Column: Walking out of class, into civil rights lore

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Diana Aguilera just wanted to be a cheerleader. Not such an unusual hope for a 14-year-old girl, even in the turbulent spring of 1969.

But Diana’s skin was brown, and the white folks who ran Crystal City High School would allow only one Hispanic on the cheerleading squad at a time. Never mind that Crystal City’s student body was almost 90 percent Mexican-American.

It’s strange to think that it took a dispute over cheerleaders to trigger one of the pivotal moments in Hispanic civil rights history. But on top of all the other indignities the students of Crystal City faced – the taunting, the paddlings, the petty injustices – something was destined to push them into action.

That action was a massive student strike that demanded equity and dignity for Mexican-American students in this small town 35 miles north of the Rio Grande.

“I lost a lot of friends over it,” Ms. Aguilera says today. “When we walked out, one of my best friends, a white girl, came up to me and said, ‘How could you do this? You’re a good Mexican!'”

This year, educators across America celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court case that declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. But this week marks the 35th anniversary of arguably the most important moment in the parallel struggles of Hispanics in education. And the only commemoration it will receive will be a brief school assembly in a small South Texas town.

“Crystal City really broke down the barriers for Mexican-Americans,” said Armando Trujillo, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of one of several books on the student revolt. “It opened up the school system to them.”

In the 1960s, the white minority that had long controlled Crystal City was losing its grip on power. A group of young Chicano activists wanted to address a series of problems, and the local schools seemed a good place to start to politicize the community.

Some of the students’ concerns may seem small today. But they were part of a larger pattern.

Each year, senior popularity awards were bestowed by a vote of the white faculty, not the student body – which meant the “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Most Handsome” and so forth were whites every year. Faculty also picked members of the National Honor Society without regard to grades – which meant more white faces.

The high school had a rule saying the homecoming queen each year had to be the daughter of a Crystal City High graduate – immediately disqualifying most Mexican-American students from consideration.

The school cafeteria even banned Mexican food. If students brought tacos from home for lunch, they had to eat them off-campus.

“The teachers told us we were stupid and ignorant because we were Mexican,” said Jose Angel Gutierrez, a 1962 Crystal City graduate. “They said, ‘We don’t have time for you. You’re never going to amount to anything.'”

Severita Lara, one of the leaders of the student movement, had been caught speaking Spanish on school property when she was in eighth grade. Standard punishment was three licks of the paddle or three days’ suspension. Severita got the licks.

“My dad was very, very upset,” she said. “He went to the principal and said, ‘You can hit my daughter if she talks back, or if she’s rude. But you can never hit her again for speaking Spanish. That’s my language, and it’s a beautiful language.'”

Going on strike

In the fall of 1969, students assembled a list of demands for school leaders: More Mexican-American history in the schools, bilingual education, smaller class sizes, no more requiring Mexican students to do janitorial work around the school.

And no more race quotas for the cheerleaders.

Diana and Severita were two of the three main student leaders. Mr. Gutierrez – a twenty-something activist with what some whites considered a radical vision of Chicano power – was the group’s mentor and organizer.

The administration resisted, and on Dec. 9, students went on strike. At first, about 200 walked out of classes. But in the coming weeks, the movement spread – first to middle school, then the elementaries. Soon, 1,700 of the district’s 2,300 students were officially on strike.

Picket lines formed in front of schools. The three student leaders went to Washington to ask the Justice Department to intervene. (“I had never been on an elevator before,” Severita remembers.)

Tensions grew as police arrested protesters and the hate mail piled up. “I hope someone will get our people to tar and feather you good-for-nothing cheaters and take you to Russia where you belong,” said one letter Ms. Aguilera now keeps in a scrapbook. “I am ready to pitch you to the wolves.”

Federal officials sent a negotiation team to settle things down. By then, the Crystal City walkout was getting national media attention. The next month, school officials finally gave in to nearly all of the students’ demands.

“I knew we were doing something special,” Ms. Aguilera remembers today. “We felt we had nothing to lose.”

Inspiring change

The victory in Crystal City led Hispanics elsewhere to seek similar reforms. Chicano activists and scholars consider the walkout to be one of the signal events of the Hispanic civil rights history.

A few days after school officials gave up, Mr. Gutierrez called a meeting of activists in Crystal City and formed La Raza Unida, a political party aimed at increasing Hispanic power. It would run candidates for statewide office through the 1970s and nearly played spoiler for Democratic candidates on several occasions. Mr. Gutierrez was elected school board president and, later, county judge.

So why is Crystal City a footnote and not celebrated like Brown vs. Board? There are some obvious reasons. Brown single-handedly changed the law for an entire nation. Crystal City inspired changes elsewhere, but its direct impact was strictly local.

And some in South Texas don’t view the late ’60s as Crystal City’s finest hour. They think of the walkout – and some of La Raza Unida’s actions after taking power – as too extreme. Some party members advocated more radical measures, like declaring an independent Chicano nation.

“The walkout was the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr. Trujillo, the UTSA professor.

“Now there’s almost a negative notoriety that it was too radical. Instead of saying, ‘Wow, it really helped us overcome all these problems,’ people are saying, ‘We’re past that, we’re beyond that. We want to see ourselves just as regular folks now.'”

Making adjustments

The more radical elements of Crystal City’s curriculum have long been stripped away. The district used to offer bilingual classes all the way to high school; now they stop at third grade. A beloved cultural studies class that focused on Mexican-American history was lost years ago.

“Now what they teach in Beaumont or Texarkana or Crystal City is all basically the same,” said Alberto Gonzales, a sophomore during the walkout and now Crystal City’s superintendent. “Our focus is not on a political agenda now. It’s on getting children ready for higher education.”

But the kids at Crystal City High School in 1969 were changed by the experience. Ms. Lara went on to become a science teacher – in part to spite the white school counselor who had prevented her from taking a chemistry class because she wasn’t “college material.” She’s now Crystal City High’s librarian.

(After her dad confronted the principal about being paddled for speaking Spanish, the school came up with a new punishment: If young Severita was caught speaking Spanish, she was sent to the library instead. “I guess that’s why I always loved the library,” she says now.)

Mr. Gutierrez went on to other political roles and is now a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “People don’t want to talk about our history,” he said. “Now people are understanding that we deserve to be powerful.”

Ms. Aguilera’s family rose to political prominence after the revolt – her mother became mayor, her father became sheriff, and her brother became the local district attorney. She works for the Dallas school district, as an investigator in its human resources department. And thanks to the revolt she helped lead, she ended up a cheerleader after all.