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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Remember Hernandez BY JOSE VELA Mexican Americans and the Law: ;El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido! By Reynaldo Anaya Valencia, Sonia R. Garcia, Henry Flores, and Jose Roberto Juarez Jr. University of Arizona Press 197 pages, $15.95 IFor too many Americans, the history of the struggle for civil rights begins in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and ends in 1968 with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. As important and defining as these events are, the true history spans hundreds of years and involves virtually every ethnic, racial, political, and religious group in the country. Yet ask about the role of Mexican Americans in the civil rights movement and most people even most Mexican Americanswill look back at you with a blank stare or a shrug of their shoulders. A quartet of professors from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio attempts to change that with Mexican Americans and the Law: iEl pueblo unido jamas sera vencido! They begin with a discussion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Through the Treaty, the Mexican government sought to preserve the rights of its citizens who lived in territories that were now under U.S. control. Mexico negotiated promises from the Americans that guaranteed Mexicans in the United States the same political, property, and religious rights enjoyed by U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, the U.S. government never enforced the Treaty, and its promises of legal protections for Mexicans were never realized. As the authors write, “The early history of the relationship between Mexican Americans and the legal system chronicles abuse and violence at the hands of law enforcement agencies and the courts.” Some of the most severe abuses took place right here in Texas. But the state’s history of racism and discrimination also produced many of the nation’s leading civil rights organizationsincluding the League of UnitAmerican G.I. Forum, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educa1954 decision Hernandez v. Texas, the major case involving Mexican Americans and jury selection, also marked the first time that Mexican American attorneys argued before the Supreme Court. In 1952 an all-white jury in Jackson County, Texas, convicted a migrant cotton farmer named Pete Hernandez of the murder of Joe Espinosa. Although the population of Jackson County was nearly 25 percent Mexican American, no one with a Latino last name had served on a served on a jury in 25 years. As the authors point out, the relationship between Mexican Americans and the U.S. legal system was complicated because the United States had only two racial classifications: colored and white. Before the courts could determine what rights Mexican Americans possessed, they first had to answer a central question: Were they colored or white? In Hernandez, the U.S. Supreme Court answered by deciding that Mexicans were neither black nor whitethey were Mexican! They were recognized as a distinct group that could be protected by the U.S. Constitution. When the existence of a distinct class is demonstrated, and it is further shown that the laws, as written or as applied, single out that class for different treatment not based on some reasonable classification, the guarantees of the Constitution have been violated. The Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination due to a “twoclass” theorythat is, based upon differences between “white” and Negro. No single issue has ignited the Mexican American community as much as education. Texas’ dysfunctional public school system has been a frequent target of those legal efforts. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, Mexican American parents sued to declare the state’s system of funding public schools unconstitutional, arguing that education was a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court disagreed, rejecting both the idea that education is a fundamental right and that educational funding based on local wealth is unconstitutionally discriminatory, despite the huge inequities it produced. In Plyler v. Doe, Texas public school policy was once again before the U.S. Supreme Court after the legislature passed a law denying education to children who were undocumented immigrants. This time the Supreme Court struck down the law, stating: Persuasive arguments support the view that a State may withhold its beneficence from those whose very presence within the United States is the product of their own unlawful conduct. These arguments do not apply with the same force to classifications imposing disabilities on the minor children of such illegal entrants. Even if the State found it expedient to control the conduct of adults by acting against their children, legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice. The 1973 Rodriguez decision was a major defeat for Mexican American legal activists. A victory would have enshrined education as a constitutional right and, combined with the equal protection clause, mandated some level of educational equality throughout the 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 18, 2005