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Mexican Americans’ Struggle for Integrated Schools in the Civil Rights Era

One may think that African Americans were the only population group that experienced the tragedy of segregation and unfair treatment in the USA’s civil rights period. However, the country’s history knows some other, no less excruciating, examples. Among such, there were Mexican Americans, whose position in the civil rights era was no less vulnerable than that of blacks. Still, the treatment of these two racial minority groups by society could not be called analogous. Despite experiencing bias on the part of white Americans, some Mexican Americans simultaneously attempted to prevent blacks’ integration into society (Behnken 13-14). Still, the majority of hardships that befell these two ethnicities in the 1950s-1960s were quite similar. Both Mexican Americans and African Americans faced barriers blocking their ways to economic, political, and, most importantly, social progress (Behnken 14). One of such obstacles prevailed in the system of education and minorities’ access to it. Despite the general opinion that Mexican Americans occupied a better position than blacks in civil rights society, the former’s struggle for integrated schools was no less complicated than that of the latter.

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World War II Period

The principal reason for Mexican Americans’ unequal access to schools lay in the State of Texas’s failure to pass the civil rights resolution in the World War II period. Despite numerous attempts undertaken by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) activists and other organizations, “rampant discrimination” against Mexican Americans persisted (Guglielmo 1212). Furthermore, there were many other ethnic groups that strived to gain the Caucasian rights, which were a much better deal than immigrant or minority groups’ ones, such as Asian Indians, Italians, or light-skinned African Americans (Guglielmo 1214). Overall, the Caucasian rights seemed to be “the only ones worth having” in the 1940s (Guglielmo 1214). It is necessary to note, though, that there was no unity in the political struggles fought by different groups: whereas some fought to obtain Caucasian rights, others grappled with preserving theirs (Guglielmo 1214). Mexican Americans’ struggle was of the first kind rather than of the second. One could argue that Mexican Americans’ hardships were similar to that of African Americans, and this holds true for a number of cases. For instance, both black and Mexican American people were considered as “racially degenerate and inferior groups” (Behnken 14). However, there is much evidence indicating that African Americans were in a much less stable position, and their rights were violated more. The most brutal aspect in favor of this argument is that Jim Crow laws pertained to African Americans’ fights’ and freedoms’ limitations. At the same time, the inferiority with which Mexican Americans were treated did not reach such an unprecedented scale as that with African Americans. While blacks fought to eradicate Jim Crow segregation, Mexican Americans principally positioned their race as white to refrain from Jim Crow altogether. As a result, one can make two conclusions about Mexican Americans’ initial movement toward integration. Firstly, they endeavored to separate themselves from African Americans in the struggle, which added to the misunderstandings between the two groups. Secondly, Mexican Americans’ attempts to do so did not bring positive results, which led to serious issues both in their communication with the state authorities and the blacks. Mexican Americans and African Americans did not form a coalition in the 1940s (Guglielmo 1218). Neither did they succeed in doing so in the 1950s or 1960s (Behnken 14). Overall, Mexican Americans faced “a dizzying array of disadvantages” at schools in the 1940s (Guglielmo 1218). This fact demonstrates that even if to some extent, Mexican Americans were in a better position than African Americans, they experienced inequality in access to education starting with the 1940s and continuing in the next decades.

Civil Rights Era

The problem of Mexican Americans’ access to integrated education in the civil rights era did not gain a resolution, either. Both African Americans and Mexican Americans still faced numerous injustices when attempting to receive education. With blacks, the situation was much harsher, their attempts to desegregate schools being oppressed by white activists (Behnken 40). However, it is not possible to state that Mexican Americans’ position was much better. In fact, both of these minority groups experienced the duality of the Jim Crow system (Behnken 40). Evidently, Mexican Americans were able to “force” desegregation harder than African Americans could (Behnken 40). Still, this distinction between the two groups’ success in ending segregation was no so obvious. According to Donato and Hanson, Mexican Americans’ civil rights struggle on school integration was lesser-known, but quite long (39). The “complex experiences” of Mexican Americans were both specific and interconnected with those faced by African Americans (Donato and Hanson 39). The distinction lay in the fact that there were no state laws categorically sanctioning their segregation. Meanwhile, the connection was manifested through school officials’ individual decisions segregate students, stating that the latter needed autonomous classrooms or even schools. Such a decision was justified by the lack of some students’ knowledge of the English language or by the community’s attempts to Americanize Mexican American children (Donato and Hanson 39). Researchers review several legal cases proving that Mexican Americans’ school segregation experience had common features of the African American one, even though both were particular in their own ways. One of such cases was based on the detachment of language and race (Donato and Hanson 39). Another issue was concerned with legalizing segregation “as pedagogical choice” (Donato and Hanson 40). In a lawsuit filed against the school board, a Mexican American community argued against the construction of a school that would continue segregation. Whereas the trial court supported the community, the appellate court reversed that ruling. The rationale behind the decision was that it was legal to teach Mexican American students in separate buildings since “there was no intent to discriminate based on race” (Donato and Hanson 40). From these examples, it can be seen that Mexican Americans might have relished comparatively easier access to integrated education in comparison to African Americans, but they still faced many obstacles on the way.

Free Public Schools

Along with discussing the complications Mexican Americans experienced on their way to gaining equality in education, one cannot but admit that African Americans’ hardships were much more numerous. The main idea of the schooling system in the 1950s-1970s was to unite the nation by means of installing free public education. All children were supposed to have the same curriculum, and students from diverse backgrounds could “learn under the same roof” (Donato 12). The system seemed to work well since it provided education for over 35 million immigrants. However, public schools missed out on a “significant portion” of the U.S. population, which was composed of African Americans, who were “marginalized” in schools (Donato 12). The attention of segregation researchers has been largely focused on the problems faced by African Americans. However, this ethnic group’s “plight” has overshadowed the historical memory of other minorities, which demands a reconsideration of American Mexicans’ segregation issues (Donato 1). As Behnken remarks, Mexican Americans not only boycotted the school districts’ decisions but also encouraged blacks to support them in the fight for their rights (195). Mexican Americans based their community efforts on mutualism and reciprocity (Najera 33). Meanwhile, African Americans did not do so, and the percentage of black and Mexican American students attending integrated schools in the 1970s varied greatly. Namely, Texas had the highest number of African American students in integrated schools, whereas the percentage of Mexican Americans in such schools was the lowest in the country (Behnken 196). Therefore, one cannot say resolutely that African Americans’ right to integrated education was the most oppressed of all during the civil rights era.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mexican Americans’ fight for equality during the civil rights era was rather complicated. Whereas most of the historical data focus on the hardships of African Americans, other minority groups, including Mexican Americans, suffered no less, and sometimes even more. The problems for Mexican Americans’ recognition originated before the civil rights period, back in World War II time when the State of Texas failed to pass the civil rights resolution. Since then, the community struggled for several decades to prove its children’s right to attend integrated schools. While an opinion prevails that Mexican Americans’ position in regard to school segregation was better than that of the blacks, the struggle in which the former was engaged cannot be called less important or difficult than that of the latter. Not only did Mexican Americans suffer from the government’s decisions but they also lacked African Americans’ support in decisive moments. Hence, it is crucial to consider all minority groups when analyzing the history of segregation rather than focus only on African Americans. There were other ethnicities that experienced unequal treatment and fought relentlessly for equality, Mexican Americans being among the most prominent ones.

Works Cited

Behnken, Brian D. Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas. The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Donato, Rubén, and Jarrod Hanson. “Mexican-American Resistance to School Segregation.” Equity and Excellence in Education, vol. 100, no. 5, 2019, pp. 39-42.

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Donato, Rubén. The Other Struggle for Equal Schools: Mexican Americans During the Civil Rights Era. State University of New York, 1997.

Guglielmo, Thomas A. “Fighting for Caucasian Rights: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and the Transnational Struggle for Civil Rights in World War II Texas.” Journal of American History, vol. 92, no. 4, 2006, pp. 1212-1237.

Najera, Jennifer R. The Borderlands of Race: Mexican Segregation in a South Texas Town. University of Texas Press, 2015.

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