From Three Rivers to Arlington: Mexican American Civil Rights to 1954

byMatthew Kelly


This unit for high school students of beginning through intermediate Spanish will explore the experiences of disenfranchisement and deportation, communal violence, and segregation as endured by Mexican Americans in the twentieth century to 1954. A major purpose of the unit will be to assert the importance of studying the Spanish language and the lives of Spanish speakers in the American context as integral parts of the American experience. The conclusion of our unit will be the story of Beatrice Longoria, widow of fallen soldier Pvt. Felix Longoria, and her struggle to bury her husband after the sole funeral home in her hometown of Three Rives, Texas refused to open its facilities to Mexicans. Dr. Hector Garcia, a Texas Mexican physician and activist mobilized support through a Mexican American veteran's group, the American G.I. Forum. The American G.I. Forum went on to play a significant role as a civil rights organization, taking part in major court cases that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education.

We will look primarily at the Mexican American experience beginning with the Plan de San Diego and the Texas Border War, 1915-1919. We'll examine forced population movement through the Mexican American deportations of the 1929-1939. Students will learn about Mendez v. Westminster, the 1946 case that outlawed school segregation for Mexican American children in the Ninth Circuit, in the context of the series of cases that led up to Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, we will learn how Pvt. Felix Longoria came to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Linguistically, we will identify key features of Mexican and Mexican American Spanish.


Somos americanos: teaching civic values for the minority majority generation

At current population trends, my students will live out middle agefor most, the years of highest earning and greatest voter participationin a "majority minority" United States.1 Spanish is an integral part of the studies that prepare students for citizenship. The story of Mexican Americans' struggle to negotiate a place as citizens across the first half of the twentieth century is an integral part of the United States' continuing renegotiation of its own sense of national identity.

At the start of the twentieth century, the United States was a white man's republic; the Supreme Court had only just granted birthright citizenship to nonwhites in 1898.2 The country was waging a war to annex Spanish lands even as vast stretches of territory wrested from Mexico in 1848 still awaited colonization by English speakers. Slavery was a living memory, and a vivid one. By the middle of the 1950s, the American self conception had changed so greatly that subsequent generations looking back would scarcely recognize as America the America that lay beyond the veil of the Second World Warthat is, if they dared to lift the veil at all. By viewing American history from the precarious vantage point afforded Spanish speakers in the United States as nonwhite white peoplethat is, legally white by treaty, socially nonwhite by customstudents will profit from a deeper understanding, not only of their Latino neighbors, but of their nation.

Background Information

I teach in a magnet program, the Academy of International Studies at Independence High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our magnet program serves approximately 300 students within an overall school population of roughly 2,200. The Academy's mission is to provide underserved communities with a comprehensive education grounded in service learning and global awareness.

Independence High School was for many years the largest high school in North Carolina and is still a large, urban high school. For most of my first decade there the student body was overwhelmingly African American, approaching eighty or even ninety percent in some years. Over the last three years redistricting has shifted our school's geographic area towards majority white neighborhoods near the school.. White students now make up a majority, roughly 60%; African American students make up approximately a quarter of the student body. The remainder is mostly Latino, with numerically small but highly visible Asian representation.

The "new" children my school serves have not faced the same challenges my high-poverty students face, but their childhoods have witnessed a steady erosion of family net worth and earning power. From 2008 to 2011 median sale price of homes in the neighborhood dropped 30% of their value; distressed home sales for the area for 2011 represented 35% of total sales.3 Census data shows that from 2000 to 2010 median household income decreased by as much as 20% across the area my school serves.4 At the same time, the majority white portion of my school's zone is politically and socially conservative, consistently voting Republican at rates ten percentage points or higher than the rest of the county.5 There is no shortage of voices in the media offering such families an array of ready scapegoats for their predicament. The racial climate is still generally good, but I have to be increasingly vigilant about anti-Latino and anti-immigrant hostility voiced by white and African American students.


I have never seen a zebra in February: why a Spanish teacher teaches history

I would not suggest it is a bad thing to know the provinces of Spain. I want my students to appreciate the contributions of the indigenous and transplanted African cultures of Latin America. I want my students to value the natural beauty of the Spanish-speaking world and hope they will appreciate the potential impact on it of their economic choices. I imagine a great many well-intentioned educators feel the same way. I would hope that is why my students' Spanish textbooks have always been full of maps of Spain, travelogue photos of exotic locales and picturesque natives in colorful traditional garb.

Of course, the people to whom my students will speak Spanish will, for the most part, be neither in nor from the places pictured in their textbooks. My students will first and foremost speak Spanish to Spanish speakers here, which is to say, in the United States. Many of them will have been here for years. Many of them will have been born here. Few will have relocated from beaches or castles. I love this!

Do we teach Black History Month the way we teach Latino culture and geography? In the last week of January, do we ready our schools by putting up bulletin boards of men in traditional Masai garb? Do we teach the lives of Americans of African descent by posting photos of Malindi Beach and sharing videos of the wildlife of Etosha National Park? Having spent a great part of my life in the public schools, I have never seen a zebra in February. Yet, we teach the culture and geography of Spanish speakers this way. The maps, the lists of rivers and mountain ranges, the posters of castles and the ethnographic photos of native dancers communicate that Spanish speakers are foreign and exotic.

Do the images and methods we use to teach about Spanish speaking cultures undermine our endeavors as language teachers? When we portray Latino identities as "foreign" we run the risk of sapping students' motivation by associating our subject area with places far removed from students' daily lives and ideas of what it means to be "American." Our emphasis here will be on presenting Spanish speaking cultures and identities in the American (that is to say, United States) context—the context, where most of my students' present and future interaction with Spanish speakers will take place.


One hurdle I face in teaching this unit is that classroom instruction in World Languages is expected to be 90% in the target language. The complexity of the historical and legal content will require instruction in English for all but my most advanced students. In the "flipped classroom" model, students view teacher lectures at home and apply knowledge in class instead of listening to lectures in class and applying knowledge at home. Using video and other digital media posted online will help meet goals for target language use in the classroom and help minimize classroom management issues.

In the classroom itself, student produced visual imagery can create an immersive and content rich instructional environment. In a unit covering the 1968 student movement in Mexico, I had students recreate protest placards carried by demonstrators by looking through archival photos of the marches. When all the posters were up on the wall the impact was impressive and greatly enhanced the students' experience of the unit. I plan to mobilize student creativity to produce artwork and student generated wall timelines to the extent appropriate.

One important element of the unit will be community involvement. Public performance can be a powerful strategy to promote student engagement. Last year, my students participated in the community Days of the Dead festival at the Levine Museum of the New South presented by Charlotte's Latin American Coalition. They entered an ofrenda (memorial altar) in a community display and contest. The wake of Pvt. Felix Longoria will make an apt subject for this year's Days of the Dead ofrenda if students are so moved, and I believe they will be.

Content Information and Student Activities

Race War and Segregation in Texas and the West

Hector P. García, founder of the American G.I. Forum, was born in 1914.The United States' fourteen year war to annex the formerly Spanish Philippines had ended seven months earlier. The residents of South Texas still spoke Spanish, read Mexican newspapers and used Mexican currency; Anglo-Saxon settlers would not take possession of those lands in large numbers for another decade.6 Fifty two U.S. persons were lynched in 1914, only two of them white.7 The United States was still a nation actively engaged in the seizure and settlement of Spanish speaking land, and where the subordination of nonwhites was enforced by violence.

Against this backdrop the border conflicts of 1915-1919 unfolded, taking on the trappings of full scale race war. The New York Times reported on Mexican newspapers' portrayal of the border violence as a "revolution of negroes" seeking "full equality with whites."8 In the Texas Border War a pattern of ethnic conflict manifested as paramilitary irregular warfare emerges which would be repeated in the destruction of the Greenwood district of Tulsa in 1921, where whites brought machine gun emplacements and aerial bombardment to bear against African American civilians. 9 Benjamin Heber Johnson sees the Texas border conflicts of 1915-1919 as a critical turning point for Mexican American segregation and for the Anglo construction of "Mexicanness" as an unassimilable, non-white identity. He notes that Jim Crow style segregation of Mexicans was instituted in the wake of the border disturbances, also known as the Texas Border War or Texas Race War. 10 While this period is also precisely the period where Jim Crow laws are codified elsewhere, Texas's unique circumstances merit attention.

In 1915, Texas officials arrested a Mexican agent carrying handbills outlining a plan for anarchist revolution in the states lost to Mexico in 1848: an army of Mexicans, blacks, Japanese, and indigenous peoples would kill all Anglo males over 16 and establish a republic. 11 The revolution would then be launched to wrest six additional states from the U.S. Cleansed of whites, these would become a black republic. Indigenous lands would also be reclaimed from the U.S. and restored. Known as the Plan de San Diego, after a small town in Texas, the discovery of the grandiose scheme was followed by acts of sabotage and series of bloody raids on Anglo settlers. The insurrectionists mounted hundreds of raids, killing 126 whites and destroying property and infrastructure. Texas Mexicans died by the uncounted hundreds, even thousands. Some of the slain were revolutionaries; most were ordinary campesinos caught up in a bloody wave of Anglo reprisal. The Texas Rangers and later the U.S. Army confronted the raiders, known as sedicionistas, but the raids did not stop until the Carranza government of Mexico negotiated for U.S. recognition and suppressed the anarchist raids from the Mexican side of the border.12

Historians disagree as to the extent the Plan de San Diego uprising enjoyed popular support. The traditional view is that the sedicionistas were part of a plot by embattled Mexican president Venestusiano Carranza to win recognition from the U.S. and enjoyed little if any popular support. 13 Prominent Mexican Texans themselves did organize armed vigilante excursions against the raiders. 14 Historian David Montejano reports, however, that considerable popular support among Mexicans existed for the Plan on both sides of the border and conspirators made very real (but unsuccessful) efforts to recruit African American support. 15

The counterinsurgency tactics of the Texas Rangers nonetheless created a climate of ethnic violence and intimidation: lynchings, torture and summary execution. 16 Paramilitary action against civilians killed hundreds of Texas Mexicans, perhaps thousands; intervention by the United States Army in South Texas shielded Mexican Texans from indiscriminate violence, and according to one historian played a major role in establishing a Mexican American identity linked to the United States, not merely to Spanish-speaking Texas.17 The sedicionista raids ended with the United States' recognition of Carranza, but border conflict short of all out war with Mexico continued until 1919.

Segregation of Mexican Americans

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted citizenship to Mexicans who chose to remain in the conquered territories.18 As the Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only whites could be naturalized as U.S. citizens, the treaty conferred de jure white status on Mexicans.19 This legal (but not social) "whiteness" the treaty conferred upon Mexicans created an important distinction between Jim Crow segregation and the segregation imposed on Mexicans. Segregation of Mexicans, in force throughout the Southwest, was of necessity a matter of custom rather than of law, because Mexicans' "white" status was protected by treaty.

Prior to the 1920s, there was hardly anyone in South Texas to segregate Mexican Texans from. Southern Texas was within the Mexican cultural and economic sphere before the arrival of large agribusiness concerns in the 1920s: people by and large spoke Spanish, read Spanish newspapers, and used Mexican currency; children attended Mexican schools.20 The rise of anti-Mexican segregation in Texas specifically in the 1920s may have reflected the import of cultural attitudes and practices from elsewhere in the South, or it may have been simply a function of rising white population density.

In the first half of the twentieth century, over thirty states had laws imposing at least some restrictions on individuals based on race.21 Through racially restrictive housing covenants, legally enforced residential segregation was a fact of life nationwide.22 In the South, Jim Crow laws laid down uniform state-wide regulation of all contact between black and white. From Texas to California, Mexican Americans could be assured of unequal access, but the precise degree of inequality was dictated by local mores and the proprietor's caprice. Even within one jurisdiction, intermarriage between whites and Mexicans could be at times permitted and at other times punished with imprisonment.23

Practically speaking, most white public accommodations were barred to Mexicans: swimming pools, theaters, pool halls, barber shops and restaurants.24 In relatively urban areas a large enough Mexican middle class existed to create the parallel world of Mexican public life and public amenities.25 Where the Mexican population was not large or prosperous enough to sustain separate amenities, those amenities simply did not exist and were not available, as we shall see with the case of Pvt. Felix Longoria.

Mexican Americans were, like blacks, excluded from juries. They could vote, however. Not only could Mexican American citizens vote, but up until 1927 in Texas even noncitizen Mexicans were allowed to vote if they declared their intention to become naturalized. White political machines depended on what was seen as a large and docile voter pool easily controlled through patronage.26

Student Activities for Race War and Segregation: Texas and Tulsa, 1915-1921

We will compare the Ranger and vigilante violence of the Texas race war of 1915 with the Tulsa pogrom of 1921. While there is reliable count of the death toll from the Ranger and vigilante violence that drove so many thousands of ethnic Mexicans from their South Texas homes, most historians place the figure in the hundreds. 27 The border violence in Texas was spread out over four years, 1915-1919.

The Tulsa Race Riot of May 31-June 1, 1921, by contrast, lasted two days. Historian James Hirsch recounts that a driving impetus behind the white attack on the Greenwood district of Tulsa was the fear of an armed black uprising. 28 On the other hand, a clear motive appears to have been ethnic cleansing, as the city of Tulsa attempted to block reconstruction of the Greenwood district with a "fire ordinance." Estimates taken from Red Cross records place the total number of dead at around 300. The mayor of Tulsa praised the destruction, likening the violence to "warfare."29

The sediciosos supporting the Plan de San Diego were fighting a very real race war. Plotters circulated fliers announcing a call to armed uprising against the white population and sediciosos murdered scores of farmers. In response, there were summary killings, there were house-burnings; there was forced resettlement. However, the hated rinches, as the Rangers were known in Spanish, did not slaughter the elderly as they prayed; they did not set up machine gun nests against civilian populations as whites did in Tulsa. Whites responded to an imaginary race war with blacks in Tulsa with greater savagery and less restraint than they did to a real race war with Mexicans in Texas.

Students will discuss the following in their journals or through commentary in digital voice recordings: how, then, do we characterize the anti-Mexican violence of the Texas Border War years? Was it a calculated counterinsurgency or an outbreak of opportunistic racist hooliganism? What do the similarities and differences between the two "race wars" tell us about the racial hierarchies of Texas and Oklahoma during this period?

Student Activities for Race War and Segregation: Texas 1914-1919 and El Salvador, 1932

In 1932, the army of El Salvador carried out La matanza ("The Slaughter") in response to a peasant uprising organized on ethnic lines. Communist peasant agitators, mostly Pipil indigenous people of El Salvador's westernmost provinces, had risen up in revolt January 22-23 of 1932. The poorly equipped rebels targeted soldiers, government officials, and local elites. The rebel actions were accompanied by abuses such as maimings, amputations, and beheadings. Killings were targeted, not indiscriminate; across two states, fewer than 100 individuals were killed. 30

A swift and brutal response from the nation's army was followed by a longer period of vigilante death squad action against the Pipil. Tens of thousands of indigenous Pipil were killed merely for walking about in native dress, for speaking Pipil, for having a Pipil surname, or simply for being known as indigenous. The result was a near total ethnocide. Today only 1-2% of the population identifies as indigenous Pipil. 31

In groups of up to three individuals, students should record a conversation on the following topic: compare and contrast the violence against Mexican Americans with the 1932 Matanza in El Salvador. Why didn't white Texans drive all the Mexicans out or force them to assimilate, the way El Salvador did to the Pipil? Would those have even been options?

Student Activities for Segregation of Mexican Americans

Three clear conclusions may be drawn from the UCLA 2009 report on re-segregation in the United States.32 First, American schools are more segregated now than fifty years ago. Second, the new face of segregation is overwhelmingly Latino. Third, the most integrated schools in the nation have been in the South, from 1970 to 2004. Meanwhile, the most segregated schools in the nation are in the North and West. 33 Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in particular is a leading example of a school system that maintained community support for desegregation even after the courts withdrew support for desegregation. Brown v. Board of Education has had lasting and meaningful effect in precisely the former Jim Crow states.34

Students will do research to find the most segregated schools in the nation. Using faculty directory information online, they will contact Spanish teachers at those schools in Spanish and ask them about their experience teaching in a segregated setting. Students will ask these teachers to facilitate contact with student volunteers at these schools and will pose questions of Spanish speaking students about their experience learning in a highly segregated setting.

The Mexican Repatriation of 1929-1939

The relocations of Native Americans, most notably the Cherokee, and the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War Two are the American experiments in forced relocation of populations best known to North Carolina schoolchildren. 35 Other forced migrations and resettlements of the twentieth century affected greater numbers of people and are relevant to contemporary American life and politics.

Before the Depression, nearly one and a half million Mexicans lived in the United Statesone tenth of all Mexicans.36 During the Depression, from 1929-1939, roughly two thirds of the ethnic Mexicans in the United States were pressured to return to Mexico; tens of thousands were forcibly deported. Sixty percent of the "repatriated" population was comprised of United States citizens, both naturalized citizens and ethnically Mexican individuals born in the United States.37 In many cases, repatriated families had their property in the U.S. confiscated as municipalities placed liens on their homes to cover their transportation costs. Children born in the United States were ineligible for basic services in Mexico and often faced significant hardship, even starvation.38

Student Activities for Forced Resettlement

Students should present their reflections on the topics in writing or as digitally recorded voice commentary.

Students may discuss: What is meant by "ethnic cleansing"? Were the United States' "repatriations" of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression and following the recession of 1953 comparatively humane responses to economic crisis? Or does the scale of the repatriations amid an overall climate of racial subordination place the United States on the same level with countries such as Australia, with its "White Australia" immigration policy, or El Salvador, which carried out extensive suppression of minorities? Was there an element of ethnic cleansing to these mass deportations and immigration enforcement action? Is there an element of ethnic cleansing to the drive in some circles for more aggressive immigration enforcement today?

Alternately, students could discuss the following: Operation Wetback started in California and later spread to Texas. While growers in California agreed to back the program, white farmers in Texas vigorously opposed Operation Wetback and promised to do everything in their power to stymie the federal government's efforts. On the other hand, mainline Mexican American civil rights groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum actively supported Operation Wetback.39 First, record your comments on why you think this may have been so. Then, ask Spanish-speaking classmates or community members if they believe there is tension between Spanish speakers who are U.S. citizens and those who are not. Record their responses.

The bracero program

During World War II, the United States and Mexican governments signed a series of agreements allowing for the flow of agricultural laborers from Mexico to the U.S. While the program was intended to be temporary, the so-called bracero program lasted from 1942 until 1964. Over the bracero program's twenty-two years, over two million Mexican workers were employed. American agribusiness' almost total reliance on Mexican hands to move food from American fields to American tables may be traced back to labor markets and practices created by this program.40

In Texas and the Southwest, the immediate effect of the bracero program, with the mass influx of cheap Mexican labor, was twofold. First, the new arrivals competed with Tejanos and other Mexican Americans for jobs, undercutting the earning power of established immigrants. Second, the flood of new immigrants virtually erased the memory of the established Mexican American community's presence: any Mexican American was presumed to be an immigrant, a new arrival, and not an American.41 While some Mexicans benefited in the short term from their increased earning power, the loss in earning power and social standing the bracero program brought to Spanish-speaking permanent residents of the United States was significant. The main beneficiaries of the program were large agribusiness concerns.42

Student Activities for the bracero program: Teaching the Topic

In this activity, students will have the option of producing a digital lesson outlining the details of the bracero program in the target language. The lesson must include a voice recording and may include digital imagery. Students should especially address the attitude of established Mexican American civil rights groups to the mass influx of Mexican labor. Mainline groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum actively supported tight immigration controls, opposing large scale legal immigration and supporting efforts to deport unauthorized workers.43 Why was this? Projects will be posted online as a resource for learners and educators.

Student activities for the bracero program: the H-2 visa program

The present day successor to the bracero program is the State Department's H-2 visa program for agricultural laborers. Students selecting this option will contact an individual at the state or local level who has direct contact with H-2 visa holders or those who employ them—state or local agriculture officials, farmers, or visa holders themselves. Students will survey respondents for comments on the program and will post collected responses on a class website.

Waking Pvt. Felix Longoria: The American G.I. Forum and Mexican American Activism

When the body of Mexican American Private Felix Longoria returned to Three Rivers, Texas from the Philippines after the Second World War, the sole funeral parlor in town refused to allow his widow to use the venue for a wake. Longoria's widow Beatrice contacted Dr. Héctor García of the American G.I. Forum, a Mexican American veterans' association.44

Beatrice had her own difficulties. Felix had been killed in 1945 and his body was not returned from the Pacific until 1949. In the interim, she had taken up with a young man of whom her in-laws disapproved. Tom Kennedy later used the scandal over Beatrice's family problems as another reason for denying her use of his funeral parlor, and local Anglo leaders engaged in an ugly smear campaign to tarnish Beatrice Longoria's name and embarrass Lyndon Johnson and Dr. García.45 Tom Kennedy had his own troubles; he was a recent transplant from Pennsylvania with a young wife and child. He was an outsider, and seems throughout the affair to have been motivated more by personal and economic insecurity—fear that "the whites wouldn't like it"—than by any other motive. Sadly, in bowing to his neighbors' prejudices he failed to understand the nuances of South Texas racial mores. In reality, the Longoria family was well respected by Anglos, and while another family might well have been denied service by locals, the Longorias almost certainly would not have been. Even worse, Kennedy embarrassed the locals by bringing South Texas racism to the attention of national media.46 In the end, he suffered greatly, reviled by people on all sides of the dispute.

The controversy over the incident raised the issue of Mexican American civil rights to international prominence and marked a milestone for the Latino civil rights in this country. Ultimately, the American G.I. Forum enlisted the aid of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson in securing for Pvt. Longoria a burial with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The American G.I. Forum later worked with the League of United Latin American Citizens and the NAACP in challenging discriminatory practices; they were instrumental partners in Hernandez v. Texas, the 1954 case that struck down the exclusive selection of all-white juries.

Student Activities for Waking Pvt. Longoria: Tom and Beatrice

Students will read excerpts from Patrick Carroll's remarkable and engaging book, Felix Longoria's Wake. Carroll gives portraits of two of the main actors in the saga of the young war hero's burial: Beatrice Longoria, Felix's widow, and Tom Kennedy, the proprietor of the funeral home in Three Rivers. Students will write an informal letter, in Spanish, writing either as Tom Kennedy to Beatrice Longoria or as Beatrice Longoria to Tom Kennedy. Students will state the position of either persona in requesting or denying use of the funeral home facilities and will offer support for their arguments.

Student Activities for Waking Pvt. Longoria: LULAC and the American G.I. Forum

Students will use selected readings to compare the achievements of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum with those of the NAACP. Students will be able to explain briefly the significance of Mendez v. Westminster and Hernandez v. Texas. At the same time, students will look at criticisms leveled at all three organizations by detractors within their own communities, especially Ian Haney López.47 How do the criticisms compare? Are the criticisms fair? Students will publish their reflections as a blog post in Spanish.

Student Activities for Waking Pvt. Longoria: Days of the Dead

Students will take part in the community Days of the Dead celebration hosted by the Latin American Coalition and the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina. Students will build and present an ofrenda (memorial altar) commemorating the life, service, and death of Felix Longoria and other Latino veterans. Students will present the ofrenda to festival visitors and will be able to discuss the events in question with members of the public.

Student Activities for Mexican Spanish

Students will use personally available technology, mostly cell phones, to record videos of Mexican and Mexican American volunteers sharing examples of Mexican dialect and accent with explanation. Students will work in small groups to edit clips together and will upload the assembled videos to a class website as a resource for teachers and learners.

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