Mexican Americans have been challenging school segregation for over a century.”
When I began my doctoral program in the early 1980s, I was interested in history, education and Mexican American people, but I quickly discovered very little research on the historical experiences of Mexican Americans in U.S. public schools. I faced a scholarly dilemma—modify my academic focus or push forward.
Since charting my own path as an education historian, I have written about Mexican Americans’ schooling experiences from 1912 through the civil rights era, and provocative research has grown and energized this field since the 1990s. Historians uncovered how Mexican American children were unwanted in schools, forced to segregate, seen as intellectually inferior and expected to leave school at an early age. In contrast to the longstanding idea that education in America was the great equalizer, schools functioned differently for Mexican Americans. However, Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans and Hispanos/as (those with deep roots in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico) resisted school segregation and were not passive victims who accepted their educational fates.
Some are surprised to learn that Mexican American communities challenged school segregation decades before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Earlier school desegregation cases, notably Del Rio v. Salvatierra in 1930 (Texas), Alvarez v. Lemon Grove in 1931 (California) and Mendez v. Westminster in 1947 (California), showed that Mexican Americans knew school segregation was wrong, they resisted, and they contested the practice in the courts.
One early school desegregation case in Alamosa, Colorado, went unnoticed for more than 100 years. My co-authors, Gonzalo Guzmán and Jarrod Hanson, and I brought the Maestas v. Shone case from 1914 into the open in a 2017 publication, and the Maestas case has much to teach us.
It affirms that Mexican Americans have been challenging school segregation for over a century. It was unique, complex and hotly contested at the time. The story and legal strategies are compelling:
Francisco Maestas’ family moved to the white side of town, and he wanted to send his son, Miguel, to the school closest to home. Miguel was denied admission to the white school and was ordered to attend the district’s “Mexican school” across the railroad tracks.
The Hispano/a community organized, staged a boycott and, with the help of a local priest, raised money and hired a Denver attorney. The plaintiffs maintained that their children were being denied admission to the white school because they were racially distinct as Mexicans, and that the Colorado constitution prohibited classifying public-school children based on color and race. Defendants (school board members and the superintendent) argued that Mexican American children were Caucasians and the district could not be segregating them based on race.
The racial classification of Mexicans in the United States has a complicated history. Legal scholar Laura Gomez notes that after the U.S.- Mexican War of 1846–48, the naturalization of Mexican citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo suggested Mexicans had white status because naturalization was limited to white people. Gomez, however, is clear that there was also a broad understanding among EuroAmericans that Mexicans were not white.
Even as defendants argued that it was legally impossible for Mexican American students to experience race-based segregation, school officials asserted that segregating students based on language was appropriate. Non-English-speaking Mexican American students, they argued, had to be educated in a separate facility.
However, the court noted that school officials were sending all Mexican American children to the separate school, regardless of their Englishlanguage abilities. Judge Charles Holbrook ruled in favor of Maestas, finding that school officials could not prevent English-speaking Mexican American children from attending schools of their choice, particularly schools close to their homes.
Helping unearth this case with colleagues and the Maestas commemoration committee in Alamosa has been an honor. The case has received media attention, and last spring, the Colorado state legislature formally recognized it as “one of the earliest court victories involving Latinos against educational segregation.” A commemorative statue will be permanently placed in the Alamosa County Courthouse this fall. I hope the statue will serve as a reminder of this important history and the ongoing struggle for justice in education.
Parts of this article were originally published in “Francisco Maestas et al. v. George H. Shone et al.: Mexican American Resistance to School Segregation in the Hispano Homeland, 1912–1914” by Donato, Guzmán, & Hanson in the Journal of Latinos and Education, 2017.