Martha Bernal

Martha E. Bernal was the first Latina to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. She is best known for pioneering effective ways to treat children with behavioral disorders, her model of ethnic identity for Latino/children, and providing leadership to the American Psychological Association (APA) for redressing problems with training minority students. Any one of these achievements would be sufficient for claiming a successful career; combining all three sets of accomplishments into a single career is truly meritorious. How did she accomplish so much? She did so through commitment to high standards and clarity of vision. She set high standards and goals for herself and expected much of others, including the APA, and worked tirelessly until she and others met these expectations. Moreover, her clarity of vision helped her imagine possibilities that others around did or could not. She imagined herself going to college at a time and place when women, particularly Mexican American women, were not viewed as legitimate for a college education. She imagined a new way of treating behavioral disorders despite resistance from the field. Finally, she had a vision in which the APA could promote the training of minority students who could go out and provide effective mental health treatment to underserved populations. The challenges she faced along the way to meeting her goals reveal that overcoming personal and sociocultural barriers may be as impressive as her professional accomplishments.


Bernal’s is a compelling personal story deserving of admiration and respect. Born in San Antonio, Texas, to parents who had recently immigrated from Mexico, she was raised in El Paso, Texas, in the context of significant discrimination against her and her Mexican American peers. She arrived in kindergarten to learn that speaking her native language, Spanish, would lead to punishment by teachers and administrators. Her early public schooling reflected the actual and symbolic silencing of her and her peers’ voices and ambitions. This discrimination socialized them in their second-class social status relative to Anglo peers and population. Her memories of the discrimination of Mexican Americans in El Paso remained painful into adulthood. Through these early experiences, Bernal later realized she had internalized some of this racism, which required reflective and contemplative work to overcome.

She described her family as reflecting traditional Mexican values, which she considered a blessing but also a challenge to carving out a nontraditional role for her as a Mexican American woman. Despite her negative experiences in El Paso’s larger community, she had warm and fond memories of growing up in a tight-knit extended family and circle of friends. She was forever thankful for the love, support, and companionship she received while growing up. One of the biggest sacrifices she made in forging a nontraditional career was the loosening of these bonds as she entered the world of academic psychology. Nonetheless, many of her childhood friendships were maintained throughout her life despite her pursuing a lifestyle that was very different from the rest of her peers.


As she set her sights on a nontraditional career path, she faced many doubts from school teachers and school counselors and pressure from her Mexican American family and community not to pursue a college degree. In breaking with cultural tradition, Bernal defied her father’s wishes and announced she was attending college. She worked for a year to save enough to start her long academic career. Despite his misgivings, her father provided much needed financial support to his daughter even though this posed financial hardships for him. In 1952, Bernal graduated from the Texas Western College, now the University of Texas at El Paso. She then set her sights on a graduate education, which reawakened the cultural and familial prohibitions against pursing a nontraditional career and occupational path. She somewhat naively sought an assistantship at Louisiana State University but quit after a year when she realized the assistant-ship was no more than a clerical position and would not provide the training in psychology for which she yearned. She earned a master’s degree in special education at Syracuse University in 1959 and eventually enrolled in Indiana University’s Ph.D. program in clinical psychology. While in graduate school, she and her female classmates faced sexism and sexual harassment. Despite her dissertation mentor’s death prior to her finishing dissertation, Bernal received her Ph.D. in psychology in 1962, the first Latina to have ever received that degree in that field. Bernal had overcome significant personal, familial, cultural, and gender-based challenges before she could even face the significant academic challenges. Earning the Ph.D. is a testament to Bernal’s intelligence and perseverance.

Research Career

Having overcome significant barriers and challenges to obtain her Ph.D. and having entered an elite status as the recipient of a Ph.D., it would be natural to assume most of the challenges related to racism and sexism were behind her. Yet, sexism and probably racism continued to influence her career. In response to applications for faculty positions, Bernal received notice that some positions did not hire women. Instead, she obtained a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), before securing a faculty position at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she stayed only 1 year, in part because of isolation, before returning to UCLA.

Pioneering Behavioral Treatment of Children

During the first half of her academic career, Bernal pioneered work on behavioral strategies for working with those with psychiatric and behavioral disorders. At the time, the field of psychology was still enamored with a psychoanalytic view of disorders in which schizophrenia, for example, was attributed to bad parenting, typically bad mothering, and for which the treatment (e.g., psychoanalysis) was costly, arguably inefficient, and not available to many. Instead, Bernal offered very humane treatment that provided cost-effective treatment to long-standing problems and symptoms. Despite receiving scorn from her psychoanalytic colleagues, Bernal persevered and received National Institute of Mental Health and other federal grants supporting her innovative work at a time when there was no affirmative action program and her minority status probably worked against her in securing these important grants. Her work, along with other colleagues, developing behavioral treatments revolutionized the field in ways that continue to be practiced in schools for children with behavioral disorders and inpatient and outpatient facilities that provide effective treatment for debilitating disabilities. Her work focused on training parents and other adults to assist in the treatment of children’s psychological problems. In this way, her work was effective in reducing the psychological distress of many children. She was widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost authorities and experts in this area of research.

Latina Researcher

Bernal refocused her research in the second half of her career, beginning in the early 1980s. This re-tooling corresponded to a period of reflection and introspection as a Mexican American woman. She made the painful realization that she was not immune to the pervasive bias against the abilities of minority students and faculty. Subsequently, she sought to re-educate herself and experienced a personal transformation that led to her passion to work toward equity in psychological training for historically underrepresented groups. She was part of the early efforts for minority psychologists to organize as an influential body to provide leadership to psychology and facilitate the next generation of minority psychologists. She became active in the APA’s efforts to diversify its training and make it more relevant for recruiting and training more diverse cohorts of psychologists and to help the APA provide the necessary resources to meet more of the diverse mental health needs of the nation. She called attention to the small number of minority faculty and students in clinical and counseling psychology programs and worked with the APA to develop practices that have helped to diversify the field. She quickly became the national authority on the training of minority psychologists. She had since moved from UCLA to the University of Denver. In 1986 she joined the psychology faculty at Arizona State University and joined the Hispanic Research Center. She shifted her own empirical focus to investigate Hispanic children. She proposed a groundbreaking model of Hispanic children’s ethnic identity development and conducted an influential program of research with colleagues while mentoring the next generation of Hispanic scholars.

Her distinguished career was recognized with a long list of awards, including a distinguished lifetime career award from Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) of the APA and the Award for Distinguished Senior Career Contributions to the Public Interest by the APA. Throughout her career, Bernal could envision and realize goals for her education and psychology that others did not. Through considerable perseverance, Bernal realized these goals and, in the process, made meritorious contributions to the treatment of children’s behavioral disorders, to the understanding of Hispanic children’s ethnic identity, and to the training of minority students in psychology. Sadly, on September 28, 2001, Bernal succumbed to her third bout with cancer and died. Despite her passing, her work lives on, and the world and field are better because of her.


  1. Bernal, M. (1988). Martha E. Bernal. In A. O’Connell & N. Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 263-276). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Bernal, M. E. (1980). Hispanic issues in psychology: Curricula and training. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 2, 129-146.
  3. Bernal, M. E. (1990). Ethnic minority mental health training: Trends and issues. In F. C. Serafica, A. I. Schwebel, R. Russell, & P. Isaac (Eds.), Mental health of ethnic minorities (pp. 249-274). New York: Praeger.
  4. Bernal, M. E., Klinnert, M. D., & Schultz, L. A. (1980). Outcome evaluation of behavioral parent training and client-centered parent counseling for children with conduct problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 13, 677-691.
  5. Bernal, M. E., & Knight, G. P. (Eds.). (1991). Ethnic identity and psychological adaptation [Special issue]. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 13(2).
  6. Bernal, M. E., & Knight, G. P. (Eds.). (1993). Ethnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  7. Bernal, M. E., & Knight, G. P. (1997). Ethnic identity of Latino children. In J. G. Garcia & M. C. Zea (Eds.), Psychological interventions and research with Latino populations (pp. 15-38). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  8. Bernal, M. E., Knight, G. P., Garza, C. A., Ocampo, K. A., & Cota, M. K. (1990). The development of ethnic identity in Mexican-American children. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 12(1), 3-24.
  9. Bernal, M. E., Sirolli, A. A., Weisser, S. K., Ruiz, J. A., Chamberlain, V. J., & Knight, G. P. (1998). Relevance of multicultural training to students’ applications to clinical psychology programs. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 5, 43-55.
  10. Vasquez, M. J. T. (2002). Complexities of the Latina experience: A tribute to Martha Bernal. American Psychologist, 57, 880-888.

See also: