Equity & Diversity

A Long Struggle for Equality

March 10, 2004 2 min read

Like African-Americans, Mexican-Americans have fought hard for desegregated schools and equal access to education in the United States. As far back as the 1930s, Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest were typically assigned to separate, inferior schools simply because they had Spanish surnames.

The history of the Mexican-American struggle for high-quality schooling is summarized in a soon-to-be-published research paper by M. Beatriz Arias, an associate professor of education at Arizona State University in Tempe.

In 1945, five Mexican-American fathers, including Gonzalo Mendez, filed a class action in a federal court in Los Angeles challenging segregated schools on behalf of their children and 5,000 other Latino children. The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1946, and the case was upheld by a federal court of appeals a year later.

The ruling in Mendez v. Westminster School District was significant, according to Arias, because it was the first decision by a federal court finding that segregation of Mexican-American students was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ruling, however, only applied to several districts in California.

Less than a decade later, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. But for years, the ruling was applied only to black students. It wasn’t until 1973 that Latinos were recognized in a school desegregation case as a distinct legal class that had experienced discrimination and had the same rights as African-American students to attend desegregated schools. That happened in Keyes v. School District No. 1, involving the Denver public schools.

As national demographics have changed, Arias says, more school systems are looking for ways to correct past educational discrimination against Latinos. She cites the work by the Chicago school system to strengthen support for Latinos in revising its 1981 desegregation plan, for which she served as a consultant.

Patricia Gándara, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, argues that the Brown decision also laid the groundwork for the 1974 ruling by the Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols, which has benefited millions of Latinos.

That ruling required schools, for the first time, to provide extra assistance for students who were learning English so that they could understand the curriculum. The plaintiffs were Chinese-speaking, but the ruling also applied to other language-minority students in the nation.

—Mary Ann Zehr

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