Marie Pino fondly referred to the students she taught as “shí yázhí,” a Navajo phrase that means “my children.”
She didn’t just know their names, she also knew their families. In many cases, she’d taught their parents at the same Alamo Navajo Community School where she taught for four decades.
Now, the residents of the Alamo Navajo community in central New Mexico have been left to grieve the coronavirus-related deaths of Pino and two other members of her immediate family in isolation as they continue precautions aimed at slowing spread of the illness.
Marie Pino, 67, taught elementary school for decades and, interested in a new challenge, had started teaching middle school science last year. She died May 13, weeks after burying one of her three sons, Marcus Pino, 42, who coached the school’s basketball team and was determined to engage teen boys in the sport he loved growing up. He died April 16.
Marie’s husband, Ira Pino Sr., 65, was an emergency medical coordinator who went on to pastor a church during the last decade of his life. He died May 31.
“They’ve left a hole in our school community,” said Barbara Gordon, a school counselor and athletic director at the 300-student tribal school. “We haven’t been able to see each other since this all happened.”
Their deaths, three of the five coronavirus fatalities in the remote outpost of the Navajo reservation, are an example of how the pandemic has devastated many Native communities.
The Navajo Nation, which spreads across several states, has a higher per capita infection rate than any single state, its health department has reported. That may be because of factors like higher rates of poverty, lack of access to running water in some areas, and the rural nature of some communities. Alamo families may travel several hours to see a doctor.
The Pino family was committed to the community of about 2,000 people, said Natalie Pino, Marie and Ira’s daughter and Marcus’s sister.
“We all play important roles,” she said. “My parents always told us to inspire other people, to become something, and to help other people. That’s the legacy they left behind.”
Marie Pino taught multiple generations of families in the Alamo Navajo Community School, as well as some members of her own family. She started working there in 1980, right after college and the year after the school was founded by the tribe in portable buildings.
Members of the community take pride in the school, and some often mention the work they did erecting its permanent stone walls, Gordon said.
Pino was born in Sheep Springs, N.M. Like many Native children in her generation, she attended boarding school–hers in Oklahoma–and later attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., where she met her husband.
When Pino’s students struggled with a lesson, she would explain it in Navajo to help them rethink the idea, her coworkers said.
The school offers daily language instruction, and teachers introduce students to professionals who are fluent in Navajo to encourage their studies, Gordon said. Pino would also tell her students stories and teach them games in her native language, helping them build comfort and identity that would keep them engaged in the classroom.
“My office is not far from the dean of students, and I don’t remember very many students coming from her classroom for a discipline referral,” Gordon said.
If a student gave Pino trouble, she would call their parents, who may have been her former students. Sometimes, she would visit them in their homes to talk through what was happening at school.
“Teaching in a small community isn’t like teaching in an urban area,” said Natalie Pino, one of Marie and Ira Pino’s seven children. “There are a lot of disparities that we face out here. She could relate to families and what their students were going through.”
She described her mother as engaged, intelligent, and funny.
Devoted to the Community
In his day job, Marcus Pino, a father of five, maintained the water system for the community. He helped replace antiquated pipes and provide water access to areas where residents previously had to haul in water to their homes.
Marcus, a former high school athlete himself, was passionate about his side job coaching the boys’ basketball team, his sister said.
“He tried to inspire students to go beyond their abilities because he did it,” Natalie Pino said. “He experienced it, so he taught that to his athletes.”
Marcus started coaching the team in 2013. In 2017, the Cougars qualified for state finals for the first time in the school’s history. And on Feb. 14, he had his 100th career win in an overtime game.
Perhaps because his mother was a teacher, Marcus Pino encouraged his players to be polite in the classroom and to be a good influence on younger students, Gordon said.
“He’d take those boys under his wing,” she said. “He worked with them not just as his athletes. Some of them just needed an extra positive male role model in their life. He provided some positivity for them.”
It’s been very challenging to not be able to hug students and fellow teachers as the community copes with the deaths and continues to take coronavirus precautions, Gordon said.
“Hopefully, resilience will be a thing that we can take away from this,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Three Members of Navajo Family, Two of Them Educators, Die From COVID-19