Marisa Lusiardo de Leon
DanceAbility Visionary & Disabilities champion
Marisa de Leon made a tremendous donation to DanceAbility International in 2007 that will ensure a legacy of mixed-abilities dance all throughout Latin America. She was born in Uruguay in 1911 and lived in both Latin America and the United States. Wherever she lived, Marisa had a way of inspiring those around her to create a better world for people with disabilities. Marisa’s charisma and passion for her cause led to many important connections throughout her life including U.S. Ambassadors, internationally renowned physicians specializing in her field of study, as well as encounters with celebrities such as Helen Keller, Nelson Rockefeller, and John Wayne’s wife.
Marisa’s most notable achievement occurred in 1941 when she founded a school for disabled children in the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo, after receiving her undergraduate degree in Texas and post graduate training at U.C. Berkeley and Los Angeles. This school was the first of its kind in all of Latin America and became a model for others to study and follow.
Marisa’s and Alito’s Story
DanceAbility Allies: Marisa de Leon & Alito Alessi
Marisa moved to Eugene, Oregon in 2000 from the San Francisco area. After reading an article in the local
newspaper about Alito’s Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2005, she invited him to meet with her. Their friendship
was immediate, an instant fondness and respect for one another, and their friendship continued until her death in 2008.
Regarding their first encounter, Alito says, “We hit it off. She was beautiful, articulate and physically fit at 93. She introduced me to all of the various exercise tools and machines she was using to remain fit, and some of them really scared me! I could not believe what she was capable of doing, including some yoga poses that I would not even have tried!”
Marisa told Alito about her life, especially about her work with disabled children, how she became passionate about this work and the school she started in Montevideo. She showed him photographs from the 1940’s of the children and the school. Alito was overwhelmed by this encounter. He felt an incredible sense of joy and relief listening to her stories of being a pioneer in this work that he is so committed to today. This initial inspiring encounter evolved into a loving friendship with Marisa becoming a trusted advisor about business related issues including advice on how to deal with people, according to Alito. Through the years Marisa also attended Alito’s workshops and performances.
It was during one of Alito’s dance performances that Marisa had an epiphany. Dance was always one of Marisa’s passions; in fact, her original vision for her school in Montevideo included dance movement for the children but the government would only fund a school with a focus on academics. During this performance in Eugene, Marisa witnessed people with disabilities getting out of their wheelchairs and experiencing the joy and freedom of movement and creative expression. This event was an emotionally moving experience for her. She realized that in her 75 or so years of work as a pioneer in the field of physical therapy for people with disabilities, that this kind of movement had been left out; she remembered her inspiration, as a young woman, to incorporate dance into therapy, and decided that she wanted to become more involved in the work of DanceAbility International.
At about the same time as this performance event in Eugene, a young woman affiliated with Marisa’s school in Montevideo noticed a plaque on the wall about Marisa and became inspired to find her, as Marisa had lost touch with the school. Through her research, this woman discovered that Marisa was living in Eugene and three of the board members contacted Marisa to advise her of the school’s health and prosperity. Marisa was thrilled to reconnect and has since been involved in many ways, including donations to purchase vans to transport the children and to build a therapeutic swimming pool. The gratitude she received overwhelmed her. “I cried when I read the thank you letters,” she said.
Reestablishing this connection provided the opportunity for Marisa to realize her dream of bringing dance to the children. She funded a small project to send Alito to her school in Montevideo, in 2007, to train the staff in DanceAbility methods with the intention of creating an ongoing DanceAbility class in the school, as well as a community-based adult DanceAbility program. The adult class was inspired to continue meeting once a week after Alito left, and the children thrived in their new ongoing dance class. The success of this small three-week project further inspired Marisa to make a sizeable donation to spread DanceAbility throughout all of Latin America.
Marisa envisioned creating sustainable mixed-abilities dance communities in many countries. In Marisa’s words, “I want to spread love and peace throughout Latin America.”
The project is now underway with Marisa’s school, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in Montevideo, as the center for the project. Another interesting twist of fate in this incredible story is that there was a woman residing in Montevideo who attended a DanceAbility teacher training workshop in Budapest in the 1990’s. Her name is Florencia Martinelli and she is now the Uruguay DanceAbility project coordinator.
DanceAbility workshops have been held this year, 2008, in Mexico City, São Paulo in Brazil, Montevideo in Uruguay, and Buenos Aires and Puerto Madryn in Argentina. In 2009 activities will continue in all these locations as well as Chile and beyond. DanceAbility International is interested in speaking with anyone who has contacts in Latin America and is interested in partnering with us to spread DanceAbility in Latin America.
Marisa Lusiardo de Leon was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1911. At a young age, she knew she wanted to help others. “Since I was very young,” said Marisa, “I became interested in problems and subjects related to health education and I was particularly attracted to the medical profession.”
After high school, Marisa earned a nursing certificate. During this time, Marisa worked at the Y.M.C.A. and met a man named Dr. Gonzalez, a pioneer in Uruguay in health education, the first doctor to bring ideas from the U.S. and Europe. Marisa learned from him ideas about healthful living through diet, outdoor life, exercises, etc. He introduced Marisa to books and literature on therapeutic gymnastics and kinesiology.
According to Marisa, “At that time, besides working with Dr. Gonzalez, I organized the physical education program for the first women’s sport club in Uruguay called Club Femenino Capurro. Sports and exercises were not popular for women during this time.”
Marisa was very close to her grandmother who understood and supported her desire to study in the U.S., and in the fall of 1935, Marisa was awarded a scholarship and began her studies at the Texas University for Women. She studied physical education and in 1939, she obtained her Bachelor of Science degree. “While in college, I attended conferences and conventions of Physical Education and I was always inclined to attend the corrective gymnastics section. I became intimately acquainted with outstanding people in the field such as Dr. Josephine Rathbone of Columbia University. I was also active in contributing to better relations between Latin America and the United States. I spoke in several programs and attended many Pan American meetings to this end.”
Her advisor was anxious for her to attend a larger university and assisted her in securing a special fellowship grant to attend the University of California at Berkeley in 1939 and 1940. She lived at the International House, and her graduate work was in kinesiology and physical therapy.
Said Marisa, “I became most interested in the child suffering from cerebral palsy, specifically because these children had been so neglected until then and I realized how much they could be helped.”
She studied with several doctors who were on the cutting edge of developing modalities for children suffering from cerebral palsy in several cities including Los Angeles, Long Island, and Baltimore. Marisa spent a lot of time observing and learning from Mildred Shriner in Oakland, California. Of that experience, Marisa said, “ What an experience! Day and night, to be surrounded by about 50 students of all ages who needed 100% attention: what to dress them, feed them, bathe them, etc. I am glad that I had that experience!”
She also worked for a time in the east with Dr. Earl Carlson, a noted cerebral palsy specialist and later translated his book, Born That Way, into Spanish. She researched how to train the injured but bright brain to develop new paths in the nervous system.
“I returned home in September 1941. It was hard to introduce in Uruguay the idea of starting a school for the reeducation of cerebral palsied children, especially because I did not have a medical degree and because my concepts about muscle reeducation were revolutionary since until then muscle ailments in Uruguay were treated by massage.”
After meeting with several outstanding pediatricians and orthopedic doctors, parents of cerebral palsied children and the Director of the Board of Elementary Education, however, she received the support she needed to open a school.
The private school that she founded was initially a rented three–room house. “We started the classes in November 1941, with very few pieces of furniture, very poor equipment and one teacher in charge of the educational work, while I was engaged with the physiotherapy treatments and the organization of the whole school. Very soon, people started to hear about it and voluntarily started to send donations. Several doctors visited the school frequently and observed closely the progress of the pupils.”
To be admitted, the child had to suffer from some physical disability but be mentally capable and able to pass various tests, be responsive to class work and physical treatment. The school required all day attendance. The children paid according to their means, some paying nothing. No one knew who couldn’t pay. The school was established to rehabilitate disabled children and to develop self-reliance and self-respect.
Marisa discovered that some of the physically disabled children were in the insane asylum who did not belong there. She chose three of these children for her school and found them a home. She held ‘showers,’ or parties to raise funds. Further funding came from contributions and dues collected from La Association del Nino for Disabled Children. Marisa also visited the lumber mill and was promised free lumber, the bakery donated bread, and markets made gifts of rice and other foods. The Fire Department loaned one of its busses to take the children to and from classes.
The school had countless volunteers, women who would come to sew and work in the kitchen, including the daughter of the President of Uruguay. Representatives of the American Embassy came and taught. Marisa became known as ‘Uruguay’s Indomitable Lady,’ ‘A Lady with a Mission,’ and ‘A Pioneer,’ in care of children with cerebral palsy in South America.
During the same year that she opened the school, Marisa decided to campaign for a National Association for Disabled People. “I worked very hard on this project since the idea of organizing a national association sounded a little bit ridiculous when we only had a school for ten children. But time proved this notion erroneous and in September of 1942 the Association Nacional para el Nino Lisiado was founded. The Board of Directors and the Technical Board were formed by the best educators and doctors of the country.”
The school then moved to a lovely, spacious house that accommodated 40 students ranging in age from 2 to 16, had four teachers, two psychologists, one speech professor, and five physiotherapists. The school became noted as the first of its kind in all Latin America.
Marisa also organized Uruguay’s first physical therapy training program and taught many classes. “I was fortunate to have the collaboration of several doctors who were willing to teach some of the subjects I required. The first group of five physiotherapists graduated in 1944.” Three of these teachers received scholarships to travel to the U.S. for further study. After three graduating classes, the university saw the value of the physical therapy program and took it over. “The university was very impressed with our physical therapy department and they promised to collaborate with our personnel for the establishment of the Kinesiology School to be organized at the Medical School.”
From the beginning, the school maintained close relations with U.S. institutions and the North American community in Uruguay. “The Ambassador of the United States, Mr. William A. Dawson and his wife visited the institution often and helped us in different ways. Dr. Pascual Luchessi and later his successor, Dr. Jackson Davies, gave us very valuable assistance through the Servicio. We were always in close contact with the institutions for cripples of the U.S. and many times articles about our school were published in their literature. We were visited by representatives of the Children’s Bureau in Washington, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Public Schools of Oakland, and twice the school was photographed by American photographers.”
In 1942, Mrs. Agnes S. Dawson, wife of the U.S. Ambassador in Uruguay, awarded Marisa one of three pins that Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had sent her to give out as she chose. The school name was changed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt School in 1945 when President Roosevelt died.
In 1947, Marisa moved to Peru with her husband Frank de Leon Perez. “Before I left the school, I called a meeting of our physiotherapists to lay the foundation to establish a Physiotherapy Association since this was a new profession in our country and I wanted to set the highest possible standards. I worked closely with the Dean of the Medical School and the Professor of Kinesiology.”
Marisa shared some of her thoughts at the time about this decision to leave the school. “The personnel of our school was very well trained and I had to give them the opportunity to develop professionally since I was doing most of the work. I also wanted to enlarge the scope of my work to an international scale so as to benefit the children of other Latin American countries as the crippled children of my country have benefited. To this end, I must have more knowledge and a medical degree so as to work with entire freedom with other medical men. I only hope that I am given the opportunity to bring to realization my plan for contributing to the welfare of humanity.”
While in Peru, Marisa said, “Many were interested in my work and I did lots of talks in medical schools, with doctors, and on the radio. I also did interviews for the newspapers. The Rockefeller Foudation sent me to Iquitos, Peru, a jungle town on the Amazon, to help with a polio epidemic.”
After Peru, Marisa and her husband moved to Berkeley, California. She worked as a physical therapist at the Marine Hospital in Berkeley which was the Port of Entry for injured soldiers returning from Vietnam. In 1950, the Oakland Recreation Department asked Marisa to be in charge of the first camp for disabled children at Lake Temescal in the East Bay Regional Park District. “It was the first project of its kind to be launched by a public agency on the West Coast--if not the entire country,” according to the San Francisco Examiner.
Marisa was in private practice from 1955 until 1973 when her husband needed her care during a long period of illness. After his death in 1983, Marisa became involved with Mother Wright, helping rehabilitate people with few resources in San Francisco.
In 1978, Marisa received the distinguished award from the International Institute of East Bay honoring her as an outstanding immigrant from Uruguay who made many contributions to the community.
Marisa was also very athletic, winning a number of awards and medals. For example, she placed #1 in the annual Run to the Lake in 2000, when she was in already in her 90’s, and also placed in the Bay to Breakers run in San Francisco. She won the Sportsmanship Award in the San Leandro Tennis Club and was a Salinas Doubles Winner. She also won skiing awards.
As a very young woman, she also developed an avid interest in South American folk dancing, an art form she first became acquainted with as a child. Marisa had a dance partner, Edward de Lanoy, and they performed at many events. Marisa’s profession could have been dancing! She went on to organize and teach folk dancing classes and even compiled information on the history of South American and Mexican dance forms as a reference source for others.
Marisa’s interests later in life included Cosmology, natural medicine and all kinds of philosophies and spirituality. She also supported children in Guatemala through ChildReach, as well as contributing to countless other charities.
In September of 2000, Marisa moved to Eugene, Oregon. In 2005, Marisa met Alito and became involved in the work of DanceAbility International. Marisa died in April of 2008. She bid farewell to many people who loved her dearly and appreciated her wit, intelligence, and passion for life and people.
Marisa set out to make a difference in the world and she did. She was beautiful, graceful and powerful. She was a compassionate and courageous leader who broke many barriers and challenged people’s prejudices and assumptions about women and people with disabilities. Truly a pioneer, she improved the lives of thousands of people with disabilities in every community in which she lived. Her legacy lives on in the school which she founded and through the people who were privileged to receive her teaching.
Today, Marisa’s spirit is alive and well as she continues to work her magic through Latin American DanceAbility programming toward her greater vision of spreading love and peace in Latin America.