This may be the first time in about 10 years that I am not directly involved with planning some type of Latino Heritage Month activity on a campus I am employed in. While that may sound like a tragedy in some way given my past involvement, It really isn’t. Perhaps because I reside in New York City, where there are literally millions of Latinos, maybe I don’t have that same sense of urgency as I did as Syracuse. I noticed that Barnard College and Columbia University already has established programming for students to take part and that is what makes me smile.
This is not say that the work is done and I am over it but I think that I need to have a different, more personal, approach to Latino Heritage Month. Many times we call for action without reflection. We get angry over things that occur and we tweet about it and post Facebook statuses but then everything sorta dies down after a few days. I do contemplate if that is because we never really take to reflect on what is really happening in the world. We become more reactionary to much of what happens.
Those reactions distracts us from doing what is going on. So I would like to offer a history lesson on how Latinos had to fight for the education we enjoy today. This is part of a graduate paper I wrote last year. Warning – this is lengthy but I do think it’s worth it:
With California and Texas becoming states in the mid-1800s, there was a need for the United States to determine what it was going to do with the Mexican and Native American populations that it acquired with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Mexican population quickly became racialized by the standard of the United States, which meant that light skinned Mexicans were considered Caucasian and darker individuals (such as Native American and Afro-Mexicans) were considered Black.
This is important to recognize because this is where many Mexicans drew the line in the fight for equal opportunity. They felt that they did not fall within the racialized context of black and white. In general, most of the separation from the majority was cultural like many of the other immigrants that came before them. Immigrants from Europe that came to the U.S. earlier the century (Germans, Irish, and Italians) went through a similar plight of dealing with culture and language. However, European Immigrants never had to fight that hard to become assimilated into the American culture and as a result lost many customs and cultural traditions that Latinos fight hard to maintain.
After the Spanish American War in 1898 resulted in the Treaty of Paris (in which Puerto Rico was acquired along with Guam and the Philippines), the United States maintained the attitude that the Latino population needed to become more Americanized by getting a better education and thus learning English. Mexicans in the west were struggling with equal rights in terms of land ownership, while Puerto Ricans and Cubans were dealing with Americanization in the north east. American politicians felt that Puerto Rico, in particular, would benefit from a better education as long as they learned English first. Cuba also fell within the protection of the United States before Fidel Castro assumed power.
The Mexican Revolutionary War from 1910 to 1920 forced many Mexicans to cross the border into the United States to escape the fighting and the bloodshed. This meant a cheaper workforce with the influx of people, but it also meant an educational challenge for school districts. Many districts in California created spaces in schools just to hold separate Mexican classes to address the needs of this new population. The focus was to Americanize Mexican children while teaching them vocational skills needed to make them a part of the workforce. Despite initial protest from parents, the Santa Ana Board of Education was the first to open a Mexican only school in 1919. The rationale being that this separate facility was in the best interest of the children.
In 1917, the Jones Act was passed that allowed Puerto Ricans to be American Citizens, which led to a large influx of Puerto Ricans into the United States. This declaration of citizenship came after years of political struggle over what exactly Puerto Rico was. While statehood was not granted, Puerto Ricans could still enjoy the status of being an American Citizen even though they are often not treated as such. Here is where many of the political issues for Puerto Ricans and Mexicans differ. Mexicans were fighting hard to cross the boarders to be naturalized to escape a war of revolution while Puerto Ricans slowly losing their ability to self-govern.
When thinking about segregation, cases like Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka Kansas in 1954 were critical. However, in 1946 Mendez v. Westminster in California is a landmark court case that changed the landscape for Latinos in Education and set the stage for the latter court case. The most import part of the fight for social inclusion is that most of the struggles for equality in school are mostly invisible. African Americans struggles for desegregation are well documented and well discussed in the history of the United States; however, Mexican Americans have been fighting the legality of segregation since the 1930s. History largely acknowledges the plight of African Americans making it difficult to really see and understand the roles that Latinos, particularly Mexicans played during the segregation era.
Cases like the Independent School District v. Salvatierra in Texas (1930) showed that segregation of Mexicans was indeed happening because of race. However, school districts could get away with this if the basis of the separation was based on lack of English language proficiency. The issue was that the Texas State constitution, which was ratified in 1876, stated that segregation of Whites and colored children was allowed. However, the term “colored” was only meant for “Negros.” Since Mexicans are not mentioned in the Constitution, the court ruled that Mexicans were considered white and thus segregation against them was illegal. The significance of this case was that the lawyers who defended Salvatierra were from the newly established League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). This case provided them with crucial experience they would need in the upcoming years.
In 1931, the Alvarez v. Lemon Grove School District was held in court in California. This can be argued as being the first real victory against segregation. The Lemon Grove District sought to build a separate school for Mexicans due to overcrowding. The District never informed the parents of this, thus never gained support from the Mexican community. In turn the parents protested and refused to have their children attend this new school that was called La Caballeriza (the stable) by much of the community. These parents wanted to maintain their right to send their children to same schools that Whites sent their children to.
The judge ruled in favor of Alvarez on the basis that the separate school for Mexican children would not be conducive to their Americanization. It was believed that this new school would severely retard their comprehension of the English Language because they would have no one to speak proper English to. He also believed that allowing Spanish speaking children to learn English and mingle with other English speaking students would allow them the best way to be Americanized. In addition, it was also found that California law had no such provisions that allowed for the district to make such a decision.
For years, California was deeply rooted in the idea of segregation. As the Mexican population increased, so was the increased demand of Anglos to create a residential and educational segregation. In 1927 the California Attorney General pushed for Mexicans to be considered as Native Americans whereby placing them under the mandate of de jure segregation. The notion that Mexicans were “colored” and should not have the same equalities as White people seemed to go against the ruling cited in Lemon Grove Case. However, when California Legislature passed a law to segregate Mexicans because they were considered Native Americans, the 1935 School code did not specifically mention them by name:
The governing board of the School district shall have all power to establish separate schools for Indian [sic] children, excepting children who are the wards of the U.S. government and the children of all other Indians who are the descendants of the original American Indians of the U.S, and for the children of Chinese, Japanese, or Mongolian parentage.
Because Mexicans were not mentioned specially, as was the case with other races, school districts in California found it difficult to legally segregate them. Mexicans did not consider themselves Native American, which created a loophole within the legislation.
A picture of the Zoot Suit Riots
Despite the inequities within the school system and the labor market, World War II was a time in which many Latinos went overseas. It was estimated that over 65,000 Puerto Ricans served in a segregated military. Due to their citizenship, Puerto Rican men were required to register and serve. Most of them served from the 65th Infantry Regiment. World War II gave many Mexicans pride in their US citizenship. The general number of Mexican Americans that served is unknown because many were counted as White soldiers. However, despite their participation in the war, Mexicans were constantly being linked to issues of crime as much as African Americans were. The zoot suit riots in 1943, where American sailors would drive the streets of Los Angeles looking to strip Mexican youth of their clothing, marked a time of racial tension in California. The battle in the courtroom for equality became even more crucial as racial tensions were mounting outside the classroom.
In 1943, the parents of Silvia Mendez tried to enroll her into Westminster Elementary School in Santa Ana, California, where she was denied enrollment based on her skin color and Spanish surname. It was lawful at the time for California school districts to segregate all students of color and thus deny them access into schools that were considered all white. This prompted her father, Gonzalo, to join with other families and file a class action lawsuit against the Orange County School District. LULA took the lead on the case and represented five fathers: Thomas Estrada, Chapo Guzman, Mayo Zambada, Rosame Elcacho, and Gonzalo Mendez.
The basis of the argument was that the school district had violated the 14th Amendment. This is a similar argument made in Brown v. Board of Education that took place seven years later by Thurgood Marshall on behalf of the NAACP. The Equal Protection Clause within the 14th Amendment states:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;
What led Judge Paul J. McCormick’s ruling in favor of Mendez was not just the violation of the 14th Amendment, but the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that guaranteed Mexicans equal rights in the United States. However, this case would be fought again in the appellate court, where the connection of the two historic court cases is made.
For years, the NAACP has been trying to win the battle of segregation in schools using the 14th Amendment as reason for the law’s is unconstitutionality. Until the Mendez v. Westminster, the standard for segregation in schools was the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 that upheld that States had the right to separate, provided that they granted equal facilities. The Mendez ruling was the first successful ruling toward segregation in terms of skin color. For the most part, segregation for Mexicans was based on cultural reasons. These segregation cases really did not change much for African Americans because there was always a loophole regarding that citizenry and language issues of Mexicans in particular.
When it came time to fight the case in the appellate courts, LULAC and the NAACP (along with American Civil Liberties Union, American Jewish Congress, and Japanese American Citizens League) came together to successfully argue the case. Ninth Circuit Judge, Justice Albert Lee Stephens, upheld the ruling April 14, 1947. The court stated:
By enforcing the segregation of school children of Mexican Decent against their will and contrary to the laws of California, the respondents have violated the federal law as provided in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution by depriving them the equal protections of the laws.
Thurgood Marshall collaborated with David Marcus, who was representing LULAC on this appeal case that provided some of the framework that Marshall would use in the Brown case in 1954.
Two months after the ruling was passed down, Governor Earl Warren signed a bill repealing segregation in California schools, which lead to the closing of Mexican schools across the State. This marked a second connection to the Brown case. In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court. It was Chief Justice Warren that wrote the final decision in the Brown case that ended segregation in schools across the United States.
What made this ruling so important was that it broke away from the Plessy ruling of the “separate but equal “doctrine. While African Americans had continued to suffer under segregation in terms of physical and social equality, Mexican Americans were able to fight successfully against the issues because they were routinely seen as more than Black. However, despite the positive ruling from the Mendez case that was supposed to end de jure segregation, evidence indicated that not only did segregation not end, but that it worsened.
In 1947 Minerva Delgado was denied admission to a school in Texas on the sole basis that she was Mexican. Her grandfather sued the Bastrop Independent School District that was later filed as a class action suit on behalf of all Mexican children within the school district. Delgado v. Bastrop was another pre-Brown case that demonstrated that segregation was more customary than law. Many people in Texas had hope that this case would do for Texas what Mendez did for California.
While the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff in 1948, segregation of first graders was allowed if there was a lack of proficiency in English. This lack of proficiency made segregation justifiable in terms of separate classes, or maybe even separate schooling altogether.
Despite the various victories against segregation in various school districts in California and Texas, Mexicans were still dealing with isolation within segregated schools well into the 1950s. It is well documented that many of these school districts did not adhere to many of the court rulings until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. However, desegregation was becoming law across the country; segregation based on language became more of the practiced custom.
- Donato, RubeÌn. The other struggle for equal schools: Mexican Americans during the Civil Rights era. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.
- MacDonald, Victoria. Latino education in the United States: a narrated history from 1513-2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.
- Navarro, Sharon Ann, and Armando Xavier Mejia. Latino Americans and political participation: a reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Print.
- Pedraza, Pedro, and Melissa Rivera. Latino education: an agenda for community action research. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005. Print.
- Santiago, Isaura. “Aspira v. Board of Education Revisited.” American Journal of Education 95.1 (1986): 149-199. Print.
- Valencia, Richard R.. Chicano school failure and success: past, present, and future. 2nd ed. London: Routledge/Falmer, 2002. Print.