In our February 2021 edition of IberoAztlan, Dr. Blandina Cardenas alluded to her public education at San Felipe ISD. In 1971, San Felipe would be forced to merge with Del Rio ISD in one of the many cases litigated under the U.S. v. Texas desegregation cases. Dr. Cardenas also briefly referred to the 1930 Salvatierra v. Del Rio case. In a companion piece, reprinted here because of its historical value, we learn of the sequence of events which led to the creation of the San Felipe ISD as virtually a Mexican American school district. It would appear that San Felipe’s student enrollment was overwhelmingly, if not entirely, Mexican American. On the other hand, the Del Rio ISD enrollment consisted of an equal number of Anglo and Mexican American students.
The 1930s Salvatierra desegregation case is an intriguing one. For it appears that parents of Mexican American students enrolled at Del Rio ISD sought to enjoin the construction of separate and segregated school buildings within an existing separate and segregated school. Velma Ybarra, of Del Rio, who among other notable experiences, was a student at San Felipe in the late 1960s, went on a search for us and found an excellent historical piece on San Felipe ISD which we have reprinted elsewhere in this edition. The following article briefs the legal effect of the Salvatierra case and subsequent Texas desegregation cases involving Mexican Americans.
Salvatierra v. Del Rio ISD
The 1929 recession would soon erupt into the Great Depression of 1929-1933. In Texas, segregation of Mexican Americans would be legally challenged for the first time during this difficult economic period. The first Texas desegregation case, Salvatierra v. Del Rio ISD, would ostensibly legalize segregation of Mexican American public students in Texas. That was hardly the result which litigators, supported by LULAC, had hoped for. Salvatierra would do so on the basis of language proficiency or what a later court would call “linguistic segregation”. Segregation of Mexican American students based on language would continue virtually unabated until 1971, as a result of the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi case.
Salvatierra arose when Jesus Salvatierra sued the Del Rio Independent School District in state district court to enjoin the use of voted tax bond proceeds to continue building improvements to a segregated “Mexican” school. Concerned Mexican Americans feared that the Del Rio ISD school board action amounted to the continued policy or practice of institutionalized segregation of Mexican American children from the rest of the students. They well understood that the “Mexican” schools were substandard and lacked the quality of teachers which white schools enjoyed.
Unlike the state’s de jure “separate but equal” schools for African Americans, no state law established segregation of Mexican Americans. At the local level, public district trustees exercised absolute control over school boundaries and where students attended schools. Further, a nebulous common law precedent had apparently developed in Texas pursuant to which Mexican Americans were considered “other-whites.” Mexican Americans were not “black” and therefore could not be segregated on the basis of race statutes. Or so, would argue the plaintiff’s attorneys which included noted LULAC founders Alonso Perales and J.T. Canales. The school district defended that separate schools for Mexican Americans were not based on race. Rather, they argued, that a perfectly rational school policy existed. This policy was intended to allow less English-proficient Mexican Americans a period during which they could catch up with their Anglo counterparts. That is, because of poor attendance (due to poverty or to the need for migrant families to travel) and poor English language skills, Mexican American children needed special attention during their initial years of public education. Therefore, the school district’s practice arose from a pedagogical perspective, according to district officials. It should not be attributed, they argued, to a bad motive, such as segregation by reason of race or color.
The trial judge was not impressed with the school district’s logic. He ordered that Mexican American children were entitled, as a matter of law, to attend school with Anglo children and granted the injunction. One would think, for instance, that all children could attend the same schools as whites and less English-proficient students could be placed during interim periods in separate classrooms, for additional language assistance. Perhaps not the best policy, but certainly one which would avoid the obvious and total separation of Anglos and Mexican Americans. But that, apparently, was not the intent here. Segregation was the intent.
The Texas Court of Appeals would reverse the trial court and its opinion would become law of the state for more than three decades thereafter based on the legal principle that Texas school administrators had broad discretion to “classify and group the pupils so as to bring to each one the greatest benefits according to his or her individual needs and aptitudes.” The practice of separate “Mexican” schools would continue. Of course, the problem was in classifying which students were proficient and which were not. Mexican Americans would be relegated to a case-by-case appeal to local schools in order to show that were qualified to attend the better school on grounds that they had acquired English-proficiency.
The Salvatierra’s plaintiff’s legal strategy had been to rely on a procedural due process argument along the lines that Mexican Americans were “white” and belonged in “white” schools. The argument excluded any notion of equal protection based on federal constitutional principles. This is not to fault plaintiffs or their counsel. It would be a perfectly rational and cogent legal argument to make that because Mexicans were “white” they were entitled to attend school with “other whites”. That argument forelosed any broader principle that as a separate class Mexican Americans were subject to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. But, in all fairness, however, it would be another twenty-four years before the U.S. Supreme Court would even consider that argument in its opinion in the Brown case.
Brown would reverse Plessy v. Ferguson, which had stood for fifty-eight years and approved of the “separate but equal” doctrine. Brown would be the basis of eventual desegregation orders throughout the country, including those affecting Mexican Americans
In the meantime, in 1948, in Delgado v. Bastrop, Mexican American litigants raised for the first time, federal constitutional equal protections but virtually identical to the arguments in Salvatierra. LULAC would undertake a major fundraising effort throughout the state to finance the litigation. The attorneys for the families would include, among others, Gus Garcia and Carlos Cadena. Defending the state were Attorney General Price Daniel, who would later be elected governor of Texas, and Joe Greenhill, who would go on to become a notable jurist and Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
Parents alleged in Bastrop that five school districts had engaged in a practice of prohibiting, barring and excluding Mexican American children from attending public school with “other white school children.” Notably, as in Salvatierra, the legal principle advanced was that Mexican Americans, as “white,” (and unlike African Americans) were entitled to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment to attend “white” schools. That court held that the defendant school districts had engaged in the arbitrary and discriminatory violation of segregated students’ Fourteenth Amendment rights. But here was where the exception would be relied on by Texas school districts to continue their segregation practices. For the court adopted the principle that the court’s injunction shall not prevent the defendant school district from providing for and maintaining separate classes in the first grade. The 1955 Driscoll case would epitomize how, at its core, segregation of Mexican Americans with its concomitant inferior education was used by school districts in their continued reliance on Salvatierra and in spite of Bastrop. The plaintiffs in Driscoll were individual students whom their counsel, James de Anda, would prove were English-proficient and yet had been segregated along with other Mexican American students who were not English-proficient. De Anda, in effect, proved that at least in the Driscoll school district, Mexican American students were being segregated without complying with the objective English-proficiency testing required by both Salvatierra and Bastrop.
In 1955, Driscoll was (as it still is) a small rural, farming community with a school district with a little over 300 students. Despite the English-deficient segregation canon of Salvatierra and Delgado, no Mexican American had ever been permitted to attend the “white” elementary school in Driscoll. The school district did not rely on English aptitude testing to evaluate a student’s English proficiency and simply determined outright that Mexican American students should attend separate segregated classes. After some pressure by LULAC, the school district agreed to reduce the number of years a Mexican American child would be required to repeat the first grade to three years. The lawsuit followed in the Corpus Christi division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, one year after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Driscoll would be a win for the handful of plaintiffs and for James de Anda. De Anda would have several of the Mexican American students testify, an act which would prove that they were English-proficient sufficient to handle classes with “other whites”. Ironically, the court would wonder aloud whether De Anda’s strategy would be all that beneficial to Mexican Americans in general. Implicitly, he may have insinuated that De Anda reconsider the action and broaden its scope. After all, Brown was working its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and showed much promise. Was the Court egging on de Anda to convert the case into a Brown-type class action, noting the meager benefits which his order would produce:
[T]his method [linguistic segregation] is unreasonably discriminatory and violative of a particular plaintiff’s or particular group of plaintiff’s rights. I know that any treatment of these people, on the basis that they are of Latin extraction, as a group, or treating an individual that way because he happens to come from that group, is, on its face, discriminatory and based on an unreasonable basis. It can’t stand.
[Judge to de Anda] “I am just telling you what I am thinking off hand,” “It is not final. You can direct your arguments to those points if you want to.”
But De Anda would not move to broaden the scope of the litigation. All his closing memorandum would seek would be for the Court to follow the English-deficiency segregation cannon: that first grade children be segregated only on the basis of a proper aptitude test and then be placed in English-speaking classes after the child acquired sufficient English skills.
The Court’s memorandum opinion, issued on January 11, 1957, illuminates the Texas public school dual system of education as it operated in the mid-1950s and would continue to operate in similar fashion through the 1960s.