Schools & Churches

Written by Moisés Acuña Gurrola

As Carlos Cuellar has shown, schools and churches served as focal points in the ethnic Mexican communities of Fort Worth. Arguably the most important factors in a young person’s identity formation and philosophical development, some schools and churches were racially divided and often served as reminders of non-white youth’s second-class status. In the middle twentieth century in Fort Worth, bullying, segregation, and the funneling of capable students into vocational programs stunted self-confidence and limited their horizons. In the following clips, narrators tell us about bullying, segregation, and the opinions that counselors and teachers held against Latino students whom they believed were not college material.

A major factor that contributed to the social exclusion of the Latino students was the commonly held belief that Mexico, Mexican culture, and Mexican intelligence were all inferior to their counterparts in the United States. To counter the “dirtying” of the supposed “superior” culture, Americanization programs were put into place across the country to teach students English, to make them to comply with Anglo-American gender norms, and to generally educate the immigrants so that they “forget” their native cultures. Additionally, the speaking of Spanish was banned from schools across the country, a prohibition that was enforced with psychological threats and physical abuse. Along with the public school system, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches were often at the center of Americanization efforts in the first half of the twentieth century. However, these campaigns often failed, with Americanization centers instead becoming places where Latinos could network, find work, embrace their cultures, and even find sanctuary from secular Anglo society. One bit of residue remained into the 1960s. Speaking the Spanish language in learning institutions remained banned and often led to painful and humiliating instances of corporal punishment. In the following clips, Rosa Gomez describes an incident that resulted from her having spoken in Spanish. Pauletta Reyna Gonzalez discusses an instance wherein she was punished after her teacher believed Gonzalez to have spoken in Spanish. Rey Martinez shares how he avoided punishment and even protested the ban of the Spanish language in schools. Finally, the Lazo family speaks about the threats and punishments for speaking Spanish in their early education.

Following the general failure of inherently white-supremacist Americanization efforts, churches and community centers eventually evolved into spaces where Mexican culture was welcomed and celebrated. They held Cinco de Mayo, dieciséis de Septiembre celebrations, and other community parties known as jamaicas. Some of the first efforts to put an end to Americanization strategies began with a group of Catholic Church nuns, the Guadalupanas. According to historian Anthony Quiroz, author of Claiming Citizenship: Mexican Americans in Victoria, Texas, the Catholic Church in the early twentieth century “had attempted to homogenize its ‘foreign parishioners, and inculcate them with Anglo-American Catholic middle-class values, presumably because nonwhite cultures were considered frail or in need of improvement through cultural regeneration. Yet the Guadalupanas used their organization to continue celebrating the Catholic tradition and the cult of the virgin in a customary Mexican way”[2]. In the videos below, Antonio Ayala and the Lazo Family talk about the community celebrations and the importance that the churches held in preserving Mexican culture. Juan Daniel Garcia give and Richard Renteria give a brief history of the Catholic Churches in the barrio. Garcia underlines the importance of the church to the North Side community and by extension, the importance of the church in his family’s history. 

Sixteen years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ruled that the segregation of African American students was unconstitutional, Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (1970) extended the ruling to Mexican Americans as an identifiable race that also experienced segregation. Mexican American students were expected to integrate, but the decision did not give specific instructions on how to go about the process. Confusion and resistance in Texas slowed down or outright prevented the integration of Latino students, and new busing routes often meant that the overwhelming majority of Mexican American students traveled farther than before to attend what had once been all-Anglo schools. In some Texas communities, the introduction of ethnic Mexican students to previously all-Anglo schools that had yet to fully integrate black students intensified social conflicts. In other areas, Latino student populations were so small that their integration went unnoticed (as had others who already attended majority-Anglo schools). In still other cases, Latinos’ experiences of busing and integration were met with favorable treatment and without overwhelming hostility. Fort Worth’s desegregation and busing efforts produced a wide variety of experiences for its large Latino student population.  In the following video clips, we hear an ex-student and retired educators discuss the busing court order in Fort Worth ISD.

Population growth resulted in a demographic shift in schools and, with it, a rethinking of the public school curriculum among educators and activists. One of the most pressing issues facing the public school system and its students’ development was the level of English competency. Some narrators spoke on the ease of having learned the English language despite being children of Spanish-speaking families, but as the twentieth century progressed and the non-English–and non-Spanish–speaking population grew, bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) curricula began to take center stage. It became glaringly obvious that forcing children to learn English on their own in the manner that students did in previous decades was not a feasible or self-sustaining plan. Bilingual and ESL programs represented viable alternatives. In the following clips, Carlos Francisco de Anda discusses the first steps to implementing a bilingual curriculum; Martha Morolez de Anda describes the instrumental roles Dr. Rudy Rodriguez and Alice Contreras had in that implementation; and Rosa Navejar speaks on the importance of ESL in today’s public school and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to widen Latino businessowners’ clientele.

Schools and churches have undoubtedly played a central role in the formation and sometimes oppression of the Latino community in the twentieth century to the present. Nonetheless, as historian Carlos Cuéllar contends, “Whether it was the North Side, La Fundición, La Corte, El TP, or La Loma, most of Fort Worth’s barrios were served by institutions that helped to define, unite, and motivate their residents.”[1] Some of the problems of yesterday endure, however. “Zero-tolerance” policies, for-profit prisons, school district policing, and harsher penalties in place of rehabilitation strategies for petty crimes have created a problem in public schools that are more complicated than the older system of explicitly race-based discrimination. In the following videos, Pauline Gasca Valenciano unpacks some of the biggest problems facing Latinos, African Americans, and poor Anglos in Fort Worth ISD.

To learn more about how Latinos in Fort Worth made a living following their education, click here to be directed to Work & Entrepreneurship.

[1] Cuellar, Stories from the Barrio, 99.

[2] Anthony Quiroz, Claiming Citizenship: Mexican Americans in Victoria, Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press), 32-34.

%d bloggers like this: