Monday, January 26, 2009

Walkout in Crystal City


When students take action, they create change that extends far beyond the classroom. A former teacher from Crystal City, Tex., remembers the student walkout that helped launch the Latino civil rights movement 40 years ago.

by Gregg Barrios

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mexican Americans/Chicanos across the state of Texas made their voices heard in a civil rights movement that would change the state forever. Few people know that the movement began when students in a small farming community took action in a dispute over who could and couldn't be a high school cheerleader.

I witnessed that movement from a front-row seat, as a teacher in Crystal City, Texas.

In 1969, Mexican Americans were prohibited from speaking Spanish in school. There were no classes or lessons about Mexican history, culture or literature. The contributions of Mexican Americans were not included in textbooks.

Mexican Americans were — and remain — the overwhelming majority in Crystal City.

At the time, nearly half of these were migrant farmworkers. In spring, migrant parents took their children out of school, often before the semester had ended, and sometimes didn't return from the migrant circuit until after the fall semester had started.

During that summer interim, local government and school officials — all representing the Anglo minority — would select candidates for fall elections and pass measures, rules and regulations to maintain control of the absentee majority.

The city council wasn't the only place where the Anglo minority was overrepresented. If you looked at the local high school's cheerleading squad, you would never know that most people in Crystal City were Mexican American. While school cheerleaders had been elected in the past by the student body, once Mexican American youth became the majority in the schools, the rules were changed. A faculty committee now decided the selection. Only one Mexican American cheerleader was allowed, while the other three positions were only for Anglos.

In 1969, when two cheerleader positions were vacant, Chicano students were told they could not fill the vacancies since their quota of one had been met. The school board also imposed a requirement that any candidate for cheerleader had to have at least one parent who graduated from the high school.

Mexican American students cried foul. School administrators did not help, so students met with the superintendent, who decided on what he considered a more equitable quota system: the selection of three Anglos and three Mexican American cheerleaders.

Anglo parents protested against the superintendent's "caving in" to Chicano student activists. The school board nullified the superintendent's concessions and added an incendiary resolution that any future student unrest would be met with expulsion.

Student leaders took their concerns to the school board.

"Boy, you're out of order!" shouted one board member, as one student began to address the board.

The board then refused to hear the students' demands, which included recruitment of more Hispanic teachers and counselors; more classes to challenge students and fewer shop and home economics electives; bilingual-bicultural education at the elementary and secondary levels; Mexican American studies classes to reflect the contributions made by Latinos; and the addition of a student representative to the school board.

Frustrated and intent on making their case known, high school students staged a walkout on Dec. 9, 1969. More students joined each day, until more than 2,000 students were walking the picket line.

Once junior high and elementary students joined their brothers and sisters in solidarity, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) sent negotiators to end the walkout and get the students back in school. The board, however, continued to play hardball and nixed the TEA proposal to close the schools early for the Christmas holidays.

By then, the media had descended on the town. Mexican Americans in neighboring South Texas towns beset with similar issues of discrimination identified with the student walkout in Crystal City.

Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough invited three student leaders to Washington, D.C., to discuss the discrimination in their schools. They also met with Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. George McGovern, who in turn alerted officials in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare of the serious situation in Texas.

Back home, Texans for the Educational Advancement of Mexican Americans (TEAM) mobilized educators to Crystal City to teach the striking students during the holidays. Since the schools were closed, they met in a community dance hall.

I was one of the teachers who answered the call to tutor the striking students. I was immediately taken by the poise and confidence of the striking students, but more impressed by their eagerness to learn. I was humbled when the students asked if I would return to teach once the walkout was over. I told them I would seriously consider it.

Overwhelmed by the pressure, the board finally held a hearing. On Jan. 9, 1970, student demands were reluctantly approved. The hard-fought student victory energized and educated the community. In the spring, Mexican American candidates swept the school board and the city council elections.

And in September, keeping my promise, I joined the Crystal City schools as an elementary bilingual teacher. The following year I moved to the high school as the Senior English teacher.

Within two years, the schools' faculty, administrators and superintendent reflected the Mexican American majority of the community. More students were finishing school; a majority of the graduates were attending some form of higher education. Crystal City graduates were receiving acceptances from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Texas, as well as local area junior colleges. Some of those student leaders have gone on to hold key positions at the school and in state government.

The Crystal City student walkout remains a high point in the history of student activism in the Southwest. Crystal City provided both template and inspiration for any community faced with economic or civil discrimination.

Above all, it gave us participants a sense of individual and communal destiny in the knowledge that a common cause can bring about justice, unity and change.

In the rallying cry of the United Farm Workers and the more recent U.S. immigration reform protests: "Sí, se puede."

Yes, we can.

NOTE: Gregg Barrios taught in the Crystal City schools for 10 years. Since then he has been a successful journalist for the Los Angeles Times and more recently was book editor of the San Antonio Express-News. He is now a full-time playwright. The San Antonio Express-News recently selected Barrios as one of nine artists who are on the verge of breaking through in 2009.

Discussion Questions:

1. Barrios notes that many of the students involved in the walkout went on to attend Harvard, or attained prominent positions in government. Why does he point this out? Why would Harvard be interested in students who participated in the walkout? Why would these students be more likely to achieve success later in life?

2. Crystal City students wanted to see Mexican American subjects addressed in the classroom. How well do the lessons in your classroom reflect the world you see every day?

3. How did the Anglo minority manage to control a town that was mostly Mexican American? Do you think similar things are going on today?

[This essay first appeared in the Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine, Teaching Tolerance, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.]

◙ Rigoberto González, an award-winning writer and author most recently of Men Without Bliss (Chicana and Chicano Visions of the Americas) (University of Oklahoma Press), reviews Ruins by Achy Obejas (Akashic Books) for the El Paso Times where he notes, in part:

On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Achy Obejas pays homage to those who persevere on the island -- despite a lifetime of political and economic turmoil -- with the celebrated release of her stunning new novel, "Ruins" (Akashic Books, $15.95 paperback).

The year is 1994, and Usnavy Martín Leyva, notwithstanding his Yankee-inspired name, is a staunch nationalist and fiercely loyal to Castro's ideologies. But because of food shortages, the rise of a black-market economy, and obnoxious camera-wielding tourists invading even his leisurely game of dominoes, it's difficult to deny his disillusioned neighbors' assessment that reclaiming Cuba for the people "didn't turn out exactly like we thought."

***

"Ruins" is a beautifully written novel, a moving testament to the human spirit of an unlikely hero who remains unbroken even as the world collapses around him. A fine literary achievement by the graceful author of "Days of Awe" and "Memory Mambo," it's Achy Obejas at her very best.

To read the entire review, click here.

◙ Álvaro Huerta (author and contributor to La Bloga) alerts us to an article entitled "Gardeners reap the pain of recession" by Anna Gorman of the Los Angeles Times. The subtitle is: "As the economy worsens, those who provide the extras -- housework, lawn care, pool service -- feel the pinch first." The piece begins:

Every time a client calls, Martin Alamillo gets nervous. Since last summer, more than 10 of his clients have discontinued their weekly gardening service. Several are behind on their payments, including one woman who owes him nearly $1,000.

Alamillo and his two crews are still out mowing lawns, blowing leaves and picking weeds, but he estimates that business is down as much as 20%.

While the economic crash has affected businesses from real estate to retail, gardeners like Alamillo have been among the hardest hit as homeowners looking to save money dust off their lawn mowers and take care of their own yards.

Gardeners, like housekeepers and pool cleaners, are seen as extras when people's houses go upside down or when they lose their jobs, said John Husing, an economic consultant based in Redlands.

"You can cut your lawn. You can clean your house," Husing said. "These are those little extra goodies when you are feeling flush. They are also some of the first to go away when you are not."


The complete article may be read here.

◙ Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced on Saturday, January 24, at a packed event at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in Manhattan. The finalists for NBCC's forthcoming awards for books published in 2008 included the late Roberto Bolaño for his novel, 2666 (Farrar, Straus), and Juan Felipe Herrera for his poetry collection, Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press). You may read the entire list here.

Daniel Alarcón, acclaimed author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight, sends this news to La Bloga:

The third and last installment of my essay on the inauguration of Barack Obama is up on Granta today. The complete text (all 3 parts) will be published in Spanish in the next issues of El Malpensante and Etiqueta Negra:http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/The-Inauguration

◙ That’s all for this week. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope an interview with Herrera is in the works after the announcement of his prize nomination. This is very inspiring news about one of our hardest working veterano poets and I would love to hear his take on the recognition that is finally coming his way.

Doret said...

This is the first time I am hearing about the Walkout in Crystal City. Gracias

Anonymous said...

I understand that before the walkout Most CCHS grads were accepted at eather UT or A&M without Sat test Scores as CCHS Grads were required to cary a full 22 credits to graduate. And after the walkout CCHS almost lost its accredition

tbsamsel said...

I started school in Crystal City after my dad, a physician, came back from the Korean War. We moved to Crystal City and he started a practice there. He learned Spanish since most of his patients spoke mainly Spanish. So I started to learn Spanish, too.

I started school (first grade) and found that most of the other kids were Mexican-American and I made the mistake of speaking Spanish with them. I was taken in a paddled by the principal, Darrel Ray. Anglos could be punished for speaking Spanish, too. I think Ray didn't like my dad because he gave non-anglos equal treatment, medically. I saw an obituary in the Uvalde paper last month and saw that Mr. Ray had passed on. Good riddance.

del said...

wow the sudents in crystal city did an awsome job!!!if it was'nt for them there would still be alot of discrimination with mexican.am

Anonymous said...

OH HOW BEUTIFUL ARE THE MEMORIES FROM "CRISTAL." I SOMETIMES CLOSE MY EYES AND IMAGINE I AM STILL THERE GROWING UP. YES LIKE EVERYWHERE ELSE, YOU HAVE THE BAD MEMORIES OF EVENTS THAT YOU TRY TO FORGET, BUT ONLY IN CRYSTAL CAN YOU GET THE WHOLE CAPIRUTADA OF THE CHICANO/MEXICAN UPBRINGING WITH A DASH OF GRINGO. THE FAMILY ENVIRONMENT WHERE YOU COULD WALK INTO A NEIGHBORS HOUSE WITHOUT KNOCKING AND VISE VERSA, ALL THE TIMES WHERE WE WOULD ATTEND PARADES DOWNTOWN,JAMAICAS, LA PLACITA, JUAN GARCIA PARK, CANELAS BAKERY, LOPEZ BOXING CLUB, SUGAR SHACK, CROSS Y, PIRONES, EL CONOCO DE FEGO, EL CAMPESTRE, LA ZAVALA, LA FLY, LA HIGH SCHOOL,TAPIAS, AYANAS, OH AND HOW COULD WE FORGET LA GRAMMAR. WHAT ABOUT THE TACOS DE TASTY TACO, POPEYES, EL OASIS, AND PETRITAS MEXICAN PLATE. ONLY IN CRYSTAL CAN YOU GET AN UPBRINGING THAT LEAVES YOU WELL GROUNDED, ROUNDED, AND PREPARED FOR THE WORLD OUTSIDE ITS BOUNDARIES. "SOLAMENTE DE CRISTAL SALEN LOS DE DEVERAS. CRISTAL SIEMPRE HA SALIDO ADELANTE!"--- DONACIANO RIOS. THAT IS SO TRUE! GOD BLESS YOU MI GENTE DONDE QUIERA QUE SE ENCUENTREN.

andy m flores said...

I know what you mean, me and my brothers were in the lopez boxing club. We enjoyed living in crystal,considering all the flores family was from there! The bailes and the spinish festival is what always kept that town alive!I am proud to say that my parents were born in crystal city Thank you andy m flores.