The history of Mexican Americans’ efforts to desegregate schools shows that laws do not have to explicitly require separate schools to intentionally foster separation.
Certain movements have left enduring impressions in the American imagination. Brown v. Board of Education and the fight to end segregated schooling evoke images of young people like Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine tearing down racial barriers, as well as Alabama Gov. George Wallace shouting, in his 1963 Inauguration Address, that he wanted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” These events and other struggles for and against desegregation during the 1950s and 1960s are memorialized in textbooks and taught in public schools and colleges. Other group struggles, however, have not been woven into the American imagination. Little is known about them, and they are not given the attention they deserve in our schools.
Mexican Americans have a long but lesser-known history in the struggle to end school segregation and achieve educational equality. As Gary Orfield and colleagues (2014) note, at “the time of Brown and for years afterwards, extremely little attention was given to Latino segregation” (p. 22). The complex experiences of Mexican Americans are both distinct from and intertwined with the desegregation story of Black Americans — distinct in that Mexican-American students did not face state laws explicitly mandating or permitting their segregation, and intertwined in that school officials often segregated them all the same, arguing that they required separate classrooms or schools because of their language needs or the community’s desire to “Americanize” them (Gonzalez, 1990).
Five legal cases illustrate key facets of Mexican Americans’ experience with segregation and the ways in which their fight to desegregate has been different from, yet connected to, that of Black Americans.
Disentangling race and language
Francisco Maestas et al. v. George H. Shone et al. (1914) — which took place in Alamosa, Colo., a region where Mexican Americans have deep historical roots — was one of the earliest Mexican-American challenges to school segregation in the United States. Uniquely among the cases described here, this one highlighted the complex and hotly contested relationship between racial identity and language. That is, the Mexican-American plaintiffs argued that, whatever their home language, their children were racially distinct as Mexicans and, thus, should not be subject to the segregation they were experiencing in their local schools, since Colorado’s constitution prohibited classifying and distinguishing public school children based on color and race. In response, the defendants (school board members and the superintendent) argued that, in fact, the Mexican-American children were White, which meant that if the district was segregating them, it couldn’t be on the basis of race.
The argument that Mexican-American children were White may seem strange today, but it wasn’t unusual at the time. The racial classification of Mexicans in the United States has a complicated history. Legal scholar Laura Gomez (2007) notes, for instance, that after the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, “The collective naturalization of Mexican citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo suggested Mexicans had white status given that . . . naturalization was limited to white persons. Thus, Mexicans’ collective naturalization in 1848 prompted a legal definition of Mexicans as ‘white’” (p. 83). However, Gomez points out, there was also a broad understanding among Euro-Americans that Mexicans were not White because they were racially mixed. The history of the U.S. Census reveals the fluidity of the racial classifications that have been assigned to Mexicans over the decades: In some periods, the census has defined them as White, and in other periods it has assigned them their own distinct racial category (Wilson, 2003) — by contrast, the government’s racial classification of Black Americans has never varied in precisely this way. Thus, the Alamosa school board defended itself using an argument (these students were White, so they couldn’t be racially segregated) that nobody ever thought to use to justify the segregation of Black students.
The history of the U.S. Census reveals the fluidity of the racial classifications that have been assigned to Mexicans over the decades
Even as they argued that it was legally impossible for Mexican-American students to experience race-based segregation, the Alamosa school district officials asserted that it was appropriate to segregate them on the basis of language. Given the linguistic needs of non-English-speaking Mexican-American students, they argued, those children had to be educated in a separate facility. However, the court noted that, in fact, school officials were sending all Mexican-American children to the separate school, regardless of their English-language abilities. Judge Charles Holbrook ruled in favor of plaintiff Francisco 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 (Donato et al., 2017).
Legitimizing segregation as pedagogical choice
In the 1930 case of Independent School District v. Salvatierra, Mexican-American taxpayers filed a lawsuit to prevent the Del Rio, Texas, school board from entering into a contract to construct a school that would perpetuate the segregation of Mexican-American students. The trial court ruled in the Mexican Americans’ favor, and the school district appealed the case.
The appellate judge agreed that school authorities could not “assign [Mexican-American students] to separate schools, and exclude them from schools maintained for children of other white races, merely or solely because they are Mexicans” (Independent School District v. Salvatierra, 1930, p. 795). Mexican Americans were members of the “other White race,” the judge reasoned, and therefore there were no state laws that sanctioned their segregation. However, the appellate court ultimately reversed the ruling of the trial judge on other grounds, finding that Texas law granted school boards the power to manage, regulate, and construct schools in locations of their choice and to grade, classify, and assign students to schools in a responsible manner.
The opinion stated that housing and teaching elementary-age children of Spanish or Mexican descent in separate buildings was legal as long as there was no intent to discriminate based on race — and the court saw no such intent in this case. In short, the Salvatierra decision legitimated the idea that Mexican-American children could be segregated for instructional purposes and that the courts would defer to the pedagogical expertise of school administrators, even if the policies resulted in racial segregation.
An overlooked victory
In the 1931 Alvarez v. Lemon Grove case, argued one year after Salvatierra, Mexican Americans challenged the segregation they faced in Lemon Grove, Calif., a small community outside San Diego. School officials had decided to construct a separate school for Mexican-American children, and once it was completed, they barred those children from attending the now White-only school. However, Mexican-American community members did not idly stand by. They boycotted, sought assistance from the Mexican consul, and filed a lawsuit.
As in the Salvatierra case, school officials in Lemon Grove maintained that Mexican Americans had to be segregated to address their learning needs. The Mexican school, they argued, had a playground that was fully equipped, was in a more convenient location for Mexican children, and would better serve English language learners, helping to Americanize them quickly (Alvarez, 1986). In contrast to Salvatierra, though, the court in Lemon Grove did not defer to the pedagogical expertise of local school officials. Rather, the judge rejected the idea that segregation best served Mexican-American children’s educational needs. In fact, he concluded that curricular and pedagogical segregation ran counter to these students’ interests.
As in Maestas, the decision was grounded in state law: California’s constitution did authorize the segregation of certain races, but Mexican Americans were not among them. State law, the judge found, “did not authorize or permit the maintenance of separate schools for the instruction of pupils of Mexican parentage, nationality and or descent” (Alvarez, 1986, pp. 10–11).
Much like Maestas, the Lemon Grove decision also went largely unnoticed for decades. The case marked an important victory for one community, but while it might have served as the basis for further challenges to segregation in the state (and perhaps in the nation at large), few Californians became aware of it and thus its influence was limited.
A new precedent against segregation
It has been argued that the 1946 Mendez v. Westminster case was to Mexican Americans what the Brown v. Board of Education decision was for African Americans (Strum, 2010). Mendez was particularly significant because it was filed in a U.S. District Court, meaning that it established precedent in federal court and identified provisions of the Constitution that could be used to challenge segregation nationwide.
In this case, five Mexican-American parents sued the Westminster school district, just south of Los Angeles, to stop segregating their children. California’s school law explicitly permitted the segregation of certain groups, Chinese and Japanese among them, but (and as the court noted in Lemon Grove) Mexicans were not listed among those groups that could be segregated. School officials maintained that the segregation was not racially motivated and that it was done to serve English language learners. However, the court found that the segregation of Mexican children “was determined largely by the Latinized or Mexican name of the child” and not according to language proficiency (Mendez v. Westminster School District, 1946, p. 550).
The school officials went on to argue that a separate school would help in efforts to “Americanize” the Mexican-American students, but the court rejected this argument as well. In fact, evidence suggested that Spanish-speaking children’s efforts to learn English were slowed by lack of exposure to other English speakers, due to segregation, and that “commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children, which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals” (p. 549).
In short, the schools’ policy of segregating Mexican-American children, ostensibly for educational purposes, was found to be misguided because it prevented social interaction and thwarted the opportunity to develop a common cultural attitude. Further, and foreshadowing the Brown decision eight years later, the court noted that the existence of segregated schools implied a belief that Mexican-American children were inferior.
Although the school district appealed, the appellate court upheld the decision, ruling that the school officials did not have authority under California law to segregate Mexican-American students and that segregating them without such legal authority violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a historic ruling, drawing upon tenets enshrined in the U.S. Constitution to protect Mexican-American children from segregation. Still, though, it was grounded in California state law, leaving questions as to its applicability to other states.
A connection to Brown v. Board of Education
A final case, Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (324 F. Supp. 599 (1970)), represents an important connection between Mexican-American and African-American struggles against school segregation. Despite the victory in Mendez, it wasn’t clear at first that Mexican-American students would fully benefit from the protections resulting from the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Since Brown was viewed as prohibiting only de jure segregation (where segregation is the direct result of laws or other state action), and since states did not have laws permitting or requiring the segregation of Mexican-American students (i.e., they experienced de facto segregation), many courts reasoned that Brown’s constitutional protections shouldn’t apply to them.
The federal district court in the Cisneros case directly addressed this question, ruling that Brown did in fact apply to the segregation of Mexican students. Further, it also pushed against the distinction between de facto and de jure segregation, finding that segregation in Corpus Christi involved both types. Pointing to school board decisions that perpetuated segregation, such as where to build new schools, how to draw school attendance zones, and which students can transfer to which schools, the court found that “this segregated . . . school district has its real roots in the minds of men” (p. 617).
An ongoing struggle
Though no state statutes explicitly authorized the segregation of Mexican-American students, these cases illustrate how local school officials made intentional decisions that had the same effect. And when evaluating these actions, it is important to recognize that they should in fact be defined as de jure segregation. Legally, Mexican-American students may have been classified as White, but those students experienced segregation because local officials considered them to be not White. Schools didn’t segregate them to better serve their educational needs or to pursue a societal demand to Americanize them. Rather, they chose to segregate Mexicans because of their social status, discriminating against them on the basis of color and race.
How we understand this history will inform how we understand the continuing racialization and segregation of Mexican Americans and other Latinx students in the United States. Quite simply, this remains an unfinished matter. As Gary Orfield and colleagues (2012) note, “Latino students, who were ignored under most older desegregation plans, have become steadily more isolated from whites over the past four decades and are now the most segregated group of students in the country” (p. 76).
Some would rationalize this as little more than the result of normal and inevitable trends — demographic shifts, the return to neighborhood schools, the growth of charter schools, school choice, and other ways in which Americans opt to separate themselves from one another. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2010) explains, many Whites see segregation as natural, reasoning that people from all racial backgrounds gravitate toward likeness, and “that’s the way it is” (p. 37).
To frame the current situation this way is to adopt the de facto view of segregation, which suggests that government remedies are not warranted because government officials did not act intentionally to segregate students. We argue that, and as these five cases demonstrate, this reasoning is flimsy and should be abandoned or at least reconsidered. The segregation of Latinx students isn’t any more “natural” today than it was in past decades.
Still, though, we recognize that it will not be easy to persuade the courts to recognize that current patterns of school segregation are the result of intentional actions by state and local officials. In the 2007 case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court halted a voluntary integration plan that sought to bring together students of different races. According to the Court’s plurality opinion, school officials could only consider race in the assignment of students to schools if they have the compelling interest of “remedying past intentional discrimination.”
If educators and school officials hope to address the growing isolation of Latinx students, they will have to be fully aware of these competing narratives about de facto and de jure segregation, and they will have to be willing to challenge the perspective that currently prevails in the courts. When confronted with the realities of school segregation, educators should reflect on the ways in which existing enrollment patterns are shaped by past beliefs and decisions about Mexican Americans. The segregation we experience today isn’t natural, and it doesn’t result from the mere accumulation of private choices. Rather, it is the outgrowth of long-standing discrimination against Mexican Americans on the basis of their social status and mestizo heritage.
Alvarez, R.R. (1986). The Lemon Grove incident: The nation’s first successful desegregation court case. Journal of San Diego History, 32 (3).
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and racial inequality in contemporary America. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.
Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD, 324 F. Supp. 599 (1970).
Donato, R., Guzman, G., & Hanson, J. (2017). Francisco Maestas et al. v. George H. Shone et al.: Mexican American resistance to school segregation in the Hispano homeland, 1912–1914. Journal of Latinos and Education, 16 (1), 3-17.
Gomez, L.E. (2007). Manifest destinies: The making of the Mexican American race. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Gonzalez, G.G. (1990). Chicano education in the era of segregation. Philadelphia, PA: Balch Institute Press.
Independent School District v. Salvatierra, 33 S.W. 2d 790 (Tex.Civ.App.–San Antonio 1930).
Mendez v. Westminster School District, 64 F. Supp 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946) (No. Civ. 4292).
Orfield, G., Frankenberg, E., Ee, J., & Kucsera, J. (2014). Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retread and an uncertain future. Los Angeles, CA: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.
Orfield G., Kucsera, J., & Siegal-Hawley, G. (2012). E. Pluribus…Deepening double segregation for more students. Los Angeles, CA: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
Strum, P. (2010). Mendez v. Westminster: School desegregation and Mexican-American rights. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Wilson, S.H. (2003). Brown over “other White”: Mexican Americans’ legal arguments and litigation strategy in school desegregation lawsuits. Law and History Review, 21 (1), 145–194.
Citation: Donato, R., and Hanson, J. (2019). Mexican-American resistance to school segregation. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (5), 39-42.