As most of us learned early in elementary school, July 4 is remembered as the day that we celebrate U.S. independence from England.
It’s a day that celebrates the liberties and freedoms we have.
Regrettably for minority groups, the date is not without its ironies. For example, even with their enthusiastic patriotism, anchored in the U.S. War of Independence itself, it’s been a long, hard-fought struggle for Mexican-descent people. For instance here in Texas, they had to wait until 1954 to enjoy the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court (Class Apart Decision) forced the State of Texas to stop its intolerant policies toward Mexican-descent citizens. Yet, the fight for inclusion continues.
Sadly, throughout the Southwest, generations of Mexican descent children have been treated in the classroom as strangers in their own land. That is, from Texas to Colorado to California, the land first occupied by their Native American forebears and whose first European-style towns were settled by their pioneer Spanish Mexican ancestors. Lamentably, few of them know the true history of the Southwest. To say it’s been a struggle to make history more inclusive is truly an understatement.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that teaching Mexican American Studies (MAS) lessons in the Tucson Unified School District classrooms is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The ruling was in favor of Tucson Mexican-descent families who faithfully fought the good fight and won against the evils of intolerance.
Likewise, closer to home, diverse groups of educators, parents, students, and supporters have been fighting discrimination in the classroom for many years here in Texas.
Make no mistake, all those involved are intrepid justice warriors in every sense of the word. That is the reason why it’s important, given the uncertainty in our country where bigotry is on the rise.
With all due respect to countless equal education efforts from Texas to California, I began the discussion with the Tucson case because it deserves special mention. Embarking on an uncertain journey, the Tucson MAS supporters refused to be intimidated by the domineering Anglo-controlled school system. Through their victory, they delivered “justice for all”, mustering incredible levels of perseverance over their seven-year ordeal.
Explicitly, the court decision:
(a) confirmed the fact that since 1848, Spanish Mexican-descent citizens have been denied equality within mainstream educational programs throughout the Southwest;
(b) Declared as intolerant the anti-MAS Program policies implemented by Tucson public school officials; and
(c) Targeted associated legislation crafted by the Arizona governor and senior state officials as being solely motivated by racial (ethnic) bias.
So easily discarded by mainstream Anglo society as teaching “foreign” history, the Spanish- Mexican-native links to the land are compelling. To illustrate, present-day Spanish Mexican (mestizo)-descent students in Tucson (and Arizona) trace their lineage to the first paleo clans and Hohokam tribes to live in Arizona.
Although family oral history traditions assure the students that their long history matters, the lessons they are taught in the classroom treat them as foreigners in their own homeland. Feeling ostracized and rejected, a lot of them quit school in disgust. That’s exactly the problem the Tucson MAS activists wish to attack and defeat. Even so, the Tucson case is only the latest of a long list of obstacles Southwest people have faced head-on and overcome.
Albeit, following is a brief discussion of three cases: the Tucson MAS victory, California’s Mendez v. Westminster court decision, and the multi-faced Texas MAS example.
(l) Tucson’s MAS quest began in 2010 when the Arizona governor signed into law a bill designed primarily to stop MAS from being taught in the classroom. Using police-state tactics reminiscent of 1930s Germany, officials confiscated certain books from classroom shelves. To convey fear in students themselves, the books were removed while classes were in session.
The good news? On August 22, 2017 a federal court decision allows young Mexican-descent children to learn about their Southwest pre-1848 ancestors in the classroom. They will now hear through their lessons that they are not “strangers in their own homeland.” In truth, that’s all the fight was about. Nothing more, and nothing less.
(2) California, where the Mendez v. Westminster court case was tried, has long been an inspiration to equal education activists of Mexican descent. This trailblazing case actually began quietly when Mrs. Soledad Vidaurri took her two daughters, two nieces, and a nephew to the local school to register them for the 1943 school year.
She was greatly distressed when during registration, the school official told her that she could register her two daughters, but her nieces and nephew would have to go to the “Mexican” school.
The distinction was obvious to Mrs. Vidaurri. Her daughters were of light complexion, while her brother Gonzalo Méndez’ children had darker skin. (Strum, “Mendez v. Westminster”, 2010.)
Unwilling to accept the insulting segregated system, Mr. Méndez decided to fight, not only for his own children, but for all Mexican-descent students in Westminster. As such, four other fathers (Thomas Estrada, William Guzmán, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramírez) joined, with the Méndez family spending their own money to file the lawsuit.
In 1946, they won the case. Yet, the ruling wasn’t implemented until the next year. Still, the victory was bittersweet. While the decision was important, it did not end legal race discrimination in California and across the nation until 1964.
The 1947 Mendez v. Westminster court case decision exposed the deliberate segregation of Mexican-descent students by biased Anglo-dominated school boards, not only in California, but throughout the Southwest. (Note: A human interest documentary by writer/producer Sandra Robbie, “For All the Children (Para todos los niños)” received an Emmy Award in 2003.)
(3) Texas has its own equal rights battle scars and an impressive hall of heroes: Jovita Idar, Emma Tenayuca, The Pvt. Felix Longoria Affair, Willie Velasquez, Jr., MAYO, Dr. Hector Garcia, American GI Forum, José Angel Gutiérrez, Raza Unida, Alonso S. Perales, LULAC, 1954’s “Class Apart” U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Rodriguez (Edgewood) cases, Genoveva Morales v. Uvalde CISD, and so many others. Quite fittingly then, an additional victory for justice occurred last year.
That’s when a group of determined, dedicated grass-roots education supporters convinced the Texas SBOE that a MAS textbook proposed by one of their former board members was deeply flawed. Due to the group’s common sense approach, the Texas SBOE disapproved the textbook.
As well, similar incidents in New Mexico and Colorado were successfully handled against bigotry going back to 1848. The question is, why does MAS strike fear outside the Southwest Spanish Mexican community?
Speaking only through my own experience as a writer and speaker, it’s a clear case of failing to accept the true origins of a large portion (nearly half) of what today is the U.S. For instance, Santa Fe, New Mexico is the oldest capital in the U.S. There’s a good reason for that. Thankfully, MAS curricula will teach these lessons in the classroom as part of continuous Southwest history.
Sadly, mainstream U.S. society has been unsuccessful, with horribly tragic results, in Anglicizing Native American and African American heritage. In the Southwest, they are finding out the hard way, that they cannot Anglicize Southwest history. To be sure, the MAS movement victory is only the beginning and will only be successful when the seamless history of Texas and the Southwest is totally embraced in the classroom.
In summary, we are reminded that the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case, 2017’s Tucson MAS decision, and the rejection of the flawed MAS textbook in Texas is a journey toward parity that is far from over. Simply stated, we’re not there yet!
In that respect, the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) regarding the women’s rights drive ring just as true today for Spanish Mexican-descent citizens of the Southwest. Putting it all in perspective, she said: “The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Gonzalo Mendez, Jr.’s second-grade class picture from the 17th Street School in Westminster, California. Gonzalo was allowed to enroll in 17th Street after his father (along with Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino and Lorenzo Ramirez) brought suit against the city of Westminster. Photo courtesy of the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives, Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University.