Opinion
Equity & Diversity Commentary

Hispanics Are Forgotten in Civil Rights History

By Nicholas Dauphine — May 13, 2014 3 min read

Whenever civil rights has been covered in history class, or when I’ve seen a documentary or read an article concerning such, I have always been very aware of what is missing, and it is something that I am interested in and looking for. As an American of Hispanic descent, I never see any information related to my ethnicity’s cause for civil rights. Where is the plight of Hispanics represented in the civil rights discussion and history of the United States?

In my household, I have heard the stories from older relatives about the treatment of Mexican-Americans in Texas in the 1900s. From what has been relayed to me, it was not much different from how black Americans were treated in Mississippi. Through my parents, I have heard of schools for Mexican children, separate drinking fountains, having to sit in the “black” balconies at movies, and not being able to go to restaurants and other establishments that were designated as “whites only.”

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But the public record of what the conditions were for the people of my background is severely lacking. It is as if we did not exist in this country between the Alamo in 1836 and the introduction of Freddie Prinze to the world in “Chico and the Man” in 1974.

When discussing civil rights milestones, where are the discussions about Mendez, et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County, et al.? This 1946 case challenged the racial segregation that was occurring in Orange County, Calif., schools against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. This landmark litigation was instrumental in repealing many of the segregationist provisions in California law, but it is not presented at all in the canon of civil rights milestones. In fact, even as a Hispanic, I had not heard of this case until President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of the lead plaintiff of the lawsuit, in February 2011, and I searched for who she was and why she was being honored.

It is as if we did not exist in this country between the Alamo ... and the introduction of Freddie Prinze.”

When discussing civil rights milestones, where are the discussions about Hernandez v. Texas? This 1954 case established that the protection granted by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was not only for white and black Americans, but that all racial groups required equal protection. This case questioned the use of Jim Crow laws against other classes of Americans, and determined that Americans of Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, Inuit, Native American, and other nonwhite or black descent should also be treated equally.

Along with the discussions of the Freedom Riders and freedom marches, where are the discussions of the 1938 pecan shellers’ strike and the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of over 700 Mexican-Americans peacefully protesting a cut in wages and walking off the job in San Antonio? This action was seen as impacting the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which defines many of the occupational rules that govern workers’ rights. Should the name of the Mexican-American labor leader Emma Tenayuca be, at least, presented alongside other civil and women’s rights activists when the conditions that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are presented?

Considering that people of Hispanic descent make up more than 16 percent of the total population of the United States today, efforts should be made to shine a light on the history, conditions, people, and effects of Latino activists and legislation. It’s time to give a large portion of the population its due, so that maybe when educational resources are developed into lesson plans, Hispanics have an element of pride and purpose in knowing that our predecessors also played a role in shaping the world and civil rights that we enjoy today.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Hispanics Are Forgotten in Civil Rights History

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