In Texas, school segregation came in shades

Center for American History, University of Texas:

Photo by Russell Lee. 1949, Dimmitt, Texas.

You know about the segregation of black school children in the Jim Crow era, but do you know how it affected the Mexican American community?

For my third novel, I have done a lot of research about the experiences of Mexican Americans in schools in the 1930s. In reading about the logistics of segregating Mexican-American students in Texas, what stunned me most was that most kids were essential forced out of school by sixth grade. Enormously overcrowded classrooms  in the “Mexican” schools made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers with each year.

On top of that, the school districts in Texas often divided each elementary grade into two years (for example, “lower first,” “upper first”) in “Mexican” schools. The result was that–by middle school–Hispanic students were often told they were “too old” for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school.

In Houston in the 30s, only a handful of Mexican-Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. They faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no “Mexican” public high school as an option.

I also discovered that, unlike African-Americans, whose teachers–also African-American–were usually committed to helping students use education to combat their circumstances, Mexican-American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers, some of whom found theirs an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.

None of this is at the center of novel #3, but an unfavorable educational situation in San Antonio acts as one of the catalysts for a key relocation. Some of these details will, I hope, find their place in the plot, though. Because the three-fold school segregation in Texas–and its powerful, negative legacy for our communities–needs to be acknowledged.


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