- Juan Castillo American-Statesman Staff
Texas didn’t always treat all schoolchildren as equals. It treated some differently based on the color of their skin or the language they spoke.
The justice system would make things right, but it’s a chapter in the historical saga of Texas that doesn’t get told as often as more romanticized ones. Draw your own conclusions.
Until the late 1940s, for example, the state public education system offered segregated campuses for Mexican-Americans called “Mexican” schools, though the children were Americans. The schools – there was one in Austin — usually had spartan facilities and a minimal curriculum often limited to vocational training, according to the Texas State Historical Association website.
“There was very little education going on,” says former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos Jr., who should know. In the mid-1940s, he attended the first grade at one of those “Mexican” schools in Bastrop, later renamed the Mina Ward School, a three-room schoolhouse on Main Street. Bastrop had another school for Anglo schoolchildren, another for blacks.
At school, a teacher handed him a crayon and a sheet of paper, Barrientos remembers. The bathrooms were outdoors. The teacher spanked students who spoke Spanish, he told me.
Many from my generation learned about that history of school punishment from our parents. My parents wouldn’t speak Spanish at home because they feared my siblings and I would pick it up and suffer the same second-class treatment they had endured for speaking the language at school. So, we learned Spanish on our own.
HOW WE GOT HERE: Former Bastrop council member pushed to preserve school’s legacy.
Barrientos’ time in the “Mexican” school lasted a year. The next year, he attended the “white” school, thanks to a landmark court case in 1948, Delgado v. Bastrop ISD, which led to the integration of Mexican-American children in “white” schools, changing the lives and, no doubt, the outcomes of millions of Mexican-Americans. This morning, Barrientos will return to Bastrop for the dedication of a Texas historical marker commemorating the case.
Texas has over 16,000 historical markers, but this will be the 100th of a subset of “Undertold Story” markers, according to the Texas Historical Commission. The moniker is fitting; Texans know about the historical segregation of African-Americans, but some are surprised to learn that Mexican-Americans suffered that indignity as well.
While the history has special meaning for Barrientos – he worked with former Bastrop City Council Member Kay McAnally to commission the marker — he thinks it should resonate with all Texans.
A Mexican-American political trailblazer in Travis County who served more than 30 years in the state House and Senate, Barrientos is still a sought-after and impassioned public speaker. If you’ve ever seen him give a speech, you can count on him to do two things: jokingly promise “I will not filibuster,” and exhort the audience to not forget their history and the “giants on whose shoulders we stand.”
“When I say these words, they’re for everybody,” he told me this week. “But specifically for Mexican-Americans, we have to know who we are, where we came from and how we fit into today’s world … What is that history? That point is difficult to understand for some people.”
The public-school system bears a responsibility, too, he added, “to teach all history, not just the founding fathers … but those who were here before the Europeans came.”
In the case of Delgado v. Bastrop ISD, the civil rights warriors Barrientos doesn’t want to see forgotten are gone: Gustavo Garcia Jr., a San Antonio attorney who argued the case; Dr. Hector P. Garcia, a Corpus Christi physician and founder of the American GI Forum; and George I. Sánchez, a University of Texas professor who headed the League of United Latin American Citizens.
They brought the class-action lawsuit against Bastrop ISD and four other school districts. Minerva Delgado, with whom Barrientos went to school with and who is expected to attend today’s dedication, was the plaintiff.
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Barrientos is right that civil rights heroes opened doors for succeeding generations of Mexican-Americans. Austin is a case in point. When once the city’s mostly white power brokers and movers and shakers faced a City Council that looked mostly like them, they now see a dais with surnames like Garza, Casar and Renteria. Before them came trailblazers like Gus Garcia, the first Hispanic to be elected mayor, and John Treviño Jr., Austin’s first Mexican-American City Council member, who died in April.
A footnote to Barrientos’ Bastrop story: He found integration into white schools was anything but seamless. He confided in his grandfather that some of his classmates called him names. Don’t blame them, his grandfather said, but the corral in which they were raised.
“We’ve got to tear down all these corrals where some people grow up,” Barrientos told me. “Corrals of poverty, bigotry, ignorance and prejudice. That’s what I’m trying to teach through this event. That this happened in our state and in our country. American children were not treated as Americans.”