Mexican Independence Day is also a day of celebration in many binational communities. But one elementary school is celebrating more than just the holiday.
On Friday, La Mirada Elementary, part of the San Ysidro School District, celebrated 21-year-long employee Juanita Nuñez. As a pre-k teacher, she teaches more than 300 students weekly among five different schools. Recently she was chosen as the Teacher of the Year out of the entire County of San Diego.
For the celebration Nuñez dressed in traditional Mexican garments, along with her students.
“This award means a lot to me because I went through a lot growing up as a child of migrant parents,” said Nuñez.
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As a child, Nuñez traveled back and forth along the California coast wherever her parents could find work in the fields.
“So being in different schools. Being the new kid. Always trying to catch up. Learning the language of English. I was in a bilingual program and I believe you are valued when you speak two languages and know about your culture,” she said.
Nuñez's experience as a migrant student has shaped who she is, she said.
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“I know that when you have a heart and you teach it with compassion, you transform their lives. Generations and generations. And so to me, working in San Ysidro has been amazing because I come from a border town, Calexico, so I relate to these students in my community,” said Nuñez.
Her connection to the kids is obvious as students were calling her name on the playground. She teaches STEM classes, physical education and recently incorporated mindfulness.
“They’re smiling. They’re incorporating and doing the activities. They’re building. To me that’s the special moment, that’s the 'aha' moment,” said Nuñez.
She and her four siblings, now all educators, loved to read anything they could get their hands on.
“The encyclopedia gave me the curiosity of learning and always since I was a child I wanted to be a teacher. So I would get my dolls and roleplay, that I was a teacher and I had great mentors. I remember my teachers dressed so beautiful and they would smell so nice,” said Nuñez.
One of the most challenging times in her career was navigating the pandemic and virtual learning for her kids. Many parents struggled to figure out how to keep their jobs while caring for their children learning at home.
But also in her personal life, she was devastated. Her mother died from complications due to COVID-19.
“I was transparent. I was real and true and I cried. We cried. I lost my mom during the pandemic. Showing the tears show that I’m human and that I have a heart, so I connected with the kids even more,” said Nuñez.
That connection kept her going through the lowest moments, so she could enjoy the happiest, like winning the Teacher of the Year award.
After winning San Diego County's Teacher of the Year, Nuñez will advance to the California Department of Education's state competition held in Sacramento.