The University of Texas at El Paso celebrated its former president, Diana Natalicio, in a Celebration of Life event on Sunday. The event included the release of 200 lanterns into the night sky and a performance by Grammy-award winning cellist Zuill Bailey.
The memorial took place on UTEP’s Centennial Plaza and was attended by about 500 people. Many of the speakers noted her passion for the success of UTEP’s students. Others noted her love of baseball, especially her hometown St. Louis Cardinals.
UTEP’s current president, Heather Wilson, remembered Natalicio as a “leader of great conviction.” She also announced the creation of the Diana Natalicio Institute for Hispanic Student Success.
“This institute will continue Dr. Natalicio’s work. The Natalicio Institute will produce research on what works to increase student success,” Wilson said. She said more information would be provided in the upcoming months.
“We are going to provide the first check for the funding to support the institute,” said James Milliken, the University of Texas System chancellor.
Natalicio served as UTEP president from 1988 to 2019. She died on Sept. 24 at age 82.
Natalicio’s brother, Bill Siedhoff, closed the event and said his sendoff was “probably the toughest speech I’ve ever given.”
“(It’s) one I never wanted to do. The unexpected loss of Diana has shaken me to my core, leaving me bewildered and experiencing an overwhelming sense of loss,” he said.
Despite his grief, he said he was comforted by the love Natalicio received from the UTEP and El Paso community throughout her life and during the memorial.
“It is comforting to see all of you here tonight as a real testament to the love everyone had for her,” he said.
Siedhoff told UTEP students they were “a driving force in her life’s work and what provided her the greatest satisfaction.”
Natalicio’s childhood best friend from St. Louis, Sharon Croissant, recounted their 77-year friendship with early memories that included Natalicio being voted as “most likely to succeed” in high school to her later studying in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship.
“My parting wish to you, her beloved El Paso community, is that you too may have a best friend forever like Diana in your life. She will always have a special place in my heart,” Croissant said.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a UTEP alumna and former instructor in the English department, said Natalicio made space for everyone.
“One thing that I absolutely supported was her vision that access and excellence were not mutually exclusive, and that we could and should demand growth for our great community,” Escobar said.
State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, also noted how much Natalicio cared for her students.
“Over the course of her career she fought against the status quo, she fought against stereotypes, she stood up for her students,” said Blanco, a UTEP graduate. “She stood up for her students because she saw their potential and believed in a better future for themselves.”
Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León, the consul-general of Mexico in El Paso, expressed gratitude for Natalicio’s binational approach that welcomed Mexican national students to UTEP. In 2011, the Mexican government presented Natalicio with the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest award that Mexico gives “foreigners for their work in favor of Mexico and its people,” Ibarra said.
The program closed with a final chant of “Go Miners” as Miner picks waved in the air.
Cover photo: A slideshow of photos of Diana Natalicio played as attendees gathered at a memorial service in her honor at UTEP on Sunday evening. This photo shows her throwing out the first pitch at an El Paso Diablos game at the old Dudley Field. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)