By Teresa Terrazas, Monica Guillen and Christine Ansalmo
Researching the man for whom Aoy School is named can be confusing. Historians do not agree on his date of birth - 1822, 1823 or 1833? Was his name Vila or Aoy? How was this latter name spelled? Letters refer to him as Oay, Joy and Aoy. Was his name spelled Olivas or Olives? What historians do agree on, however, is the contribution of this mystery to education in El Paso.
Image caption: Olivas Aoy never lived to see the school named for him, shown here in 1909. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library
Olivas Villanueva Aoy traveled from Spain to Cuba, Mexico, and the state of Utah before coming to the Southwest. Born to an impoverished noble family in Valencia, Spain, on March 4, 1823*, Aoy early demonstrated an intellectual curiosity. The village Franciscan priest took charge of his education.
Aoy joined a Franciscan monastery where he was ordained in 1854. Assigned to a retreat in Havana, Cuba, Aoy suffered conflicts in his religious studies and quit the church. Although unused to hard physical labor, Aoy worked as a stevedore, loading and unloading ships.
He began his search for meaning through Mexico, staying for three years in Yucatán with a tribe of Mayans. Impressed with their life outdoors, Aoy learned their language. Their fierce, warlike spirit distressed him, however, and he moved on.
The next known fact about Aoy is that he joined the Mormons in Utah in 1873, remaining for many years. He liked the Mormons' fortitude and their simple way of life. Although he is not given credit for helping to translate the Book of Mormon into Spanish, Conrey Bryson published an article in 1990 documenting Aoy's conversion to Mormonism and his role in the translation.
Bryson found that Aoy was perhaps using the name Jaime Vila while living with the Mormons. Mormon records in Logan, Utah, list his name as "Jaime Aoy Olives Vila." His father is listed as Jaime Vila and his mother as Margarete Olives.
A letter dated July 15, 1884, from Moses Thatcher, member of the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church, to President John Taylor mentions a "Brother Oay" who had helped in the final revision of the Spanish translation. A January 19, 1885, letter from George Q. Cannon, First Counselor to the President, to James Z. Stewart, says, "The first pages of the Book of Mormon in Spanish are in the hands of the printers, and Brother Aoy has read the proofs and has suggested several changes."
These pieces of evidence, along with the fact that Aoy was an accomplished linguist and poet, certainly point to the probability that Aoy helped translate the Book of Mormon into Spanish, along with Milton J. Trejo and James Z. Stewart, who are given credit for the feat. That Aoy was respected by the Mormons is attested to by President Ivins' request that El Paso Mormons place a marker at his grave.
For unknown reasons, Aoy left Utah and ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Catholics despised him because of his religious beliefs. Moving south, Aoy spent a few months in Silver City, New Mexico, where he established a small Spanish newspaper.
In 1887, Aoy found himself in El Paso, where he dedicated himself to teach children unable to speak English who were being ignored by the city's fledgling public schools. Historian C. L. Sonnichsen writes that he rented an old building behind Dan Reckhart's assay office on San Francisco Street in downtown El Paso for $5 a month. He furnished the rooms himself with seats and blackboards and bought books for the needy children in the neighborhood.
Besides teaching his students English, writing and arithmetic, Aoy included music, calisthenics, manners, patriotism and the love of God. Moreover, he provided them with food, clothing and medicine, all out of his own scant resources. He was the original counselor: he listened to his students' problems, and he helped them find jobs. By 1890, Aoy had 65 students, one-third of them girls. To help pay for his school, he taught Spanish to American adults at night. He had discovered his true calling.
In 1890, Aoy broke his leg when he slipped on the icy street while cleaning a window of his room. His attending physician, Dr. Baird, soon learned of Aoy's school and the poverty in which he himself lived. By this time, he was sleeping on a bench, using his coat for a pillow. Aoy refused to go to a hospital. He had few clothes, very little food and no fuel. Dr. Baird and a Dr. March continued to care for Aoy and in the process, they became good friends.
The two doctors began to pay the rent for the school, and neighbors assisted Aoy with food and fuel. Before long, Aoy's work with the children was brought before the El Paso School Board. On June 6, 1892, the board appointed him principal of the "Mexican Preparatory School" at a salary of $35.00 a month. Later he received $75 a month and was given two assistants, each paid $15 per month. Aoy's salary continued to go for student needs, with their teacher spending little on himself.
The Mexican Preparatory School grew to accommodate 200 students, three teachers and a janitor. Superintendent of Schools, G. P. Putman, saw Aoy's success and promised him a new brick building.
Aoy would never see the new school. On April 27, 1895, he died at Hotel Dieu hospital in south El Paso. A memo from Putman suggested that "every child in El Paso whom he [Aoy] has taught and lifted up contribute a flower to the coffin or the grave of the teacher who has labored so earnestly for the Mexican children of the city." Sonnichsen writes that Aoy was deeply mourned, and "many barefooted children followed the hearse all the way out to Evergreen Cemetery," where he was buried.
The external committee of the school board recommended the new school be built in 1899. The six-room $6,000 building was to teach Mexican children until they were ready to enter a regular public school in fourth grade. The Public School system honored Olivas Villanueva Aoy's efforts to educate Mexican children by naming Aoy School in his honor.
Aoy Elementary, located on Seventh and Kansas streets in South El Paso, gave Mexican children the opportunity to obtain an education and prefigured today's "Head Start" programs. The school still serves south El Paso, with classes from pre-kindergarten through second grade. Although Olivas Aoy remains a relative unknown in El Paso's history, his legacy lives on in thousands of El Pasoans who got their educational start in the school named for this pioneer.
*Sources used for this article would make 1823 most reasonable, although the year 1822 appears on his tombstone.