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Fighting Discrimination in Mexican American Education

With the annexation of Texas in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War, Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent—lost property rights and political power in a society dominated by Anglos. Through discriminatory practices and violent force, Tejanos were kept at the bottom of the new political and socio-cultural order. From 1900–1930, as an influx of immigrants from Mexico came north to meet a growing demand for cheap labor in the developing commercial agriculture industries, Tejanos experienced continued discrimination in employment, housing, public facilities, the judicial system, and educational institutions. Many school districts segregated Tejano and Anglo children into separate facilities. The Mexican schools were grossly underfunded and often offered only a grade school education. In 1930, when 90% of the schools in South Texas were segregated, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Tejano advocacy group, supported a court challenge to school segregation. The Texas Court of Appeals, however, ruled that school districts could use such criteria as language and irregular attendance due to seasonal work to separate students. The struggle of Mexican Americans to end discriminatory practices accelerated following World War II. In 1948, LULAC and the newly formed American G.I. Forum, an advocacy group of Mexican American veterans, assisted in a lawsuit that eventuated in a federal district court decision prohibiting school segregation based on Mexican ancestry. Localities evaded the ruling, however, and de facto segregation continued. In 1955, LULAC and the Forum initiated a suit protesting the practice of placing Tejano children into separate classes for the first two grades of school and requiring four years to compete these grades. Ed Idar of the Forum, in an interview below, discussed this practice, which was finally outlawed in 1957. Student protests in the late 1960s—supported and complemented by a new civil rights organization, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)—achieved an end to more discriminatory practices and the introduction of bilingual and bicultural programs into schools. In the second interview, Pete Tijerina, the founder of MALDEF, related a successful student protest against discrimination.

Listen to Audio:

IDAR: That was the years when, in a lot of school districts, when a Mexican child first went to school, he was put in what they called a pre-primer. Spent a whole year there. Second year, he was put in the primer. Third year he would go into the first grade. By this time he was two years older than the average first grader—they were already behind. That’s why you had so many kids dropping out of school when they got to be teenagers. Here their Anglo counterparts were already two, three grades ahead of them. And here they were, so a lot of them dropped out and didn’t go to high school. Not only that, but a lot of the facilities in the Mexican barrios, the schools had the textbooks that were handed down from others, maybe didn’t have the best teachers, they didn’t have the best buildings. And that kind of stuff.


TIJERINA: Sometime in [19]70–71, high school Mexican-Americans walked out in protest claiming discrimination by the Abilene High School. The girls were bypassed for cheerleaders and various other school programs. So they walked out and the school expelled them—not suspended them, expelled them. We filed a lawsuit in Abilene in Federal court. There was a firebrand lawyer from Lubbock that came and filed the lawsuit, and we paid him. But instead of helping, he antagonized the whole community. So I went down there, and Judge Brewster from Fort Worth was sitting in Abilene, and I knew the judge, and I had to substitute counsel and remove the guy. We tried the case for a week before a jury. Finally we reached an agreement whereby the children were reinstated in school. And we waived money damages—we weren’t interested. And all of them went back to school, all of them finished school. And the leader, she went on to university, graduated, went to medical school. And now I understand that today she is a brain surgeon.

Source: Oral History courtesy of U.S. Latinos & Latinas and World War II Oral History Project, University of Texas, Austin. Interview with Ed Idar, organizer/volunteer for the American G.I. Forum and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, December 2, 2000, in San Antonio, Texas, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez. Interview with Pete Tijerina, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, December 2, 2000, in San Antonio, Texas, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and Maro Robbins.