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Segregation and Discrimination of Mexican Americans in the United States: Analytical Essay

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Brownness as a Flaw

Mexican Americans have encountered segregation and discrimination of their civil rights in the United States in the 19th century. At that time, whiteness was a huge social structure that meant more than the color of skin, and white people had the upper hand to be rewarded, through American citizenship, a packaged system of privileges and opportunities. However, this social construction was challenged and proved otherwise, with a series of court cases – verifying the efficacy of non-whites to have American citizenship. Segregation and discrimination were manifested within the social and public services, education, and political institutions, which set off Mexican Americans to team up with various organizations to pursue and demand their human and civil rights. Plyler v. Doe is arguably the most notable court case that played a major role in assuring the equality of Mexican Americans and is still often brought up whenever these legal challenges arise. In this essay, I will discuss how Mexican Americans have used legal challenges as part of their struggle to achieve first-class citizenship and equality under their law, with the main objective being an equal and legal practice of the 14th amendment to defend their civil rights.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was a treaty signed by the United States of America and the Mexican Republic to end the war and any unsettled issues and resolve the aftermath of the war (1846-1848). It acknowledged the American control of California, granted the United States control of the territory of New Mexico, and established the Texas border with Mexico. Because of adding Texas as a part of the United States, which happened in 1845, Mexico lost over one-half of its territory. Thus the United States agreed to offer remuneration of fifteen million dollars (Article XII of the treaty) to Mexico and “further extended citizenship to Mexicans [who lived in the territory] after annexation” (Acosta 2). Accessing citizenship to the Mexican immigrants at the territory was very crucial because becoming a citizen granted access to various social structures such as housing, education, voting, etcetera. Social Structure is economic, social, and political institutions that develop and enforce laws for the community such as employment, education, and immigration. Add more sentences

In Re Ricardo Rodriguez, a landmark civil rights case, Ricardo Rodriguez questioned the status of citizenship, “which would naturally confer on him the right to vote” (Acosta 1). His actions to access citizenship demonstrate agency which refers to the ability to complete or accomplish a task in the future dependently. However, one has to be a race of white in order to be an American citizen. In her article “Mexicans’ Tenuous Citizenship”, Natalia Molina, an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Urban Studies at the University of California, San Diego, states that “according to the Naturalization Act of 1790 and its revisions in 1870, only those who were deemed white or black could become citizens” (Molina 223) thus exercise the right to vote. Whiteness had various privileges was and perceived as the ticket to living a better lifestyle, but Rodriguez was from the Mexican race and therefore could not exercise those privileges. However, in his testimony in court hearings, he presented a strong case that he was a hardworking man and was not familiar with the form of government in the U.S. which questioned the racial and educational qualifications of being an American Citizen. Finally, the court ruled in favor of Rodriguez and most importantly, “declared that the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States, regardless of color or race” (Acosta 2). This court case was very significant because it allowed Mexicans and other non-white citizens to be eligible for American citizenship and have access to all the rights and freedom of those who already live in the U.S.

Interaction between social structure and agency can be seen during the Central American solidarity movement. During the Central American solidarity movement, the migrants exercised agency by deciding to leave the violence and political upheaval in their homelands, but they “were structurally constrained by the US government when they attempted to regularize their migration status in the United States” (Bedolla 2). The government refused to characterize them as political refugees. Despite this, they formed groups with other migrants and institutions to fight this case, and soon they were successful and were able to migrate safely to the United States. More importantly, they played a major role in “changing the institutional structure which future Central American migrants would face when arriving in the United States” (Bedolla 2). The Central American solidarity movement case is a great example that shows the importance of the interplay between social structure and agency.

Mexican American children were segregated, as seen in the Alvarez v. Lemon Grove incident. In an article named the Lemon Grove Incident, Robert Alvarez, a UC San Diego ethnic studies professor, provides a detailed look into one of the dubious cases of 1930’s exclusion of Mexican and Mexican American students by school officials. Lemon Grove was a peaceful rural community located outside of San Diego, California. It was affordable, agriculturally based, and had easy access to the city. Due to these reasons, a lot of Mexican immigrants had settled and had offspring in Lemon Grove. On January 5, Jerome Green, “a school principal of the Lemon Grove Grammar School”, decided to let in all students except for the Mexicans which further led to them being confined in a separate school (Alvarez 3). This incident is well portrayed in a movie called “The Lemon Grove Incident”, which depicts the court case of Mexican students being separated into designated classrooms and how they have overruled that situation through court cases. It showed the detailed story of the testimonies of the school officials and the segregated students.

On March 30, 1931, the Lemon Grove district contested against the Mexican Community in the case of the Mexican and Mexican Americans’ exclusion from school. The main point that the Lemon Grove school district raised in the court hearings was that the Mexican students showed deficiencies and backwardness in their schoolwork. They claimed that they needed to separate the students in order “to provide them with more personal attention” (Alvarez 10). On the other side, the counterargument made by the Comite de Vecinos de Lemon Grove (Mexican Community) was that the exclusion was made in an attempt to racially segregate the students. They claimed that the school district had “no legal right or power to exclude” the students from attending the school equally (Alvarez 8). The court finally decided to pass the judgment in favor of the Mexican Community based on the fact that California has not authorized legislation that gives a school district a right to exclude students based on phenotypes. Judge Claude Chamber argued that segregating children was violating the state’s law, and the idea of hindering one from enjoying the right of education was unjust because the majority of the Mexican students were already American citizens. Finally, the students were able to be back in their school according to the decision.

In 1946 an infamous case of school segregation occurred, a couple of years prior to the Brown Vs board of education. It took place in Orange County, California. The case was brought up when a student, Sylvia Mendez was denied enrollment at a school because of that specific school was catered towards ‘whites-only’. Her father who was deeply saddened by this unfortunate event decides to take this to trial. School segregation is unconstitutional moreover it denies children of their fourteenth amendment rights. They proclaimed that the fourteenth amendment must apply to children in public education and that includes the ones that are undocumented.

Conversely, the focus of the school district’s claim was the fact that the Federal Court lacked jurisdiction as the school board had not constituted state action. Similarly, as declared by James Kent-superintendent, Mexican Americans were identified as inferior in terms of their economic outlook, educational abilities, and personal hygiene.

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However, it was decided by Judge McCormick that the school districts must refrain from their prejudiced exercises in the paradox of Mexican students in the school district and community. This decision led to the Governor at the time (Governor Warren) to propose “to the state legislature that Education Code Sections 8003 and 8004 be repealed, The legislature complied,” (Aguirre 327).

The Case stands relevant as it is a pioneer to for the birth of the 1954 Brown decision for the mere reason that coalitions like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) used similar logic to file a ‘friend-of-the-court brief in Mendez that challenged and defeated the ‘separate but equal doctrine of public schools. Moreover, Mendez’s case was able to reach the supreme court with the help of a Member of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, during the Brown case. Which lead the supreme court to accept and opt the end school segregation.

The Plyler v. Doe case had a significant contribution to the pertinence of the Equal Protection Clause. The fact that undocumented children in Texas were forced to pay tuition and were denied access to public education triggered various individuals to challenge the Supreme Court and finally represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) take the case to the Supreme Court. MALDEF is a national non-profit civil rights organization founded on August 1, 1968, in San Antonio, Texas inspired by the civil-rights era legal battles “to create a legal organization to serve the Latino community” (MALDEF.ORG). Since 1968, MALDEF’s litigation and advocacy efforts have had a wide-ranging impact on the community and the nation as a whole.

MALDEF made a huge contribution to shining the light on the Plyler v. Doe case. The challenge convinced the Supreme Court to end the law because it violated the Fourteenth Amendment and the state of Texas could not prove a valid reason for denying undocumented children free access to public schools. In the article named “Plyer v. Doe, the Education of Undocumented Children, and the Polity”, Michael A. Olivas, provides a detailed look into the court cases of undocumented Mexican American versus the Supreme Court. According to Olivas, “the State of Texas enacted section 21.031 of the Texas Education Code, allowing its public school districts to charge tuition to undocumented children” (Olivas 198). MALDEF claimed that Texas could not eliminate the undocumented children from public schools basing their argument on the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”, which is also known as the Equal Protection Clause. Texas, on the other hand, argued that charging the undocumented Mexican children for public education was necessary: for preserving the “limited” resources for the legal residents and protecting their schools from the influx of undocumented citizens.

In addition, they claimed that they classified the undocumented students because “their unlawful presence rendered them less likely to remain in the United States…” (Olivas 208). Finally, in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the undocumented children rejecting Texas’ school districts’ reasoning to deny undocumented students public education. The court stated that declining undocumented students had very little impact on the state’s allocative resources. The court also dismissed Texas’ argument of protecting the state’s resources and preserving the number of undocumented citizens because the power to restrict immigration and naturalization only lies in the hands of the federal government. Thus, the court decided that barring those children free public education would “not necessarily improve the quality. Moreover, the Plyler v. Doe case is legally significant because it proved that the ‘Equal Protection Clause was administered to all residents including undocumented students and undocumented immigrants and it was referenced to other campaigns that tried to deny benefits and public education privileges to undocumented immigrants. Since the Plyler v. Doe case, MALDEF has achieved very crucial legal victories improving the civil rights of Latinos in the U.S. Expanding the federal Voting Rights Act, fighting California Proposition 187, and other memorable significances.

Hernandez v. Texas case was another significant court case for Mexicans in achieving their first-class citizenship and equality under their law. It was the first Supreme Court case that extended the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment to Latinos. Through this case, Mexican lawyers questioned the jury participation of Mexican Americans in the higher parts of the judiciary system such as the Supreme Court basing their argument on Pete Hernandez, a service station attendant who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a farmer named Joe Espinosa. A group of lawyers united to use this opportunity to bring their case to a local court and finally to the Supreme Court. The main goal of the lawyers gambling to take the case to the Supreme Court was not to challenge the court about Hernandez’s guilt. However, their goal was to end the fact that Mexicans were not protected by the law specifically the Fourteenth Amendment which prevented Mexicans from being judged by their fellow Mexican judges and having their cases reviewed at the highest level which is the Supreme Court.

The documentary, “A Class Apart” portrays the court cases and gives a detailed background on the lawyers who took this case to the Supreme Court and shows their path in leading their community to success. In the documentary, it mentions that Luis Garcia brilliantly represented the group of lawyers in the court hearings that the Chief Justice Earl Warren gave him “an extra 16 minutes”. His main argument was that putting “Mexican Americans on juries was tantamount to elevating such persons to equal status with whites” (Lopez and Olivas 284). As in the Plyler v. Doe case, the “whites” claimed to be the superior groups and did not want other minority groups to share their privileges. Texas’ main argument in the hearing was that the “Mexican-American community suffered because white juries rarely and reluctantly convicted whites for depredations against Mexican-Americans” (Lopez and Olivas 284). Thus, Mexicans were also deprived from being seen by judges of Mexican descent. Moreover, Mexican Americans believed that jury exclusion was proof of them being given second-class status. Texas’ justification for preventing jury participation of Mexican Americans is because they assumed that Mexicans were not “intelligent enough or spoke English well enough or knew enough about the law to make good jurors” (Lopez and Olivas 298-99). In 1954, the court finally ruled in favor of Hernandez reducing his life sentence to twenty years. In addition, the court declined Texas’ practice of excluding Mexican Americans from juries because it violated the Equal Protection Clause. Since Mexican Americans were considered white their exclusion from juries clearly shows that Texas’ subjection is unjust. Hernandez v. Texas case ultimately resulted in a significant achievement for the Mexican community. The most notable significance being, the Hernandez v. Texas case which soon granted the Equal Protection Clause to every American citizen and helped form important contemporary judicial doctrines such as the “Constitution should be color blind” (Lopez and Olivas 280). Mexican Americans soon became involved in the jury system and were no longer considered second-class citizens under the law.

While the Mexican lawyers were fighting the highly dominated by White American juries, they experienced “Jim Crow” segregation. As Professor Agustin Palacios mentioned in his lecture ‘Hernandez Texas’, Jim Crow segregation “refers to the type of segregation and political and social exclusion” of minority groups, specifically African Americans. This type of segregation was manifested in many public utilities. For instance, the public bathrooms had the sign “Hombres Aqui” which translated to “Colored Men” (Lopez and Olivas 280). This sign caused a rattle onto Mexican Americans but more importantly, it emphasized another similar way of segregation “Jim Crow” segregation, because Mexican Americans were also treated as people of the lower class, in addition to blacks. MALDEF challenged Jim Crow segregations like these by presenting them to courts. In Yolanda Garza v. County of Los Angeles MALDEF argued the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for violating “the U.S. Voting Rights Act by voting unanimously to reject a Latino-majority district in 1981” (MALDEF.ORG). The legal basis of the case was to allow the Latino community to elect their own candidates to the board of supervisors. Finally, the court approved MALDEF’s challenge thus creating the first Latino-majority district in over a century in Los Angeles county.

In conclusion, Mexican Americans have encountered segregation and discrimination in the U.S midway through the 19th century. These segregations were organized to discriminate groups from enjoying the civil and human rights of Mexican Americans and Mexicans in America. However, Mexican Americans have used the legal challenges to dispute the system that was created against them to obtain first-class citizenship. The heart of their objective being to make the 14th amendment protect their civil rights.

Works Cited

  1. Acosta, Teresa. “IN RE RICARDO RODRIGUEZ.” Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  2. Aguirre, Frederick. “Mendez v. Westminster School District: How It Affected Brown v. Board of Education.” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education.
  3. Alvarez, Robert. “The Lemon Grove Incident – San Diego History Center: San Diego, CA: Our City, Our Story.” San Diego History Center.
  4. Bedolla, Lisa. “Introduction: Latinos and US Politics.” Latino Politics. Published by Polity Press (2014).
  5. Lopez, Ian. Olivas, Michael. “Jim Crow, Mexican Americans, and the Anti Subordination Constitution: The Story of Hernandez v Texas.”
  6. Molina, Natalia, “‘In a Race All Their Own’: The Quest to Make Mexicans Ineligible for U.S.
  7. Citizenship,” in Pacific Historical Review, vol. 29, no. 2 May 2010. Published by the University of California Press.
  8. Olivas, Michael. “Plyler v. Doe, the Education of Undocumented Children, and the Polity.”
  9. David Martin and Peter Schuck, eds. IMMIGRATION STORIES. (Foundation Press, 2005).
  10. Palacios, Agustín. “Garcia Bedolla chapter One Key Terms.” La Raza 113. Contra Costa College. San Pablo.
  11. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: Perfected Treaties, 1778-1945; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government, 1778-1992; National Archives. 1848.

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