Aurelio Montemayor testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, San Antonio, Texas
Date: December, 1968 (see also in this edition, Interview of Aurelio Montemayor)
In mid-December, 1968, while the future of the 172 boycotting high school students at Edcouch Elsa, Texas remained in limbo, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission was holding hearings in San Antonio. Ostensibly, the objective of the hearings was to report to Congress regarding the condition of Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Three of the witnesses invited to address matters involving Mexican American public education in Texas were Aurelio Montemayor (Del Rio), Edgar Lozano (San Antonio) and Lupe Chavez (Edcouch Elsa). Montemayor had been a high school English teacher at Del Rio ISD during 1965-1967 and at the time of his testimony was a Project Director for the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Termination of the VISTA program would lead to the Del Rio March in the Spring of 1969. Governor Preston Smith would remove the program from Val Valde County upon the request of local politicos. As a junior, Lozano had been one of the student leaders of the Lanier High School Mexican American students grievances the prior Spring. Chavez was the father of several students who had participated in the Edcouch Elsa walkout. Mr. Chavez’ testimony was in Spanish.
U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearings held in San Antonio, Texas, December 9-14, 1968
Testimony of Aurelio Montemayor
Whereupon, Mr. Aurelio Montemayor was sworn by Commissioner Hesburgh and testified as follows:
TESTIMONY OF MR. AURELIO MONTEMAYOR, DEL RIO.
TEXAS COMMISSIONER HESBURGH: Mr. Rubin, proceed, please.
- RUBIN: Mr. Montemayor, could you give us your full name and your address and your occupation, please?
- MONTEMAYOR: My name is Aurelio Manuel Montemayor. I reside at 601 Water Street in Del Rio, Texas, and presently I am a supervisor for a special VISTA project in Del Rio, Texas.
- RUBIN: Did you teach at the San Felipe High School at any time?
- MONTEMAYOR: Yes, sir. I taught from 1964, September of 1964 and the year, the scholastic year after that and then I left for a year and went back another year, so I taught 3 years in San Felipe High School.
- RUBIN: That is within the San Felipe Independent School District?
- MONTEMAYOR: Yes, sir, the same school that was shown on the slides.
- RUBIN: What is your view of the cultural orientation of the teacher training program and of the courses prescribed by TEA for teacher accreditation here in Texas ?
- MONTEMAYOR: Well, first I might preface that by saying I did my undergraduate work at St. Edward’s University in Austin, which is also almost a sister school to Notre Dame. And I audited some courses in education, but I did not take them because I did not feel they were adequate for what I wanted to do. At the same time I wanted to be—I wanted to get my degree in English. I taught for 2 years and then returned to the University of Texas in Austin to see if I could find some courses that I would find adequate to help me teach the Chicano child because I did not have a single Anglo student in my 3 years of teaching, I looked at the curriculum in the education department of the University of Texas at Austin and I audited some courses. I took some in the English department. But outside of an NDEA institute which I was not part of, I could not find a course that was suitable and adequate for what I needed to teach those students.
- RUBIN: Well, what was your own experience during your first year of teaching?
- MONTEMAYOR: Frustration.
- RUBIN: Could you explain that?
- MONTEMAYOR: Yes, sir, in detail. First of all, I brought with me the textbook that I used 3 years and I will quote something from the center of the textbook. This is the literature textbook which is still being used. I think they have had it for about 7 or 8 years, it is a state-approved textbook, the part that starts a chronological study of American literature. It says America is an open society in a number of ways and it goes on. Then it says, the first comers to America were mainly Anglo-Saxons but soon came Dutchmen, Swedes, Germans, Frenchmen, Africans. Then the great 19th century period of immigration added to our already bubbling melting pot. Then later on, it said the Spaniards came.
So, my students had no idea of where they came from according to this textbook if they were part of American society.
- RUBIN: What is the. name of the textbook, please?
- MONTEMAYOR: The textbook is Adventures in American Literature, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company.
- RUBIN: What courses, Mr. Montemayor, did you teach?
- MONTEMAYOR: The course that I taught, except for one for one class I had of freshman English, was third year English in high school, juniors in high school.
- RUBIN: What effect does the cultural orientation in the school have on the students?
- MONTEMAYOR: Well, I think I can best describe that by the last semester I did of teaching, which was second semester last year, ended in May. I was thoroughly frustrated with the textbook because no matter how much I loved the literature in it, the students could not relate to it. And one of the primary rules I find in teaching, even though my experience is brief, I have plenty of reading done to back me up, that you have to reach the student at his level and bring him up from there. Even though the works in here are adequate from a literature point of view, they are totally inadequate from the point of view of these students. And so, the second semester I said—.” I had them read that carefully and think about it and they said, “They left us out, sir.” And I said, “Right.” So, let’s see if we can write our own textbook.
By this time I was sneaking in as much Spanish as I could into the classroom because I didn’t know whether it was allowed or not, and trying to see if I could get them to write and read and understand the English language which they need to deal in this society.
Since my background was quite cushioned, I didn’t realize that so many people that had my same cultural ancestry, my father is still a Mexican citizen, were so cut off. And so, I started with a paper called “Who Am I?” and with some essay questions: What is culture? What are my culture roots? What do my culture roots have to do with what I am today? They started writing their own textbook. They told me in their own words that they were inferior to the standards of this country. That no matter how much they tried they could never be blonde and blue-eyed. And some of them almost cried when they said it, but I wasn’t putting anything in their minds, I said, “Okay, work it out. What are your standards? What are the standards of this country?” And what they told me, and they wrote down, I had them sitting in a circle facing each other. I was on the outside. And on the paper, they all—well, not all, but 97.2 percent of those students told me, “The five most important things in my life are money, education to get money, security, based on money.” And one girl out of the whole 120-odd students told me human dignity, and things like that. They could not understand those concepts. And that is when it completely hit me in the face that they were somehow or other warped, distorted and I as a teacher was responsible for this.
I had them make wall-size montages covering the classroom, they were calling me a hippie teacher for that, where they told me in their own words and pictures from magazines what American culture was to them. It was violence, it was rejection of many things in our culture. But they had very little positive to tell me. Very few positive things.
And even though I don’t have an expertise in psychology, that is very bad sign. To top it all off, they couldn’t find any pictures in magazines of Mexican Americans to put on these montages, and we had about 6,000 magazines that they brought to the classroom, and I let them cut into them, use them, communicate. I said, “If you can’t write a story like Hemingway, at least communicate in some way.”
And I put aside a very carefully planned outline for teaching because it was adequate for me, but it wasn’t adequate for them. Then for the last 6 weeks I said we are getting a lot of pressure from a lot of teachers and from colleges to teach research. The standard research taught is kind of a literary research or a pattern that they follow, this machine-type thing where they go to the library and they copy from some encyclopedias and they hand it in, all the form, but nothing up here. Totally lost.
They get to college and they come back frustrated. And some of my own students told me, “You never taught us anything that we could use, no grammar.” You try to teach grammar the way you are taught how to teach it. But it doesn’t work with these kids. These constructs are beyond them. And so, you have to work down at a level that is almost insulting to them and they realize it. So, you are losing out on all ends.
So, I said, “You are going to do research, okay. But I am going to tell you what. Maybe if you do research in your own community here in San Felipe. And I am going to give you a very broad topic and you are going to fight it out from there.” I said, “Study the causes of poverty and of the situation here in San Felipe.”
Each class had to do one paper, and they had 4 weeks to do it, the last 4 weeks of school, which are harried weeks. And I said, “I want you to do—.” I had books all over the place. I was going to teach them sampling, statistics, and things like that.
They went out into San Felipe and I told them that each class is going to decide its own topic. They spent a week just deciding what they were going to talk about, and those were rough weeks, because I was just an antagonist, I was not feeding them any good ideas, they were fighting it out. They came out with the seventh period, which is probably the sharpest class, came out with a title, “Does San Felipe Have an Inferiority Complex?”
They studied the schools, they studied discontent in San Felipe community.
And as a matter of fact, a couple of the classes, since the topic is so common, tried to find out about the Laughlin situation. This caused a lot of stir. I had a lot of repercussions. The school had repercussions for this.
A little girl—well, she is small in size—and a boy were assigned by their classmates to go interview some families on the base. Their questions were: Do you know about the San Felipe schools? Would you let your children attend these schools? Yes or No? Why?
I didn’t know when they were going to do this and one night I was at another place and they came to me very scared and said, “Sir, some MPs just picked us up.” And I was frightened, because I was in some way responsible. And so, they told me that they had gone to about 20 homes on base, and then somebody had complained that they were asking questions, and they were escorted to the gate of the base. They told me it was by the commander. I don’t think so, but anyway they were very frightened. And the next day I was called in and told that these affairs were not for the students to be meddling into.
Well, they had already interviewed about 20 families, and they found favorable answers. Only one lady said that she wouldn’t send her children to those dirty schools They had them there for a semester, the neighborhoods were so dirty and all of that, and the schools were falling down. And of course, the students were finding this out on their own and, of course, as far as morale, it couldn’t have been lower.
But I told them, “Wait, put this on paper. You all write this down, you write your own conclusions and we will make copies.” And each class came out with its own survey.
The first period did one on food and consumer guides and things like that. They are not sophisticated at all, but they are the true work of the students. And it woke a lot of them up to be more concerned about their situation.
- RUBIN: Mr. Montemayor, did any of the parents who were interviewed indicate that they had never heard of the San Felipe District?
- MONTEMAYOR: Yes, sir. The little girl told me, “Sir, you know what some of those ladies there—they were very nice, but they had never heard of the schools.”
- RUBIN: Mr. Chairman, I would just like to introduce—first I might ask, Mr. Montemayor, if this is a typewritten version of the essays that your students wrote?
- MONTEMAYOR: Yes, sir. They weren’t some of the best ones.
- RUBIN: I would like to introduce this document into the record, Mr. Chairman.
COMMISSIONER HESBURGH: So ordered.
(Whereupon, the document referred to was marked Exhibit No.24 and received in the record.)
- RUBIN: I have no further questions COMMISSIONER HESBURGH: Dr. Rankin?
COMMISSIONER RANKIN: No
COMMISSIONER HESBURGH: Mrs. Freeman?
COMMISSIONER FREEMAN: No.
COMMISSIONER HESBURGH: Dr. Garcia?
COMMISSIONER GARCIA: I will ask just one short question, Mr. Montemayor.
Then it is your opinion from that brief interview, really, that no choice was actually given to the parents there whether they really wanted to go to the San Felipe or Del Rio Independent School District? Is this your impression or result?
- MONTEMAYOR: From the interview—
COMMISSIONER GARCIA: Yes, from the interview.
- MONTEMAYOR: Yes, from that interview that the student related to me.
COMMISSIONER GARCIA: That is all, COMMISSIONER HESBURGH. Mr. Glickstein?
- GLICKSTEIN: No, Mr. Chairman.