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Access, Equity, and Cultural Pride

Many women activists have been called to  serve their community as educators. As teachers and PTA leaders, women  advocated for their children and for their community. In the Westside,  women have long faced the challenges of inadequate resources, racially  segregated schools and an Anglo-centric curriculum. They responded to  these challenges in numerous ways.

The foundation for Texas’  public education system was laid in 1854 under a law that called for the  organization of “common schools,” and provided a permanent school fund  to support them. In 1871 a public school system was initiated in the  state, establishing a state board of education. In reality, though,  access to education was sporadic and localized, and many Tejanos and  African Americans were shut out of public education through the latter  half of the nineteenth century.

In response to this exclusion  Mexican American communities in the Westside, like other Mexicano  communities throughout the Southwestern United States, created their own  schools. Parents and teachers organized to create escuelitas, run  primarily by women. They taught Spanish literacy, Mexican history and  sometimes English proficiency. These schools could range from family  living rooms to buildings that community members built – donating  bricks, wood, labor, and paying monthly tuition to support.

As  Texas public education expanded in the early twentieth century,  superintendents spoke out against escuelitas and pressured families to  send their children to public schools. Escuelitas persisted, however,  because they countered progressive era pedagogy. Public schools  emphasized assimilation and Americanization, and continued to follow an  1884 law that required public education to be taught only in English.  Children of Mexican descent were segregated from their peers in  inadequate facilities. Escuelitas offered a grassroots alternative by  teaching Spanish fluency and cultural pride. They also countered the  myth that Mexican Americans did not value education. The largest and  most well known escuelita was in Hebbronville, named Colegio Altamirano,  founded in 1897 and continuing until 1958. This school taught English,  Spanish and French, as well as art, music, and other subjects.

Mexican  Americans continued to advocate for integration and equity in the  public school system as well. Many women became involved in  Spanish-speaking PTAs, which met separately to address the needs of  Spanish-speaking families. These chapters offered one of the first  opportunities for women to interact with mainstream society. More of  these associations were created after school attendance became mandatory  in Texas in 1915. Women of Mexican descent initiated these chapters,  and enlisted the support of a few Anglo women teachers as members as  well. As these chapters proliferated the Texas PTA organized them into  geographical regions in San Antonio, Dilley, Corpus Christi, Robstown,  Houston, Kingsville and Austin. They sponsored a range of activities,  including planting gardens, purchasing musical instruments and  encyclopedias, and providing free lunches.

Mexican Americans  also issued legal challenges to school segregation. In 1930, Del Rio ISD  v. Salvatierra was the first time that Texas courts reviewed the  actions of local school districts regarding the education of children of  Mexican descent. Although this effort was unsuccessful, it helped LULAC  grow as an organization and accelerated the effort to desegregate  schools. LULAC promoted their efforts in Spanish-language newspapers  like La Prensa, sociedades mutualistas and Spanish-speaking PTAs  sponsored fundraising benefits. In 1948 in Delgado v. Bastrop  Independent School District, the United States District Court, Western  District of Texas, ruled that maintaining separate schools for Mexican  descent children violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States  Constitution. The ruling was not effectively enforced, however, and so  segregation continued.

In the next two decades Texas education  would experience major changes. In 1950 Sweatt v. Painter challenged the  “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The United  States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954  compelled states to end school segregation for African Americans. In  1970, this decision was finally extended to children of Mexican descent  in Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD.

While the legal efforts to  dismantle school segregation continued, Mexican Americans created  another educational alternative. In the late 1950s Felix Tijerina, a  Houston entrepreneur and president of LULAC, created The Little Schools  of the 400. Instead of focusing on Mexican history and culture, though,  these schools emphasized English proficiency. To address the high  dropout rate among Mexican Americans in public schools, the schools  sought to teach Spanish-speaking preschool children a vocabulary of 400  basic English words so that they could overcome the language barrier and  successfully complete first grade. The project was piloted in Ganado,  Texas in 1957, and LULAC established an educational fund the following  year. With that fund classes began in seven Texas cities, taught by  Mexican American women. Tijerina continued to work to use this model to  reform the Texas public school system. In 1959 HB 51: the Preschool  Instructional Classes for Non-English Speaking Children was enacted by  the state of Texas, based on the Little School Concept. In 1960 the  program hired 614 teachers and served more than 15,000 students in 135  Texas school districts. Little Schools may have also served as a model  for Project Head Start, implemented during the Lyndon B. Johnson  administration.

Tijerina, and others who were part of what is  often called the Mexican American generation, emphasized integration and  U.S. citizenship as the primary ways for Mexican Americans to achieve  upward mobility. However, another set of efforts in public education,  initiated in the 1960s, focused on integrating some Spanish language  into the normal curriculum. In 1964, the Laredo United Consolidated  School District launched the first bilingual program in Texas. Other  school districts utilized this model, and by 1969 Texas had sixteen  school districts with bilingual programs.

These efforts were  supported on a federal level with the passage of the Bilingual Education  Act in 1968, and in 1973, Texas enacted its own Bilingual Education  Act, which mandated that all Texas elementary public schools enrolling  twenty or more children of limited English ability in any grade level  must provide bilingual instruction. This abolished the long-standing  English-only teaching requirement. For decades, Texas teachers had used  these English-only laws to punish and humiliate students of Mexican  descent, including imposing fines (a penny for every Spanish word), or  having to write “I must not speak Spanish” on the board. These efforts  were tools to eradicate the culture and heritage of children of Mexican  descent, and had been documented for years by the United States  Commission on Civil Rights.

During the late 1960s students of  Mexican Americans/Chicanos continued to fight the discrimination they  faced in Texas public schools. In Crystal City in 1969, Mexican  Americans were prohibited from speaking Spanish in schools. Mexican  American students challenged their exclusion from school teams like the  cheerleading squad, and issued a set of demands including the  recruitment of more Latino teachers and counselors, more academically  rigorous classes, and more about Mexican history, culture and literature  in the curriculum. The board refused to hear their demands, and so on  December 9 they staged a walkout. Ultimately more than 2000 students  joined the picket line. A year earlier another walkout was staged at  Edgewood High School in San Antonio. The student council had demanded  better supplies, building repairs and a curriculum that included Mexican  culture and history. When negotiations failed, about 3000 students  walked out of their classes on May 16, 1968. After the walkout, the  district superintendent was removed and the city’s first Latino  superintendent José Angel Cardenas was appointed. The community also  elected a new school board.

The struggle for an equitable  educational system that offers adequate resources and integrates Mexican  history and culture into its curriculum continues to this day, and the  women of San Antonio’s Westside have been at the center of these  struggles.

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