beautiful school and I just love the children. I feel like they’re all mine,” Berlanga said in a conference room from her Corpus Christi law office as she reflected on her life and career.
Berlanga served for 30 years on the state board of education, where she fought for books of Hispanic representation to be included in Texas schools.
“I wanted to make sure that we included the Hispanics that had fought at the Alamo, that had fought alongside David Crockett and all the rest who were on the American side, and they refused to accept them,” said Berlanga.
Her parents, Ruben Bonilla and Maria Ramirez were born in Mexico, making her a first-generation American. Berlanga's three brothers all once served as president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. One of her sisters wrote a book on World War II Hispanic veterans called “After the Blessing''. All eight Bonilla siblings were born and raised in Calvert, Texas before arriving in the Coastal Bend in 1960.
“The community where we lived, there were a lot of Germans and other groups with different kinds of roots, but my father would always say, ‘Be very proud of who you are and where you come from,’” Berlanga said. “I think Hispanic heritage month is a time where we can reflect upon all of those Hispanics who have done great contributions to America.”
Berlanga's law practice focuses on immigration services and supplemental security income. She describes her work as "very rewarding." Her clients are both English and Spanish-speaking.