Category: Alumni Stories, Georgetown Magazine

Title:Discovering the Student Life of an Early Hispanic Social Justice Advocate at Georgetown

A black and white portrait of nine men from 1871, including Pedro Parea
Writer Noel-Marie Fletcher found a trove of information about her ancestors who attended Georgetown soon after the Civil War. Pedro Perea entered the preparatory program at Georgetown, then attended St. Louis University, closer to the family’s business operations in Santa Fe. Photo: St. Louis University yearbook.

Little did I know as I rode the elevator to the 5th floor of Georgetown University Lauinger Library that I would discover a 167-year-old ledger showing a glimpse into student life in 1867, when two of my ancestors attended what was then known as Georgetown College.

Pedro Parea
Pedro Perea

I had previously known that my ancestor Pedro Perea attended Georgetown in 1867, the first year the college commencement programs were numbered (the 51st commencement). Accordingly to family stories, his time at Georgetown remained important during his life. His educational and civic formation at Georgetown—with its commitment to social justice—played a vital role in the life and legacy of a man who would become Congressman Pedro Perea, one of the most influential early Hispanic statesmen in the United States. He was elected in 1898 to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent the Territory of New Mexico.

For several years, I have researched my Perea family of Palestinian Arab origin who settled in Extremadura, Spain, and later traveled to the New World as conquistadors with Juan de Oñate. The first two generations lived in Mexico before relocating to what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the late 1500s. Converts to Catholicism, the Pereas were active supporters of the Catholic Church. They served as government officials and community leaders under three nations: Spain, Mexico, and the United States.

In my quest to learn more about my Perea family’s history, I had reached out to other prominent Catholic educational institutions for records from the late 1800s and early 1900s. For example, Pedro’s younger brother (Jose Leandro Perea) attended the University of Notre Dame. Sadly, Notre Dame had little information for me. When I tried to search at Catholic University for a yearbook or other records for Pedro’s son Abel, who graduated with a law degree there in 1902, I could find nothing useful.

I was unsure whether Georgetown University would have even-older records of Pedro’s time there from the late 1860s, soon after the end of the Civil War. However, Library staff encouraged me to contact University Archivist Lynn Conway.

Not only was Lynn truly an expert with a wealth of knowledge, she also was cheerful and extremely helpful. I was amazed when she was able to locate several important primary-source historical documents that led to new discoveries for me.

Also I was amazed by the world-class operations at Georgetown’s archives. The research staff, the research process, reading room, and preservation of the historic materials are truly the best I’ve ever witnessed—better than those at the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, various state archives, and local historical society archives in which I’ve done previous research.

When I entered the glass-enclosed room Booth Family Center for Special Collections, I was taken by surprise by the volume of perfectly preserved original information (older than 150 years) that Lynn discovered.

An open log book with writing on the pages
The College logged the expenses of Pedro and Benecio Perea, as they did for all students. The entries on the left page, half-way down, track the brothers’ purchases of books and clothing and laundry and mending charges.
  • Alumni enrollment cards from Oct. 18, 1867—with a surprise finding that Pedro attended school with his brother, Benicio,
  • A 167-year-old large Murphy & Co. hardbound Entrance Book (1851–1897)—with a multitude of wonderful information about the boys and the school.
  • School catalogs from 1867 to 1868 and 1868 to 1869—with their names and class placements in Rudiments, showing they started in the Preparatory Division for students under age 18.
  • The 51st Annual Commencement from July 2, 1868—showing Pedro being promoted to the 1st Division of the Second Class of Rudiments, and
  • The 52nd Annual Commencement from July 1, 1869—naming Pedro as earning a Mathematics Premium award, the 2nd highest award for the seven students in that division.

To enhance my research, Lynn provided two important historical books about Georgetown University’s history. One showed that during the boys’ time, there they undoubtedly enjoyed outdoor activities in an exercise area revamped in 1866 for junior students, with new surface grading and enclosed by a brick wall.

Thanks to Georgetown’s preservation of historic documents, I was able to learn how different it was in 1867 when Pedro and Benicio started college. They were listed as sons of Jose Leandro Perea of Bernalillo, New Mexico. Their father was a gifted businessmen and civic leader who even lent the U.S. government money to pay its soldiers and establish a government there after seizing the territory from Mexico.

To my surprise, I learned that the boys had been placed under their Perea family cousin, Jose Francisco Chaves while he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congressman Chaves served three terms from 1865 to 1871.

According to the Enrollment Book, “Hon. J. Francis Chaves M.C. acts as guardian while in Congress and the bills are paid by Glascow, Bro. & Co. No. 100 Second Street, St. Louis, Mo. Have no spoon or fork. Clothes are to be provided by the College.”

I also found out that, during my relatives’ time at Georgetown, the school was recovering from the hard Civil War days, when a battlefield was located nearby and facilities had been used as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers. The student population was recovering from a drop during the war years. In 1866, the number of students in the preparatory program numbered 80 and grew two years later to have 150 boarders. My relatives attended during an expansion that took place during the Reconstruction Era.

From the School Catalogs, I learned that both belonged to the junior student campus group of the Sodality of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (organized in 1815).  From 1868–69, Pedro advanced to the Humanities (Freshman) class of the collegiate division.

Providing a Catholic education to their sons and daughters was important to all Pereas. Pedro’s father, Jose Leandro, even helped bring the Jesuit order to New Mexico and financed the creation of Catholic schools for the poor because he so strongly believed in civic responsibilities. After graduating from the junior program at Georgetown, Pedro continued his education at St. Louis University, another Jesuit institution that was geographically close to his family’s trading business.

During his formative education at Georgetown, Pedro developed a strong social conscience that played an important role in all aspects of his professional life. He studied under the direction of President Rev. Patrick Francis Healy, known as the second “founder” of Georgetown and later its first African-American president.

Although his talent for mathematics (evidenced by his Georgetown achievements) served him well as President of the First National Bank of Santa Fe from 1890–1894, Pedro decided to pursue a path in public service. At age 32, he entered politics.

In 1884, he used his talents to promote social justice through in politics. Two years later he was elected to Bernalillo County Legislative Council. Serving for five terms as a member of territorial legislature, he was known as friend to small farmers along the Rio Grande valley. In 1894, he helped establish the public-school system in New Mexico and used his legislative support for Albuquerque public schools.

Facing obstacles because of his Hispanic race and political party, Pedro was unsuccessful in a grassroots’ effort by private citizens and the Guadalupe County Republican Central Committee to make him territorial governor of New Mexico in 1897 despite nomination letters sent to the U.S. President.

Pedro was influenced by the social teaching of the Jesuits at Georgetown. His career focused on a dedicating his life in serving others, particularly the needy, the working class, and marginalized Native Americans.

Under a newspaper heading: “No Natives Need Apply,” an article in from the Las Vegas (NM) Daily Optic in May 1897 noted: “Don Pedro Perea, of Bernalillo, who no more expects to be appointed governor of New Mexico than to be struck by lightning on a clear day, spent yesterday in this city and went down home last night.” The article stated that several prominent Hispanics visited Washington, D.C. to see President McKinley for recognition and to push for Hispanic leaders but they “returned home, disgusted with their failure to receive more than ordinarily civil treatment. They claim that a ‘native of New Mexico may expect no appointment at the hands of the present administration.’”

Despite such obstacles, Pedro was elected to serve in the 56th U.S. Congress (1899–1901) under President William McKinley.

A newspaper ad reads “Republican Ticket, For Delegate to Congress, Pedro Perea, Of Bernalillo County”

Pedro Perea run successfully in 1898 to represent the Territory of New Mexico in Congress.

During his time in Congress, Pedro championed Native American rights and brought Indian protestors to see the President over a corporate seizure of their water rights that threatened their way of life. Pedro’s efforts resulted in a victory for the Native Americans.

Although both brothers attended Georgetown College, Pedro’s brother Benicio made no mention of his school years there with local media, despite being a successful business leader and long-time elected official in New Mexico.

However, Pedro made his studies at Georgetown very well known, a clear indication of its importance to him. His attendance of Georgetown was frequently made public during his lifetime. His family knew that he was forever proud of his years at Georgetown, and specially noted his studies at Georgetown among his accomplishments following his premature death in 1906 at age 54.

“Mr. Perea’s political influence was gained largely through his attractive disposition and personal magnetism, all those who were intimately acquainted with him testifying warmly to his many noble qualities of mind and heart. He had much to do with the making of New Mexico history during the last quarter century and his death will keenly be felt by many all over the territory,” according to the Albuquerque Morning Journal, January 1906. “His death removes one of the brainiest men, most skillful politicians and prominent and respected citizens of New Mexico.”

The Spanish-language newspaper the El Nuevo Mexicano wrote a column lamenting Pedro’s death. It noted:

“Mr. Perea gave the Territory a good service for more than twenty years and was in every respect a man of the highest character, of blessed ideas and a truly sincere citizen of the territory of the resplendent sun, to which his ancestors came more than two hundred years ago, and in which they and their descendants have since been patriots, lovers of freedom and citizens of energetic spirit. Men of his family have been prominent in the history of New Mexico and public affairs under the Spanish regime, under Mexican rule and under the authority of the United States.”

I came away from my experience doing research at Georgetown with a new understanding of my family’s legacy and a deep appreciation of Georgetown’s exceptional dedication to preserving history and promoting scholarship for future generations.

A Georgetown Alumni Directory card with Pedro Perea’s name on itthe title page of a catalogue of officers and students from 1867-68
Pedro Perea’s alumni card survives as does the catalog for the year he and his brother entered Georgetown.

Noël-Marie Fletcher is a journalist and author. She is a member of the Geneva Press Club of Switzerland and an affiliate member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She was Acting Berlin Bureau Chief for The Times of London in December 2017 and a former China Correspondent in Beijing. She lived in Germany and reported on political and breaking news. She worked as a reporter in Palm Springs and the San Francisco Bay Area prior to becoming a foreign correspondent in Asia. Noël-Marie descends from the Fletcher and Ballinger families of England and the Perea family of Spanish-Arabic origin, who became officials serving the governments of Spain and the United States. She has donated historical materials about the Perea family to Georgetown University Archives and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.