In late May, my older sister sent me a box of old family photographs that included a surprise: our mother’s 7th-grade graduation certificate.
The document dated June 30, 1942, attested that my mom, Theresa Flores, had completed her studies in California’s Monterey County. That’s as far as she went with her formal education; my dad, Catarino Rede, made it as far as 8th grade in New Mexico. Both had eight siblings. As World War II raged, both dropped out to help support their migrant farmworker families as they followed seasonal crops in western states.
Mom’s certificate arrived as the spring term was winding down at Portland State University and college students across the nation were preparing for commencement ceremonies. Holding that thin paper in my hands moved me to my core, a piece of history come alive.
I was auditing an undergraduate class on “Chicano/a History, 1900-present” and I was immersed in the study of social, cultural, political, economic, and historical forces that have shaped the development of people of Mexican heritage in the United States over the last 120 years.
For several weeks, my classmates and I had delved into the events and policies that have colored the experiences of those born in Mexico (like three of my four grandparents), of those born in the U.S. (like my parents), and of those who had immigrated to this country in the past 40 to 50 years (including several million people who gained legal status as a result of federal legislation in the 1980s).
Many of my classmates were fellow Mexican Americans and most were half my age or younger. Together, we were learning, belatedly and to our great dismay, just how badly our parents and previous generations had been treated by government officials, employers and school systems. I don’t exaggerate when I say our people were exploited, marginalized and discriminated against in ways that were just as racist as those used to oppress Native Americans and Black Americans.
I’ll spare the details, but the historical record is flush with descriptions of:
— Widespread violence against Mexicans in the American Southwest, including one massacre in 1918 that saw white ranchers. federal soldiers and Texas Rangers execute 15 unarmed men and boys outside the village of Provenir, near my paternal grandfather’s birthplace in Parma, Texas,
— Efforts to recruit Mexican workers to Chicago and nearby Gary, Indiana, to work in the steel factories after World War I, only to see these same men rounded up and deported a decade later in the 1930s when their labor was no longer needed.
— The Zoot Suit Riots that broke out in Los Angeles in June 1943, when U.S. sailors assaulted young pachucos in downtown L.A. and then went into eastside neighborhoods to attack innocent residents. In all, more than 150 people were injured and 600 arrested over six days of racial violence, aided and abetted by the Los Angeles Police Department.
— More police violence, this time by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, directed at peaceful participants in an August 1970 rally to protest high numbers of Mexican American casualties in the Vietnam War. Deputies arrested more than 100 people, 40 people were injured and 3 were killed, including the widely respected journalist Ruben Salazar, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
— Racist school districts, primarily in California and Texas, that developed “separate but equal” enrollment policies in the 1930s and ’40s that grouped all kids with Spanish surnames, regardless of their ability to speak English, into segregated classrooms, where they received an inferior public education compared to their better-resourced peers in all-white classrooms.
There was more — oh, so much more during the course — that explained how the past has led to the present day, with Mexican Americans lagging behind the U.S. average (and behind whites, in particular) in education, household income and home ownership. Our people are still the ones who harvest fruits and vegetables for everyone else and are still mostly employed in lower-status, lower-income jobs. And all too often, those with darker skin are still assumed to be “illegals” even though the most recent waves of Latino immigrants at the southern border have come from Central American countries.
Under the guidance of Professor Marc Rodriguez (more on him later), we plowed through a variety of academic journal articles, documentaries and other media that placed the history and treatment of Mexicans and Mexican Americans within the context of U.S. history during the 20th Century. These texts touched on migration patterns, labor strikes, cultural adaptation; discrimination in housing, employment and education; as well as gains in political representation and immigration reform, and the emergence of street murals as a medium to inspire pride and unity among Chicano communities across the land.
Thankfully, not all was doom and gloom. I was glad to learn more about groups like LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and the American G.I. Forum that emerged in the 1930s and ’40s to advocate for equal treatment and to urge Mexican immigrants to become U..S. citizens. I hadn’t known about pioneering individuals like Dr. George I. Sánchez, a University of Texas professor, and James DeAnda, a civil rights lawyer from Houston, who both fought for equal education opportunities in the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
I already knew of the dynamic trio Reies Lopez Tijerina of New Mexico, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales of Colorado and Jose Angel Gutierrez of Texas, who were leading activists during the 1970s, when Chicanos (the self-styled term used to describe progressives) began to exert their political power, even going so far as to establish a third national party called La Raza Unida. But I came away with new insights to their differing tactics, personalities, accomplishments and shortcomings.
I didn’t know of Sal Castro, the high school teacher who risked his job to help East L.A. high school students who walked out em masse in 1968 over demands for more relevant courses, better teachers and improved resources. Together with like-minded college students at UCLA and other universities, their protests helped pave the way for Chicano Studies programs and a first wave of middle-class Mexican American professionals.
And while I had long viewed Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta with admiration for their work to organize farmworkers during the 1960s, I was delighted to learn more about the role of women leaders within the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, the precursor to the United Farm Workers Union. Specifically, I learned of Hope Lopez, a widower and mother of five, who coordinated the UFWOC grapes boycott campaign in Philadelphia along with two young female assistants, both single and childless. All had toiled as farmworkers. None had ever been to the East Coast. Yet, led by Lopez, they crafted a successful strategy that relied on a direct appeal to suburban housewives to support the UFW’s grapes boycott in the Philadelphia area. Previously, male organizers in other cities had rounded up support from politicians, labor councils and the local Catholic archdiocese, without even thinking to reach out to women shoppers, who were typically the primary shoppers in their households.
Finally, it was a jaw-dropping experience to go back in time to the 1980 Republican presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and hear them argue for — not against — federal legislation (eventually passed in 1983) that would permit some 11 million undocumented immigrants, primarily Mexican, to reside legally in the U.S. Both candidates characterized Mexicans as good people, dedicated to their families and hard work — a far cry from the white nationalist vitriol spewed by Donald Trump and GOP voters, and amplied by the right-wing news media.
A word about the professor and a final takeaway from the class.
I have nothing but praise for Marc Rodriguez, who grew up in the Midwest and rose to become an author, editor and leading scholar in Mexican American history, acquiring both a Ph.D and a law degree. He taught the class asynchronously, meaning we could access the readings and videos at our convenience, and share our observations online with our classmates within a very flexible schedule.
Marc made it a point to respond constructively and pretty quickly to most student comments, typically adding key facts and drawing on his personal experiences for more context. The 11-week spring term ended last Friday, but we’ve agreed to meet for coffee sometime this summer to continue the conversation beyond the classroom.
As for a final takeaway, it felt good to both fill in the gaps and acquire new information about the social and political history of my people, a process that brought greater clarity to the conditions and limitations that my parents faced growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. Most of all, I was able to better connect several events of the past century with specific places and memories.
Early in the term, we studied a famous strike by Mexican American copper mine workers in southwestern New Mexico that ended with higher pay and expanded benefits. I was flabbergasted to learn the 15-month walkout, ending in January 1952, had taken place near Silver City, the sleepy little town where my dad retired in the late ’80s after a long career as a millwright at a pipe foundry and, later, a stationary engineer at an Oakland hospital.
Later on, we delved into the contentious relationship between California agricultural growers and their poorly paid workers. It sparked a vivid memory of the time when my mom was driving us past a group of UFW pickets in Salinas, the same city where she and my dad had met as teenagers picking lettuce. She rolled down the window, thrust her left arm in the air, and shouted, “Viva la huelga!”
In addition to raising the three of us kids, Mom worked as a seamstress and a taxicab driver and became active at her local senior center. Her 7th grade certificate was a tangible reminder of the limited opportunities she faced and of the privileges I’ve enjoyed, thanks to the efforts she and my dad made to ensure a better life for my sisters and me. I don’t for a moment take for granted the support and encouragement they offered that led me to become the first in my family to attend and graduate from college, work in my chosen profession, and enjoy the rewards of a middle-class lifestyle.
Who could have imagined that nearly 50 years after I graduated from San Jose State University, I’d be taking an online class in the comfort of my home that would enable me to learn more about my family’s history through the study of Chicano history?