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.