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“Judged by Your Peers”: Fighting Discrimination in Texas Court Rooms

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. In addition, many were disenfranchised, due to poll tax requirements and all-white primaries, and excluded from jury duty. The struggle of Mexican Americans to end such discriminatory practices accelerated following World War II. In the early 1950s, attorneys for two Mexican-American civil rights groups, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Hern´┐Żndez v. Texas that exclusion from jury duty based on class constituted discrimination. The state of Texas acknowledged that in the previous 25 years no person with a Spanish surname had served on any juries. The Warren Court ruled unanimously that persons of Mexican American ancestry did constitute a class within the community in which the original trial was held, and that exclusion of Mexican Americans from juries resulted in a denial of the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment for Mexican American defendants. In the following interview, Pete Tijerina, a member of LULAC and the first executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), discussed all-Anglo juries and other discriminatory conditions in Texas society in the 1950s and 1960s.

Listen to Audio:

TIJERINA: I was starting practicing law in '51 and almost immediately I started trying and became a criminal trial lawyer. And, you know, I could first-hand see the discrimination, the ability to get a fair shake from a jury. You know you’re supposed to be judged by your peers of your community, and certainly those jurors were not the peers of my clients who were poor people from the West Side.

INTERVIEWER (Maro Robbins): “And how could you tell?”

TIJERINA: In their judgments, they wouldn’t hesitate to render guilty verdicts, they wouldn’t listen to them. Organization was critical, necessary. There were horrible discrimination cases against Mexican-Americans. There were signs on restaurants: “No Mexicans Allowed,” you understand? Signs on bathrooms in public buildings: “No Mexicans Allowed.” All of that, we had to fight all of those things. It wasn’t given to us by the State of Texas, you understand? This all came through the federal government under the 14th Amendment.

Source: Oral History courtesy of U.S. Latinos & Latinas and World War II Oral History Project, University of Texas, Austin. 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.