Times Past

‘Mother Teresa of San Luis Obispo’: Beloved teacher remembered as selfless advocate

An impromptu memorial popped up honoring former teacher Andrea Blanco at Laguna Middle School.
An impromptu memorial popped up honoring former teacher Andrea Blanco at Laguna Middle School.

The death of beloved San Luis Obispo teacher Andrea Blanco, 62, shocked and saddened many whose lives had been touched by her.

Nine straight student-organized evenings of storytelling about Blanco, a tireless advocate in the Latino community, singing and saying the rosary at Laguna Middle School ended Friday. People brought hundreds of lit candles. Fellow teacher Cathy Ahearn made her famed chocolate cookie dough cupcakes one night. Karla Zamora’s family made a big tray of tres leche another time.

Others brought donuts and water. Nobody seemed to want to leave.

Blanco started teaching at Bishop Peak Elementary School in the mid-1990s and went on to teach at Laguna and most recently Pacheco Elementary School.

Our friend Maria Albarran saw young men there with tears in their eyes. She cried, too. One evening two years ago, Blanco called her. She talked about how smart her son Luis was, about the week-long engineering camp at Cal Poly he should attend.

The Albarrans’ oldest child, also called Andrea, was studying premed at UC San Diego. Despite several scholarships and working part time, it was costing a lot. Blanco found camp tuition for Luis and 3 other boys.

Today, Luis is a sophomore in engineering at Chico.

great photo of Ariadna Maza Rodriguez and Andrea Blanco for TIMES PAST FOR June 23, 2019.jpg
Andrea Blanco with former student Ariadna Maza Rodriguez. Courtesy photo

Two years later, Jenny Chu got into the engineering camp thanks to Blanco. She helped her obtain her driver’s license. Chu says she wants to go to UC Berkeley like Blanco did.

Ariadna Maza’s world widened dramatically when she enrolled in the English learning program at Laguna.

“I was so grateful for the after-school homework program with Andrea Blanco, Barbara Adler and Cathy Ahearn because most of us couldn’t get homework done at home because of our home life, with two parents working, living in cramped quarters,” Maza said. “... Whenever Mrs. Blanco talked to me or to other students, she always ended with ‘I am so proud of you!’ She loved to recognize students’ successes.

“Mrs. Blanco helped me become politically aware and comfortable advocating for others.”

Last summer, Maza volunteered as a translator at Laguna, and she starts at Cuesta College this fall.

Blanco and her husband, Arturo, an engineer at PG&E who was born in Mexico, came to San Luis Obispo in 1990. Blanco was born in San Francisco where her father was a parole officer..

She attended Golden Gate University Law School there and worked with immigrants for Catholic Charities in Oakland. On weekends, she enlisted her husband’s help interviewing undocumented field workers, including her second cousin and his wife who milked cows. She wanted to assist them in getting their immigration papers processed.

Claire Grether was leading the Bishop Peak PTA when Blanco began volunteering there in the ‘90s.

“At Bishop’s Peak, Andrea worked tirelessly to provide these children with services including finding after-school volunteers to work with English language learners,” Grether said. “How kind and compassionate! I was glad to know Andrea.”

Andrea Blanco and Josat Castillo, 2015.jpg
Andrea Blanco and former English language student Josafat Castillo in 2015. Courtesy photo

A gentle gauntlet of stalk, deep blue, yellow and white flowers leads up to the Blancos’ front door when I visited for this article, a cluster of balloons nestled up to a telescope in the living room. The balloons where in celebration of her daughter Marisa’s 2019 master’s degree in business from San Francisco State.

Younger daughter Cristina is fluent in Arabic. She’s married to Ibrahim Shehu, a student from Nigeria whom she met while finishing a history degree at American University in Cairo.

“She saw the humanity in each and every one, no matter the background or culture,” Ibrahim said of Blanco. “I don’t know how she did it. She got you to open up and trust her and she wouldn’t judge you. Someday I hope to be half the person Andrea is!”

He added, “Someone at the vigil said, ‘Andrea is the Mother Teresa of San Luis Obispo.’”

Arturo said, “Andrea knew everybody has a good heart and good intentions, but not everybody understands the hidden poverty in San Luis Obispo.”

She was willing to show it to people.

The Blancos welcomed foreign students. Noriko Fukasawa of Japan stayed with them for nearly six years. Mari Ly, also from Japan, laughs about coming to Cuesta in 1997 to learn English and three years later speaking English with a Spanish accent. Ly and her daughter, Mia, have been with Arturo, Marisa and Cristina and their husbands since Blanco died.

“I am closer to Andrea than to my own mother,” Ly said. “She taught me spiritually, how to love, how to care. After a breakup with my boyfriend, she said, ‘You are okay. You will have a good life.’”

Blanco was happy to help anyone.

“Two days after her death, she got a call about a family of four,” Arturo said, wishing he knew more about how to help them. “Many people want to help immigrant families but didn’t know how. Andrea connected people in need of assistance with people who were happy to contribute 10% or 20%” toward what they needed.”

Once, Arturo recalls, Blanco heard about “a kid hurting another kid at school. Andrea came in and talked to the victim’s parents. She told them about the other child’s family. She got the parents not to press charges. The next day the father volunteered to help the family of the boy who hurt his son. The families saw Andrea as an angel.”

Blanco’s legacy is the people she helped, helping them to reach their potential, like Karla Zamora, a Cuesta graduate continuing at Cal State Monterey Bay. Her family came to the U.S. when Zamora was in fourth grade.

“Andrea and Ms. Ahearn ‘shadowed’ students like me, in English, science, taking notes with us, having us review our notes together,” Zamora said. “... When I had no hope, Andrea’s words meant the world to me.”

Foirmer student Maria Cabrera is a sophomore at Cal Poly in biology.

“Andrea was always there for my sisters and me and our family, regardless of the time of day, on immigration matters, etc.,” she said. “I always saw her smiling. If she was feeling sad, she wouldn’t show it. She was a very strong, positive woman. She let one of the students live with her — so generous of her!”

Blanco “did have her ‘rough’ side,” Cabrera added, “but only to push you, to motivate you not to give up. She knew I had some problems my first quarter at Poly. ‘I want to see you walk across the Poly stage someday!’”

Barbara Adler worked with Blanco for 11 years.

“Every year at Laguna, Andrea was the major planner for an English learner Christmas celebration where she got numerous companies to donate gifts for families. She also orchestrated the end year English language celebration/potluck for our eighth graders and their families with awards of achievement for each student,” Adler said. “I was constantly inspired by her heart and soul. She dedicated her entire being to making life better for the entire Hispanic community and to any student needing help and encouragement.

“She had a profound understanding of the obstacles they faced and with heart-felt commitment made their lives richer. Andrea did all this with humility and grace.”

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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