The Spanish – Speaking Child

by: Herschal T Manual
Posted: June 12, 2021

Reprinted from Texas Outlook, 1930

IN THE COLONIZATION of Texas and in later immigration, there have been two main currents—the first, of Spanish-speaking people from the South; the second, of English-speaking people from the East and North.  It was a full century, however, following the founding of San Antonio in 1718 before English-speaking colonists came to Texas in any considerable numbers.  Yet when they began to arrive on the invitation of the Mexican government, they soon out-numbered the Spanish-speaking colonists and assumed political control.  While the immigration from Mexico has continued until the present, reaching an average of 12,000 per year between 1910 and 1920, the Spanish-speaking people have long been greatly in the minority.

The Spanish-speaking child in Texas is a descendant of the early colonists or of more recent arrivals from Mexico, or in rare instances of other Spanish-speaking antecedents.  Eight or nine out of ten of these children are already citizens of Texas and of the United States; others are potential citizens. Their blood for the most part is Spanish and Indian; some are pure white, others are pure Indian, and still others are a mixture of the two.  Before the law they are white.  Ninety per cent of them know only the Spanish language when they enter the public schools.

In 1928 there were 187,000 Mexican and Spanish-speaking children between the ages of seven and seventeen in Texas.  This means that of all the children of school age about one in eight is a Mexican, as the term is commonly used.  While the percentage is greatest along the Rio Grande, Mexican children are found in almost all of the counties of the state, and they are moving into parts of the state hitherto unoccupied.

Between 1922 and 1928 the per cent of increase of Mexican scholastics was more than five times that of other white scholastics and more than nine times that of colored scholastics.  If the additional Mexican scholastics had been sent to school, their number would have enough to fill eighteen new ten-room buildings every year.

But a great many Mexican children are not in school.  While the number of other white children enrolled in the public schools is more than ninety per cent of the number of other white scholastics, the number of Mexican children enrolled is only about fifty per cent of the number of Mexican scholastics. Parochial and private schools increase the enrollment not more than an additional ten per cent. The average daily attendance of Mexican children is only about a third of the number of scholastics.

Nearly half of the Mexican children who are in school at all are in the first grade, nearly three-fourths in the first three grades, and only three or four per cent in the high school.  In contrast with this, about one-fifth of the enrollment of other white children consists of high school pupils.

It is significant that younger children as well as older are out of school.   The average age at which Mexican children enter the public schools is about eight years, but only sixty per cent of the eight-year-olds are enrolled.

Extreme retardation is common.  When the white child of twelve years is entering the sixth grade, the average Mexican child of the same age is beginning the work of the third grade.

It will be understood, of course, that the statements made are approximations of average conditions, that the situation varies in different school systems, and that individual pupils depart widely from the average.

Why have we this dark picture of nearly 100,000 Mexican children, citizens and potential citizens of Texas, who are not in school?  And why this frightful retardation among those who are enrolled?

The first reason is to be found in the inherent difficulties of the situation and the imperfections of public education generally.  The necessity of teaching a new language, more or less instability of residence, and the pitiably low economic status of a large number combine to present an unusually difficult problem to schools already heavily burdened and to a science and art still in the making.

But a more distressing reason is that, taking the state as a whole, we have really made no very serious effort to extend to Mexican children the education guaranteed them by the constitution and laws.  Indifference and antagonism, much more than inability, are responsible for our failure.  We profess a belief in universal public education and then we steadfastly refuse either to enact an adequate compulsory attendance law or to enforce the one we have.  With notable exceptions, we discriminate against the Mexican child in school and out.

There are school districts in Texas in which no provision whatever is made for the public education of Mexican children.  There are many others in which segregation is the occasion for furnishing Mexican children inferior buildings, meager and antiquated equipment, and poor teachers.  Time permits a single illustration.  Last year I visited a small city where the school district was able to afford a fine new high school building, for one was then under construction to cost, I was told, more than $100,000.  By action of the board no Mexican child was accepted in the so-called American grammar school.  Mexican children were housed in a neglected, one-room building. There were windows on three sides, including the front, and not a window shade in sight.  Although forty-nine pupils were then belonging, there were seats for only forty.  With twenty-one beginners, the only special primary equipment was one chart.  For these children, this was the great Americanizing school system of Texas.  And among them, segregated by action of the board, was a bright seven-year old boy, who could read and write both Spanish and English—his mother was a college graduate; but he had the miserable educational opportunities of the school I have described; because of economic necessity?  No; because of pedagogical wisdom? No;…because he was a Mexican!

To keep our perspective, let us remember that there are at the other extreme many school systems in which justice and concern for child welfare still prevail.

Even if the Spanish-speaking child were enrolled in school and the school were well-equipped, perplexing problems would still remain. For example, what adjustments of organization, curriculum, and method should be made to meet his needs?  How shall we deal with the special problems of language, hygiene, retardation, and civic training?  Limitations of time make it necessary to pass over these topics with scant notice. I suggest that if you are interested, you write to the University of Texas for a forthcoming bulletin on the education of Mexican and Spanish-speaking children.[1]   There is, however, one element in the solution which I wish to stress—namely, organization for effective work.  The problems are so difficult and the emergency so great that we need careful preparation of the task.  It is not too much, I think, to ask that an assistant and a suitable staff be appointed in the State Department of Education to coordinate our efforts and to assist in giving reality to our ideals.

Just now, however, our primary task is that of stimulating right attitudes, first in those of our colleagues who have not seen the light, and then in the general public.  It is in this great enterprise that I earnestly solicit your cooperation today. The Mexican child needs nothing so much as to be understood by persons of deep human sympathy.

Mexican children, just as any other population group, represent all extremes—from abject poverty to wealth, from inferior intelligence to genius, from poor school progress to acceleration, from a low social position to respect and esteem, and from a primitive mode of living to the highest culture.  To be sure, nearly half of the Mexican children in Texas schools have parents in the unskilled labor group, and the prevailing picture is one of low cultural status and inferior school work; but we must carefully avoid two fallacies.  In the first place, it is grossly unfair to assume that conditions found in the lowest social group or even at the average are characteristic also of children at the proper end of the scale.  In the second place, it is wrong to imagine that present cultural conditions are an adequate measure of innate possibilities.  It has been amply shown in educational psychology that even so stable a measure as the intelligence quotient rises significantly with improvement in environment.  Thousands of Mexican children are living on a low plane simply because they have had no opportunity to do or be anything different.

If you want to know some of the fine qualities of these children, ask the teachers and principals who work with them day by day—often indeed without adequate support of superintendent, board, or community.  Here for example is a story of pride and heroism that rivals the tales told of the Indian of legend.  At Thanksgiving time, so the principal said, the school gave a dinner, and the word went forth to every teacher that no child was to be turned away because he lacked the few cents which the children were to pay.  At noon-time as the children were being marched to the cafeteria, a penniless Mexican lad slipped out of the line.  The teacher insisted that, although he had his lunch basket, he should eat on this day with the whole group.  However, when the pupils had assembled, this boy was missing.  The teacher retraced her steps to the room—thank God that somebody loves these children—and there she found the boy sitting by his lunch basket and crying as if his heart would break.  He had been a brave lad, but he was also a child. The reason for his tears appeared with peculiar emphasis when the lunch basket was opened and it was found that he had been coming to school day after day bringing a lunch basket absolutely empty.

My plea today is in behalf of children—just children.  When it was said of old that a little child shall lead them, it was not specified that he should be of blue eyes and fair countenance—but just a child.  I plead for justice long denied.  I plead for opportunity.

Teachers of Texas, it is our solemn duty and glorious privilege to lead the way to a new and better day.  Society sorely needs the idealism attributed to our high calling.  Let us see with undimmed vision the possibilities of childhood.  Let us renew our faith in public education.  Let us, as good social engineers in school and out, hasten the day when every child will have his birthright, and universal education will be a living reality.

[1] This is the report of a study made by the writer with the assistance of the Fund for Research in the Social Sciences.

A leading Texas advocate for public education during the 1930s and 40s. A professor at the University of Texas, his article, The Spanish-Speaking Child, is an excellent objective study of segregation of Mexican American children in Texas public schools during the 1930s and the relative unavailability of public education for most Mexican American children. The population and demographic data is also of historical value. Also important is the reference by all educators of the time to Mexican Americans as “Mexicans”.

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