Reflections on Sonia Nieto

Dr. James Banks

Describing Dr. Sonia Nieto as “a highly valued and respected friend and professional colleague,” Dr. James Banks first approached her to request that she prepare a prepublication review of a chapter on Puerto Ricans in the United States in his book, Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies (first published in 1975 and now in its 8th edition). Jim notes that her 17-page external review of the chapter was “extensive, engagingly written, and enormously helpful”—he was very impressed by her “diligence, attention to detail, and incisive mind.” Also recalling a memorable conversation with her over coffee at an annual American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference during which he encouraged her to write a multicultural education textbook, Jim describes Sonia’s initial hesitation and insistence that another book in addition to his own was not needed in the field at the time. Needless to say, he affirms the important contribution her book (written a few years later) as “one of the seminal and most widely used textbooks in the field of multicultural education, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education” (1992, now in its 6th Edition [co-authored with Patty Bode]). Jim notes that “in addition to being a scholar of first-rank, Sonia has a strong commitment, unique experiences, and extensive knowledge about educating students from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups.” He explains that she “has made and continues to make original, pivotal, and incisive theoretical and research contributions to research, policy, and practice.” Characterizing Sonia as “a brilliant, compassionate, original, and diligent scholar who is strongly committed to social justice and educational equity,” Jim summarizes the “influence of her work in the United States and nations around the world [as] enormous and pathbreaking.”

Dr. Patty Bode

Patty BodeDr. Patty Bode describes her mentor, long-time friend, and co-author, Dr. Sonia Nieto, as an “enduring influence on [her] life as an educator, in addition to being a lifelong, loyal, and steadfast friend.” Patty adds that Sonia has been her “academic advisor and guiding mentor intellectually, professionally, and personally” and that becoming her co-author on Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education has been “one of the greatest honors [she has] experienced.” Characterizing Sonia as “courageously determined,” Patty notes that her “tenacious commitment is evident in her determination to ensure equitable public education for all children—especially those whose educational journeys have been impeded by institutional racism, [who] are dedicated to maintaining their home languages while learning English, and [who] have been marginalized by social structures.” Furthermore, Patty cites the “fierce hopefulness that Sonia infuses into the lives of teachers” as one of her most significant accomplishments. She notes that throughout all of Sonia’s writing, she “leads teachers to maintain hope against a backdrop of political struggles and social strife in public schools.” “[B]y urging teachers to preserve the ideals of public schools as a site for full participation in a democratic society while transforming teaching to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable children, [Sonia] sustains teaching as a political and optimistic endeavor.”

Dr. Anaida Colon-Muniz

Dr. Sonia Nieto’s former student and long-time friend, Dr. Anaida Colon-Muniz, describes her greatest accomplishment as “giving voice to the students and teachers…not speaking for them, but using her ‘in’ with the academy to allow others to hear the voices of the most marginalized students and the most critical teachers—multicultural, bilingual, elementary, secondary, special education, alternative programs…you name it.” Anaida notes that Sonia “has given a perspective or lens from which to recognize and affirm difference in the United States.” Describing her close friendship with Sonia of more than 35 years, Anaida explains that “through the good times and bad, nurturing their children, and caring for their elders, watching their kids grow, loving their spouses, having sisters—they have shared it all.” Noting that “tears come to her eyes” as she writes about Sonia because she has “used her gifts of writing beautifully and clearly to be able to capture the experiences of those whose voices are typically silenced, whether because they are entrenched in an educational system that represses their voices, or because sociocultural and economic conditions have robbed them of the opportunity to stake their claim to any sort of privilege to be heard.” She notes that her friend is a student of Paulo Freire, “who was always concerned with the most oppressed peoples,” and that she has been “true to that philosophy of education as a path towards personal freedom and agency to help create a better, more just and humane world.” Anaida adds that Sonia “put into the hands of teachers and teacher educators, as well as school administrators and faculty, realistic tools for how to approach the changes that are needed to move us into a public education that truly serves the needs of our millions of students from all backgrounds and who live in every sort of American reality, from rural to urban, rich to poor, black to white.” She explains that the “sanity and sustenance of our nation is at the center, and that Sonia is working hard to prepare us to do the work that needs to be done.” Characterizing Sonia as a “real live rock star,” Anaida notes that “she signs autographs and takes pictures just like someone from Hollywood!” Even though Sonia is “more famous than most people, the best part is how she always greets, always hugs, never shuns anyone, and always tries to make an effort to connect with people, help them, mentor and support them…especially young scholars.”

Lydia Cortés

Lydia Cortés shares humorous stories about growing up with her younger sister, Dr. Sonia Nieto, in Brooklyn, recalling that Sonia kept her side of the room impeccably clean and was usually the teacher’s pet. She explains that their parents came to New York City from Puerto Rico and notes that although Sonia liked school, it was difficult “to start school speaking Spanish alone and having to learn English without ESL [English as a Second Language support] or bilingual classes since there weren’t any.” Lydia also describes the significance of Sonia earning a doctoral degree as “an achievement for her as an individual as well as for their proud family… especially since their father had only been able to stay in school until 4th grade because of family obligations; their mother stayed in school until graduation from junior high school.” Lydia adds that “besides being very intelligent, friendly, sympathetic, generous and kind, even as a child, [Sonia] has always had the determination to be involved completely with anything she undertakes to resolve.” Lydia notes that Sonia’s colleagues are “frequently amazed at her output, the number of publications she continues to produce, the numerous presentations given continuously nation-wide and even in different parts of the world, [and] the mentees she still takes on and supports.” Lydia captures her sister’s essence starting with the word family, noting that her “family has always been a key focal point in all her endeavors and achievements. When family members are in the audience at one of her presentations, in fact, she never fails to proudly recognize [them].” Lydia is very proud of her sister, as noted, ultimately describing her as “loving, caring, kind, generous, smart—brilliant[ly] smart—patient, untiring, problem solving and beautiful.”

Alicia Lopez

Describing her mother, Dr. Sonia Nieto, as “her best friend,” Alicia Lopez explains that she “always has her back and is her biggest fan.” “Even though [they] still have the mom/daughter dynamic,” Alicia can “tell her anything” without fear of judgment. Alicia describes her mother as “her role model,” considering “with just about everything—would she approve, be proud?” Noting that “most people know [her] mother as down-to-earth and extremely accessible, which she is with the public always,” Alicia adds that “she has a princess-y side,” which includes not pumping her own gas, and she “is a clothes hound, never missing an Eileen Fisher sale.” She also cites her mother’s most significant personal and professional achievements, explaining that “Papi and Mami, [her] grandparents, would be so proud to know that their ‘Sonita’ had affected and inspired so many educators, and that she had influenced multicultural education in the way that she has.” Alicia adds that “she has come a long way from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but she has never forgotten her roots and continues to be proud of them—which also inspires many people.” Alicia describes her mother as the “most generous person [she] knows (aside from [her] dad)” and explains that she “is generous [not only] with her resources, but also with her time. She will take anyone out for coffee or lunch who wants her advice, and she has mentored hundreds of educators.” She adds that her mother has been “generous over and over again with her family, giving of her time and energy” to her children and grandchildren, and that she is “kind, but strong about her beliefs. She is also generous and accessible to so many people in her personality and in her scholarly work.” Although she is Dr. Nieto, Alicia knows that she prefers “Sonia.”

Dr. Maddie Marquez

Maddie MarquezCharacterizing her friend of more than four decades, Dr. Sonia Nieto, as “a highly intelligent, articulate, and respected educator,” Dr. Maddie Marquez explains that Sonia “offers ideas about equity, social justice, and democracy that some may find unfamiliar, challenging, and even provocative.” Maddie notes that Sonia strives to “ensure that the historically voiceless are heard clearly in our national dialogue about today’s meaning of ‘a more perfect union,’ and to make more readily accessible and acceptable the centrality of equity in education.” Adding that it is “challenging to live one’s principles,” Maddie describes Sonia’s commitment, actions, and optimism—her “life exemplifies those foundational principles about which she so often speaks and writes.” While acting “in support of a more just society,” Maddie notes that Sonia “preserv[es] her curiosity about and enthusiasm for all that life has to offer—never becoming disillusioned or doubtful about the future” and counts among her “vast network of friends and colleagues to whom she offers her warm smile and warm embrace individuals from a variety of communities, cultures, social classes, and viewpoints.” Explaining that Sonia and her husband and partner, Angel, treat “each [friend and colleague] like an esteemed guest in their home,” Maddie shares her appreciation of the “vast reservoir of traditional Puerto Rican generosity, enthusiastic welcome and plates of food…[that await] the many who push open their beautiful front door,” adding that the fare now includes 21st century vegetarian options too. Although Sonia’s “circumstances many have changed over time,” Maddie notes that the “centrality of family and friends remains unaltered” in her life. Friendship for “those lucky enough to be close to [Sonia]…has meant bold actions followed by dinner parties; national conferences that include bargain hunting and other such agreeable and gratifying activities; as well as being engaged in actions meant to give others sustaining hope and encouraging support.” “For these reasons and more,” Maddie explains that Sonia “remains [her] dearest friend.”

Dr. Luis Moll

Dr. Luis Moll describes his long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Sonia Nieto as “Sonia, La Elegante (the elegant one) [because she] always looks like a million bucks,” adding that “along with that elegance is a kind and wonderful person with a strong and staunch, if not fierce, commitment to educational equity for students, especially the poor.” Noting that he speaks with Sonia primarily in Spanish as he is also from Puerto Rico (San Juan), Luis recalls once asking where she is from in Puerto Rico, and that she answered laughing, “de Brooklyn.” His response: “That will do.” He adds that he always greets her at conferences with “Cómo estás, mama” (“How you doing, mama?”). Luis describes his friend’s most significant accomplishments as her “advocacy for and support of teachers, and her dynamic and passionate views of teaching, especially in terms of developing a culturally relevant and intellectual potent pedagogy for students.”

Angel Nieto Romero

Explaining that although many recognize his wife, Dr. Sonia Nieto, nationally and internationally “for her work as a teacher, lecturer, and author” and that they “know her books and her prizes and achievements,” Angel Nieto Romero notes that not many people know her as “a private person, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and an involved member of her community,” [adding] that he would like to write “a little about those other accomplishments.” Recalling their first meeting 50 years ago while Sonia was studying for her master’s degree in Madrid, Angel explains that “the moment [he] saw her on a train going from Madrid to Cuenca ([his] home town), he fell in love with her.” He adds that “this love continues today stronger than ever,” writing that “Sonia has made [him] very happy and [he] hopes she loves [him] in the same way.” “With a wonderful ‘joie de vivre,’ Sonia always has a smile on her face and she enlivens a room as soon as she enters,” Angel explains, noting that “even on the street, other women stop to tell her that she is beautiful and elegant.” Characterizing her as “a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother to their 12 grandchildren,” he explains that “everyone counts on her to help solve problems or [they] ask for help, and she always comes through.” She is “very loving of her family, generous, and thoughtful. She knows the personality of each of their daughters and grandchildren very well.” Angel also describes her as “intelligent, smart, and knowledgeable,” adding that “you cannot run out of things to talk [about] with her.” Also dedicated to staying fit, Sonia “walks every day at least two miles, does yoga and Zumba, and loves to dance to Latin music”—she is “an excellent dancer.” Also fun-loving and “open to anything that has to do with art and music,” Sonia enjoys spending time “with friends or family, going to restaurants, the ballet, concerts, and the theater.” In addition to her “dedication to her family, the profession, and the community,” Angel cites her commitment to “social justice, antiracism, and community involvement” and to her students as among her many admirable traits. Angel captures the essence of Sonia, explaining that “she is [his] ‘compañera,’ friend, and the love of [his] life.”

As a former teacher and as the father of a current teacher, Angel honors the work that teachers do, as is evident in this poem he wrote.


Ser maestro es                                                                                                                                      ser padre, hermano, amigo, compañero,                                                                                  confidente, enfermero, constante consejero.                                                                                   Ser maestro es:                                                                                                                                Amar, apreciar, dar ejemplo,                                                                                                          respetar.                                                                                                                                          Perseverar, tener paciencia (y perderla),                                                                                     perdonar.                                                                                                                                          Aconsejar, empujar, dar amistad,                                                                                                  escuchar.                                                                                                                                      Explicar, aplicar, no dejarse derrotar                                                                                              apreciar.                                                                                                                                                    Tener                                                                                                                                                          caridad y compasión,                                                                                                                        firmeza y determinación,                                                                                                                  alegría y pasión                                                                                                                                    mucha pasión y                                                                                                                                        amor a esa locura                                                                                                                                que implica la creación.                                                                                                                     Ser maestro es:                                                                                                                                    Repetir, corregir, dar orgullo,                                                                                                               exigir.                                                                                                                                             Estimular, animar, ser humilde,                                                                                                     admirar.                                                                                                                                      Comprender, reprender, ser atrevido,                                                                                           imponer                                                                                                                                            Imaginar, moldear, tener ganas,                                                                                                      realizar.                                                                                                                                            Insistir, sufrir, tener humor                                                                                                               requerir                                                                                                                                             Hacer reglas y romperlas,                                                                                                                   no confiar en lo obvio,                                                                                                                      descartar lo cómodo,                                                                                                                            escapar de la rutina.                                                                                                                          Contestar y preguntar,                                                                                                                   siempre preguntar.                                                                                                                              No hacer caso al que dirán.                                                                                                           Dormir poco y soñar mucho,                                                                                                         soñar dormido, despierto soñar,                                                                                                   siempre soñar y                                                                                                                                       lo imposible buscar.                                                                                                                       Aprender, compartir, enseñar                                                                                                               y aprender una vez más.                                                                                                               Descubrir, formar, lograr                                                                                                                        y luego volver a empezar.

To be a teacher means                                                                                                                          to be a parent, a friend, a companion,                                                                                                 a confidant, a nurse, a constant counselor.

To be a teacher means                                                                                                                         To love, to cherish, to set an example,                                                                                                  to respect.                                                                                                                                               To push, to have patience (and to lose it),                                                                                          to forgive.                                                                                                                                                To advise, to persevere, to be a friend,                                                                                                 to listen.                                                                                                                                                  To explain, to apply, to not give up,                                                                                                   to appreciate.                                                                                                                                             To have charity and compassion,                                                                                            strength and determination,                                                                                                      joyfulness and passion,                                                                                                                   passion and love                                                                                                                                        for that madness                                                                                                                                 which implies creation.

To be a teacher means                                                                                                                         To stimulate, to encourage, to be humble,                                                                                       to reprimand.                                                                                                                                         To repeat, to correct, to instill pride,                                                                                                 to require.                                                                                                                                                To fulfill, to impose, to laugh,                                                                                                                to admire.                                                                                                                                               To imagine, to mold, to care,                                                                                                               to demand.                                                                                                                                             To persist, to struggle, to dare,                                                                                                             to understand                                                                                                                                        To make rules and to break them,                                                                                                     to mistrust the obvious                                                                                                                            to reject the comfortable                                                                                                                       to escape routine.                                                                                                                                 To answer and to ask,                                                                                                                            always to ask,                                                                                                                                           not paying attention                                                                                                                               to what people might say.                                                                                                                    To sleep a little and dream a lot,                                                                                                        to dream asleep,                                                                                                                                     and dream awake,                                                                                                                              always to dream and                                                                                                                            reach for the impossible.                                                                                                                    To learn, to share, to teach                                                                                                                  and to learn again.                                                                                                                               To discover, to shape, to achieve                                                                                                    and then start all over again.

Dr. Patty Ramsey

Ode to Sonia Nieto on the Occasion of her Retirement from the University of Massachusetts,  June 3, 2006

Preface: To honor Sonia on this august occasion, I wanted to write a poem for her – but quickly realized that not many words rhymed with “Sonia.” Well, there is one: “begonia” – hmm – a nice flower, but we all know that “Sonia is no begonia” – an iris perhaps or a willow tree but definitely not a begonia. So this poetic endeavor called for much improvisation and resulting rhymes are – well  excruciating at times, but that is sort of the point.

This ode is to you, my dear friend Sonia                                                                                          In honor of the 30 – or more — years that I’ve known ‘ya.                                                        We first met in Bob Suzuki’s class                                                                                                Both brand new grad students at UMASS.                                                                                    But who would have thought that fateful year                                                                           That after 3 decades you’d STILL be here.                                                                                   But, though you’ve stayed in one place, you’ve traveled far                                                   From lowly grad student to faculty star!

How did this all happen, one might ask.                                                                                    Well, explaining it all is no easy task.                                                                                             But I do remember one pivotal moment                                                                                   When perhaps all of this began to foment.                                                                                    We were eating at Atkins, and you gave me a look,                                                                    And said, “You know, I think I’d like to write a book.”                                                          “What a great idea!” I said with glee.                                                                                            And the rest – as they say – is histor-ee.

After months of writing and editing and much stress                                                             Affirming Diversity finally went to press.                                                                                    And the minute it was published – it took off like a shot                                                          And suddenly, my dear Sonia, you were “hot!”

Editors from all over began jostling and fighting                                                                   Trying to get you to do more and more writing,                                                                    “Please write us a book, or at least a chapter!”                                                                              And while each piece was received with great cheers and rapture,                                      Those greedy editors kept calling for more                                                                               While unfinished manuscripts piled up on your floor!                                                             And sometimes you felt that your brain was fried!                                                                      But, as you always do, you took it in stride                                                                                  And with fingers flying on those computer keys,                                                                             You met the deadlines with grace – if not ease!

When invitations to speak began to pour in                                                                                  We all knew your career was really soarin’.                                                                                       At colleges and schools all over the land                                                                                        Your lectures and keynotes were in great demand.                                                                          In fact there was a rumor that you got a call                                                                                   To give a talk on…American I-dol!

And you were asked to sit on many boards                                                                                     And received a number of dazzling awards.                                                                                 And just recently you were voted Queen for a Day                                                                        At the annual meeting of A-E-R-A!

Now everyone agrees that you’re a great teacher and writer                                                   And for progressive causes you’re a real fighter.                                                                             And of course you’re committed and idealistic.                                                                            But just for a moment…let’s be realistic.

We all know that social justice is not your only passion                                                         There is the small matter of your — love of fashion?                                                                     In fact they say that “Wherever Sonia goes                                                                                Follow her to find the best sales for clothes!”                                                                                 I’ve even heard talk — I can’t recall where                                                                                About giving you the endowed Eileen Fisher chair.                                                                   And there’s a store in Amherst – the name starts with a Z                                                           When they see you coming – they shout “Yippee!!”

Now I truly do admire your skills as a dresser                                                                              But there’s one little thing that I need to confess here.                                                              Sometimes your elegance puts me down in the dumps                                                      Because next to you – we ALL look like frumps!

Well, Sonia, you’ve had a brilliant career                                                                                      You definitely have hit the stratosphere.                                                                                      And now you’re retired you can take to your wings                                                                    And go on to do even greater things!                                                                                              But wait! There’s a problem ‘cause YOU want to slow down                                                          And how to do THAT and still get around                                                                                      To all the events and meet the demands                                                                                         Of your thousands of ever-adoring fans?

So here’s an idea that I’ve thought about, Sonia,                                                                           We just find someone who’s able to — clone ya’.                                                                            So then you can give speeches all over the place                                                                         But no longer have to rush and race                                                                                                 To write the talks and deliver them too.                                                                                        And we would all get to see MORE of YOU.                                                                                 And you’d never have to leave your favorite seat                                                                           At Judie’s on North Pleasant Street!

So enjoy on your retirement, my dear friend,                                                                              May your career – and your happiness – never end!

Love,                                                                                                                                                            Patty