Last week, the Cara Mia Theatre in Dallas reenacted a landmark event in Mexican-American civil-rights history: the Crystal City Walkout of 1969. The all-Chicano drama spotlights the valiant students who demanded equity, dignity, and opportunity in their education. Their victory changed the face of Texas public education forever.
Back then, Mexican Americans were often the majority in small Texas communities, while town leaders were mostly white. This often led to injustices, indignities, and discrimination for the politically powerless majority. In the schools, classes or lessons about Mexican-American history, culture, and literature were nonexistent. Ultimately, it fell upon the students themselves to shout “Ya Basta!” to the corrupt school system.
Diana Serna Aguilera and Mario Treviño were two of the students who led the Crystal City walkout. I participated in a teach-in during the walkout. The next year I returned as a teacher, and Mario and Diana were students in my senior English class. They recently sat down with the Current to reflect on the event that gave rise to the Chicano civil-rights movement.
What were students protesting for and against?
Diana Serna Aguilera: We were for bilingual education, more bilingual teachers, counselors to encourage us to pursue higher education. We didn’t want them to tell us to be mechanics, maids, and secretaries. We wanted teachers to stop calling us “stupid, dummies, and idiots.” We wanted teachers to include the stories and history of Mexican Americans in the Southwest. We didn’t want to be physically hit for speaking Spanish.
Mario Treviño: We needed brown heroes. All the heroes in the history books were “lily white,” and all the bad guys were always the Mexicans — our ancestors. We were made to feel we weren’t worthy to be in the U.S. or equal to whites.
What was it like as Chicano teenagers to go to D.C. and petition for civil rights?
MT: We were empowered. We were treated with respect and given our due. Senator Ralph Yarborough invited us to present our plea to `the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare`. We also met with then Congressman George H.W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy. The publicity we got from the press opened the door for federal mediation between the Chicano students and the white school board of Crystal City School District.
What set the Crystal City Walkout apart from other student walkouts and blowouts?
DSA: The Crystal City Walkout was non-violent. We had good leadership. César Chávez came to Cristal to advocate nonviolence. We were followers of Martin Luther King. The difference between Cristal and the blowouts in California: Ours was peaceful. We weren’t hit over the head with violence.
And the results?
DSA: We were able to elect the school board, the city council, but the biggest thing was we were proud of who we were. We were proud of our heritage.
Have things changed? Is there still unfinished business?
MT: The children of today, our hijos can aspire to higher education; get out of the poverty, rat race.
Bilingual education isn’t used to instill pride as it once did or to cultivate a second language.
DSA: The things we fought so hard for are taken for granted. Our children are made to feel they aren’t contributing members to America.
Because of the immigration issue, a lot of Hispanics and Chicanos are again afraid to speak Spanish because of the radical right, the extremist neo-cons on TV. The leaders of 40 years ago need to step forward again, pick up the torch, and pass it on to the young people of today.
Gracias. ¡Que viva la raza!
DSA & MT: ¡Que viva la raza! ¡Siempre! •
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