Mexican Americans in southern Colorado fought one of the nation’s early school desegregation battles

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In 1913, a railroad foreman in Alamosa tried to enroll his 11-year-old son in the school closest to the family home. The school district denied him, and instead forced Miguel Maestas to walk seven blocks across dangerous railroad tracks to what was known as the Mexican School.

Maestasand other Mexican American families sued the southern Colorado district in whatis the earliest known school desegregation case in the United States involvingLatino students. They ultimately won the right to attend the same schools asthe community’s white children. The case predates the Mendezdecision, in which a U.S. District Court found that California could notsend Mexican American students to separate schools, by more than three decadesand other local court cases in Texas and California by more than a decade.

TheDenver Catholic Register hailed the Maestas decision as “historic,”but because it was a local court case, it did not set precedent and was largelylost to time and memory until just a few years ago.

On Monday, a Colorado resolution recognizedthe importance of the Maestas case.

“We,the members of the General Assembly, acknowledge the tireless efforts of theLatino community in advocating for the integration of our public schools andimproving outcomes for all students in Colorado,” the resolutionconcludes.

StateSen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat with family roots in southern Coloradoand northern New Mexico, and a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the Maestascase is an important reminder of Latino contributions to Colorado and toeducational justice. Honoring it lifts up history and brings it into thepresent, she said.

“Wehear celebrations of the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954,” shesaid. “That is important history, but we were breaking that ground inColorado a generation beforehand.”

Alamosa in 1907.PHOTO CREDIT: Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections

Nationally,scholars say there is a shortageof monuments and memorials recognizing Latino history. In Alamosa, where thelocal newspaper drewattention to the Maestas case, community members raised money to build amonument, which will be unveiled later this spring.

Latinoshave continued to fight, sometimes in the courts, for their educational rights,including access to bilingual education, sufficient funding for Englishlanguage learners, and protections for immigrant students. The recognition ofthe Maestas case comes amid a broader national conversation about the valueof integrated schools. Many schools in Colorado and around thecountry have become more segregated, particularlyfor Latino students, with school choice, charterschools, and gentrification adding complex newlayers to the problem.

“It’sincredibly relevant to the sociopolitical environment we live in,” saidGonzalo Guzmán, a lecturer at the University of Washington who co-authored apaper on the Maestas case. “Particularly to show that the Latino communityhas been in a longstanding fight for educational justice and access. This didnot just develop recently. It’s been going on for a long time. It also shows historyas a sign of hope in action. It’s worth the struggle.”

Thecase appears to have been previously unknown even in academic literature.Guzmán encountered a passing reference in a Wyoming newspaper to MexicanAmericans in Alamosa suing their school district while doing research on adifferent topic. In collaboration with other researchers, he started lookingfor information about the case in Colorado newspapers and other records andfound a well-documented story, particularly in the Catholic press.

The accountthat follows is based on the paper that Guzmán publishedin the Journal of Latinos and Education with Ruben Donatoof the University of Colorado Boulder and Jarrod Hanson of the University ofColorado Denver.

Guzmánsaid the Maestas case is distinct in that it played out far from the Mexicanborder, in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, and involved long-established MexicanAmerican families, rather than a mix of older settlers and immigrants. Yet itshares features with other early desegregation cases involving MexicanAmericans, including the ambiguous racial position of those communities and theuse of language to justify segregation.

Sometimesknown as the Hispano Homeland, the San Luis Valley is home to many familiesthat can trace their ancestry to Spanish colonial settlements. Because theygained U.S. citizenship through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at theend of the Mexican War, the courts often considered them to be legally white.

Butthat didn’t mean Anglo newcomers treated them as white. Mexican Americans wereexcluded from many public establishments, struggled to defend their historicproperty rights in court, and saw their children sent to separate schools.

TheAlamosa district built its Mexican School in 1909 to provide instruction inboth English and Spanish as larger numbers of Mexican Americans had moved tothe city from northern New Mexico to work on the railroads.

But in1912, a new school superintendent forced all Mexican American children toattend the Mexican School. Even then, Colorado’s constitution banneddiscrimination on the basis of race. When challenged, school officials saidthey were not discriminating on the basis of race — because Hispanic childrenwere white. Rather, officials pointed to language differences to justify theseparate school.

Butmany of the Mexican American children of Alamosa already spoke English,something Miguel Maestas and his classmates would later demonstrate in court.

TheState Board of Education declined to intervene, citing local control. MexicanAmerican families pulled their children out of school in protest and raisedmoney to hire a lawyer.

Incourt, the district tried to argue it was acting in the best interest ofstudents by giving them specialized instruction and that “raceprejudice” had nothing to do with the separate school. But on the stand,one white school board member admitted he would not send his own children toschool with Mexican American classmates. Throughout the trial, the two groupsof students were consistently referred to as “Mexican” and”American.”

MiguelMaestas though “timid and abashed by reason of the crowdedcourtroom,” according to a newspaper account of the trial, easily answeredquestions in English. While the district had downplayed the distance involved,Miguel told the court that he was often late for school because he had to waitfor passing trains.

Theprincipal at one of the “American” schools in the district testifiedthat students who were fully capable of doing coursework in English wereremoved and required to enroll in the Mexican School. Teachers at the MexicanSchool testified that most of their students spoke English but that the schoolboard required them to use Spanish.

OneMexican American father testified that when he joined others in petitioning fortheir “constitutional rights,” a school board member responded thatthey “had no rights.”

Ultimately,the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. “The only way to destroy thisfeeling of discontent and bitterness which has recently grown up,” hewrote, “is to allow all children so prepared to attend the school nearestthem.”

Thiswas not a complete victory. The Mexican School continued to operate under a newname, and records exist of the judge later issuing orders regarding individualchildren, allowing some to attend the community schools and keeping others inthe separate school until their English improved.

Theplaintiffs’ attorney was not satisfied. “It is still our contention thateven though totally deficient in a knowledge of the English language, childrencannot be placed in a separate race school in Colorado on that ground,” hetold the Denver Catholic Register. Doing so was “getting perilously closeto separation on account of race.”

Thecomplicated intersection of race, ethnicity, and language is a recurringfeature of school desegregation cases involving Latino students.

Guzmánsaid he hopes attention on the Maestas case inspires other scholars to keepdigging.

“Thiswas a needle in a haystack in a haystack in a haystack,” he said.”This shows how much there is to know and find out about our nation’shistory. This case is over 100 years old. It could have easily been lost to theannals of time.”

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