María DeCastro Blake was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1911. The daughter of Francisco DeCastro, a fisherman from Cabo Rojo, and Clotilde Smaine, a cook from Vieques, María grew up in Vieques under the care of her mother. In 1932, María migrated to New York City, shortly after her mother died. A high school graduate, she looked for office work, but without much knowledge of English, she landed a menial job in the garment industry.
Determined to improve her life, she began taking English classes at night and when she had gained enough skills in the language, she found a secretarial job in Wall Street and enrolled herself in night courses at Columbia University. With earnings from her secretarial work, she brought her sisters to New York. In 1942, she married Thomas Blake, a native of Jersey City, with whom she had three children and moved to East Orange in the late 1940s.
In New Jersey, María began to volunteer her time to Saint Patrick's Church in Newark, to teach English to the newly arriving Puerto Rican families that had begun to settle in the city. She tutored the children in the afternoons and the adults in the evenings.
Widowed by 1960, María took a full-time secretarial job at Rutgers University in Newark. At Rutgers, she mobilized the Alumni Office to partner with St. Patrick's in its campaign to send poor city children to camp. She explained that she was particularly interested in this project because the children selected were also given free medical exams."
As a staff member of Rutgers, she also promoted the idea of enrolling Hispanic students at the Newark Campus. She not only convinced the Admissions officers at Rutgers that these students deserved a chance, but she lobbied the parents and the students to apply. She even helped the students to fill out the application and financial aid forms, and at times helped out those whose checks were late or fell short. Many of those who went on to become professionals proudly state that without María Blake's help they could not have done it. To them, María was affectionately known as "the Dean."
When Rutgers promoted her to the post of Assistant Dean of Admissions in 1965, María went on to recruit hundreds of Hispanic students. Never one to limit her role, she also sought scholarship funds and internships from government agencies and corporations for the students she recruited. She served both the university and the Hispanic community for twenty-four years.
In 1984, when she retired, hundreds of persons attended and dozens paid homage to the woman who helped them obtain the college education she had had been unable to secure for herself.
María's activism in New Jersey led her to collaborate in the establishment of Aspira of New Jersey, the Association for the Professional Education of Puerto Ricans, the Puerto Rican Congress and the Black and Puerto Rican Coalition.
Once retired, she moved back to New York City, where she volunteered her services every week to the New York Public Library and the Museum of Natural History for the next seventeen years. She stopped shortly before she died, in July 2001, only because by then her legs could not carry her anymore.
For her dedication and her service to those around her, she received the "Woman of the Year" Award in 1991 from the Hispanic Women's Task Force. In 1998, the New Jersey Legislature placed her name along those of Clara Barton, Millicent Fenwick, and other notable women of New Jersey.
Biographical sketch written by Olga Jiménez Wagenheim
©2007 The Newark Public Library