Margarita Electra Rivas Huantes, educator, social worker, and literacy advocate, was born on March 21, 1912, in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, México, to Octaviano Rivas and Maria Reyes. She was one of five daughters. The family moved to San Antonio, Texas, when Rivas was an infant. They settled on San Antonio’s west side, where her father worked as a tailor and music teacher. Rivas attended Navarro Elementary, Lanier Junior High School, and Main Avenue High School (now Fox Technical High School) with her close friend and fellow future educator Arcadia Hernández López.
After graduating from Main Avenue High School in 1929 Rivas enrolled at Westmoorland College (later merged with Trinity University), where she earned an education degree. She taught briefly at an elementary school in Martindale, Texas, before accepting a position at the Presbyterian School for Mexican Girls in Taft, Texas, about 1933. At Pres-Mex, as the school was known, Rivas taught Spanish, mathematics, and history and served as the first director of the school’s kindergarten program. She also became a prominent lay leader in the Texas-Mexican Presbytery. In this capacity, she supervised a number of church youth groups and directed Presbyterian bible schools at many area churches (see MEXICAN AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS). While teaching at Pres-Mex, Rivas earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939, and she was granted U.S. citizenship in 1941.
In 1943 Rivas relocated to Austin, Texas, to work as director of religious education activities under Rev. Robert Douglas Campbell at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. About 1946 she went to San Antonio to teach at St. Mary’s Hall and attend graduate school at Our Lady of the Lake University. She later transferred to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Ohio, where she earned a master of science degree in social administration in 1948. While at Our Lady of the Lake University, Margarita Rivas met future husband Santos Huantes at a local dance. The two later married on September 30, 1948.
After completing graduate school, Margarita Rivas Huantes worked at the Girls Club in San Antonio with both children and adults. She then took a job as program director at the Mexican-Christian Institute (now Inman Christian Center) in San Antonio (see CHRISTIAN CHURCH EDUCATION). At Inman, Huantes organized educational and extracurricular activities for at-risk youth as well as English language and citizenship classes for adults. It was there that she realized the overwhelming problem of adult illiteracy in San Antonio’s poorest neighborhoods.
In 1960 Huantes established the San Antonio Literacy Council (SALC), whose mission was to end adult illiteracy, and focused its efforts in the Mexican American community. She was inspired to do so, in part, because of a woman she knew whose child died because the mother could not read the medicine label. SALC, which began operating out of local church classrooms with funding from United Way, offered basic educational courses in English as a second language, reading, writing, and civics. The program also aided hundreds to complete the paperwork necessary to attain legal residency within the United States, on the condition that the applicants also enroll in literacy courses. Huantes worked on a part-time basis until the SALC board of directors elected her the program’s first full-time executive director in 1965, though she often worked without pay when funds were not available. Beginning in the 1970s she served on the faculty of the Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University, and she published several works on bilingual instruction between 1963 and 1980. In addition to being an elder in the Presbyterian Church, Huantes was a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers, the National Association of Public School Educators, the Adult Education Association, and the Council of Social Work Education. She also served as chairman of the South Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, second vice president of Texans for the Educational Advancement of Mexican Americans, vice president of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and a board member of the National Multimedia Center for Adult Basic Education. In 1986 she was appointed to serve on Governor Mark White’s literacy task force.
Over the course of her career, Huantes was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Hidalgo Award for Community Service from the Bexar County Commissioner’s Office in 1976 and 1987; National Association of Social Workers Social Worker of the Year (1985); League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Educator of the Year (1986); San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Educator of the Year (1991); and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Literacy Partnership Award (1993). Huantes was also inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984. The Margarita R. Huantes Learning and Leadership Development Center in San Antonio is named in her honor. Huantes died in San Antonio on January 3, 1994, and was buried at Sunset Memorial Park. At the time of her death, she was still serving on the San Antonio Commission on Literacy, the San Antonio 2000 board of advisors, and the San Antonio 2000 Lifelong Learning Council. As of 2015 the SALC program had grown from a single classroom to more than twenty and had taught basic literacy to more than 60,000 students.