Opinion: Mexicans – A Forgotten Force in the Civil Rights Movement
Did you know that 36 years before it was President Obama’s famous campaign slogan, “Yes we can” it was originally Cesar Chavez’s union slogan, “Si se puede”? Figurative translation: Mexicans did it first. Unbeknownst to the majority, Mexicans were instrumental in setting important precedents for America’s civil rights movement. This is not to downplay African Americans’ role in the movement whatsoever, rather it is simply to shed light on the fact that Mexicans were there fighting alongside them to end racial discrimination against all people of color. Here are a few forgotten incidents and people that helped shape America to be the inclusive country it is today.
Alvarez vs. Board a.k.a. Lemon Grove Incident
23 years before Brown v Board, there was Alvarez v Board. San Diego County’s very own Lemon Grove Incident is the very first court case that ruled school segregation to be illegitimate. During the Great Depression, California was seeing increasing racial tensions between Whites and Mexicans due to the intense competition for jobs. It went so far that the school board of Lemon Grove Elementary ordered the principal to physically block the Mexican children from entering the school on the morning of January 5th, 1931. Forcing them to return home. Outraged parents, including the Alvarez family, then formed a neighborhood committee (Comite de Vecinos de Lemon Grove), hired attorneys, and took the school board to court. The court ruled that the school board had no lawful basis for their decision and therefore ordered them to allow the Mexican children back to their school.
George I. Sanchez – Texan Civil Rights Activist
In 1951, Mexican activist and Texas Native, George Sanchez founded the American Council of Spanish-Speaking People (ACSSP) which was the very first Mexican-led attempt at establishing a national civil rights organization. The ACSSP fought for equality by funding court cases that challenged segregation and wrongful discrimination. They successfully won several historic court cases, desegregated public housing areas, and helped fight segregation in at least 6 public grade schools.
Hernandez vs. Texas – Equal Protection for Mexicans
1954 case, Hernandez v Texas was a landmark in Mexican-American civil rights. It was the very first case to be, 1) held by an all Mexican jury and, 2) at the Supreme Court. Long story short, Pete Hernandez was convicted of murder by an all-white jury. Hernandez appealed on discriminatory terms because there were no Mexican judges present. The jury’s defense was that because Mexicans were classified as white due to their partial Spanish/European descent they were not allowed the same rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause that blacks were entitled to. As a rebuttal, the point was made that Mexicans should be classified with blacks because they were blatantly discriminated against in the same way. The court then unanimously ruled in favor that Mexicans and any other “minority nationality group” would also be included under the Equal Protection Clause. This ruling was a very important precedent in cases to come regarding discrimination in schools, housing, and voting rights.
Mendez vs. Westminster – The End of All Segregation in California
Mendez v Westminster was the most important case for all minorities living in California. Gonzalo Mendez and 4 other Mexican fathers of children in Orange County, CA united to take the Westminster school district to court because the district would not allow their children to attend the same schools as whites. Once the case made it to the Supreme Court, the NAACP, ACLU, Japanese American Citizens League, and the American Jewish Congress all filed a joint brief to support Mendez in his quest to challenge segregation. Finally, in 1946, Justice Earl Warren ruled to outlaw all segregation in the entire State of California.
The significance of these victorious stories highlighting how Mexican Americans helped drive the civil rights movement is that these were the historic rulings and individuals which set major precedents for even bigger cases and incidents to come. They played a big role in normalizing desegregation, conditioning whites to accept some people of color, setting the groundwork for darker people to be accepted. Which of course we know this happens later in the 1950s and 60s with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Brown v Board, etc.
Although these stories are about fighting racism in 20th century America, they can still be inspirational for all citizens regardless of race to take pride in their history as strong Americans. Change can be made in the face of real adversity by taking matters personally, peacefully and legally. In the almost countless great stories where the pursuit of equality prevailed over injustice, it was achieved through education, peaceful protesting, and through means of the justice system. This proves that when there is a just cause, people will follow, and equality will win. America is a land of endless opportunity and freedom – so long as we choose to pursue it and so long as we believe we can achieve it.