The 1920s was a decade of increased Latino immigration into the United States. The majority of Latinos who arrived in the United States were Mexican, most of whom were encouraged to leave their homes as a result of the lack of labor the United States was facing due to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 and increased urbanization. The increase of a new large minority set the stage for racialization that will influence and create an unstable education system for Latinos for years to come. Prior to Mendez v. Westminster, the question as to where Latinos fit into a biracial social system encouraged discrimination based on skin color and reinforced limitations on minority groups, thus contributing to white supremacy. Today there are still various factors that contribute to the achievement gap between latino students and their white counterparts. The Latino population efforts to generate some form of educational stability and equality can be seen in the Mendez v. Westminster court case, and today the struggle for obtaining an equal and unbiased education in the twenty first century is still evident, the evidence being the high dropout rates among Latino students. Latino efforts to achieve stability face systemic challenges from the established white dominated education system.
The evolution of the role of Latinos in the United States education system has not been stable. Prior to the Mendez v. Westminster case the entire United States held a binary racial structure in public education, students were classified as either black or white, which rose the question as to where latino students pertained. Latinos challenged conventional notions of racial stratification as a binary structure. They were neither black nor white, but to maintain a biracial social structure latino students were thus segregated on the basis of color. They were placed in either Mexican schools, African American schools, or White schools (but were often segregated within the White school). Most of the time Latinos students were placed in either white or black schools based on their skin color if school district could not afford to run a third school. Segregation was also regionally defined in the United States, so a student could be considered white in one state and black in another. For example, a Latinos could be seen as black in Arizona but in California all Latinos were seen as Mexican. Skin color, however, retained some autonomous weight in the outcomes individuals placed. The color of one’s skin is what was used to define Latinos in a biracial society because of the complexities of setting up an entire new system of white racial supremacy.The lack of acknowledgement Latinos (most of whom were Mexican at the time) failed to receive was what led to educational instability among the Latino population.
Justification for the segregation of Mexican students was that they were diseased and dirty. This idea began during World War I when U.S. custom agents sprayed Mexicans with insecticides, gasoline, kerosene, and cyanide-based pesticides before they crossed the Santa Fe bridge in Texas to work in the United States. Through this preconceived notion, whites saw it necessary to separate themselves from Mexicans. There was a fear of contamination and this shaped immigration policy and fashioned segregation in southern California. The white majority was using legal means to justify its discriminatory actions towards a minority group, which was also done to African Americans on a harsher scale. The acception of this concept among the white population was an important factor in viewing Latinos as a threat to the “purity” of the white race, thus seeing it appropriate to separate them in educational institutions.
The Mexican schools lacked the resources, infrastructure, classes, and teachers that the white schools received. The Mexican schools were not created for the purpose of higher education, but rather to it limited a Mexican students ability to attend college because the schools would only offer classes in vocational training. Mexican students could not attend the white institutions, thus they could not take classes that would prepare them or allow them to get accepted into universities. The education system was heavily skewed in favor of white students, which is a recurring theme in American history. One can see why many Mexican parents wanted their children to attend the white school, not only because sometimes they were closer to their home, but also because it gave their children better opportunities and offered them better conditions.
A significant battle for the struggle of educational stability and equality can be seen in the Mendez v. Westminster state court case. The factors that restrained and limited the Latino population access to participate in an equal education system were challenged by Felicita and Gonzalo Mendez. The facts of the case begin when Soledad Vidaurri, Felicita’s sister-in-law, tried enrolling her children and Felicita’s children in a nearby elementary school, Westminster Elementary School. Once at the school Soledad was informed by a teacher admitting the children that she would not accept Felicita’s kids. Felicita recalls that “they would take her three, but not mine because mine were dark… and Mendez, you know, and hers was Vidaurri, her husband was Mexican and French, but her name was Vidaurri so that was alright”. Felicita’s children were not only denied access into the white school solely on skin color, although that was the most influential factor, but also on surname. When confronted with the question as to why Felicita’s children could not attend the school the reasons were clearly discriminatory. Both Felicita and Soledad had Mexican children, but only Soledad’s were given the opportunity to enroll into the school because they looked the part, that being that they could pass as white. Discrimination because of phenotype and surname would be one of the key issues of the Mendez case.
The California state case of Mendez v. Westminster was filed March of 1945 and challenged the notion that students should be segregated based on their race. In court the Santa Ana city attorney defended segregation policies on the basis of regulating attendance, age, and language. Educators and Political officials also tried to justify this racist model of education by stating that segregation helped with educational needs. The “needs” discourse masked racialized policy. An education structure intentionally being used to promote white supremacy was trying to be justified through legal means. Those who tried to justify segregation attempted to make it seem that it was a necessity rather than a want from the majority of the white population. Gonzalo and Felicita Mendez wanted to make a statement, which is why they did not accept a compromise offered by the school district that would allow only their children to attend Westminster Elementary. Gonzalo was inspired to pursue some form of equality by two principles: one was that the lawsuit had the ability to benefit the whole Mexican community and the second was that he believed his children could never be good Americans if the insulting and painful practice of segregation continued. The Mendez family saw it as a necessity to end the practice of legal racial segregation. Although segregation was a strong part of American culture, the Mendez family did not see it as American. By challenging segregation, the Mendez family was challenging the long established educational system created to protect white supremacy.
The Decision of Mendez v. Westminster came February 18, 1946, where the California court ruled that the rights of the plaintiffs had been denied under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment provided equal protection and the California court did not see segregation as equal, thus violating the amendment. This case study of Mendez v. Westminster is significant because “separate but equal” was still being used in the 49 other states of the United States. Although the case’s rule only referred to California law, it had a more universal import and set a precedent for court cases to come. The Mendez case will not only be used in the key desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education, but it will also come to be used in state cases, such as Gonzalez V. Sheely in Arizona and Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District in Texas. Although Brown v. Board of Education brought an end to desegregation, that did not mean that there will be full integration, but rather absorption instead of assimilation of the minorities into a white dominated racial education system.
As time progressed white efforts to subordinate racial minorities after desegregation were still apparent and practices to that limit the progress of Latino students continue today. The educational barriers Latinos face are evident when looking at statistics that prove Latinos have the lowest rates of college enrollment, highest rates of high school and college attrition, and lowest overall educational attainment of all the major racial and ethnic groups. The presence of factors contributing to the lack of Latino participation in higher learning and high school graduation rates cannot simply blamed on the race, although sometimes cultural factors do contribute to this, but rather the system of education which operates in favor of white students. The education system operates differently depending on the region, which can be seen if we compare Texas and California with the southern state of Georgia. In all three states Latinos have the lowest dropout rates and college enrollment, but Georgia’s numbers are drastically lower than Texas and California due to the lower numbers of Latino presence in the area, this can be said about the majority of southern states. The education system in the south is especially tough on new immigrants who go into a region with no somatically similar U.S. born minority group to be absorbed into. It is difficult for Latinos to assimilate themselves into the southern education system because a Latino pressences has not already been established there. Not having an established group of Latinos in southern areas poses challenges to the school districts, who are not able to cater to the needs of the Latino students due to lack of funds and resources or lack of cultural understanding.
Georgia is important to focus on because it is the state with the lowest graduation rates in the country, which correlates with having the lowest Latino graduation rates in the country. Some of the factors contributing to Latino educational instability in the United States are that there is little school support for the needs of Latinos Students, there are few incentives for Latino adolescents to continue their education, and the presence barred immigrant access to higher education. These are not the only factors contributing to the lack of Latino stability, but these factors help point out the education system’s role in influencing and contributing the unstable education many Latino students receive.
Schools in the south, specifically Georgia school districts, lack proper programs to assist with Latino education. Some districts only offer assistance to students with limited English proficiency to the children of migrant workers in order to meet the minimum state standards. This sets a problem for Latino students from non-migrant families who still need support in acquiring information taught in basic ESOL (English as a second or foreign language) courses. The school system fails to acknowledge Latinos needs and chooses to ignore the fact that Latinos from migrant families are not the only ones in need of educational support. The lack of resources ESOL programs receive also contributes to the problem of Latino students not receiving the necessary attention to be successful in school. Schools in the south often lack proper staffing and proper staff ESOL certification and training. One of the biggest barriers presented from the staff is the lack of recognition that language acquisition does not happen overnight. Staff members in ESOL programs that are not trained to figure out the needs of ESOL Latino students lack the ability to assist Latino students successfully and allow them to benefit from the programs. The majority of the southern school districts also fail to obtain enough certified bilingual and Latino educators to meet the needs of the Latino students. By being able to connect with the students in their native language there would be vastly better results in not only how much each student learns, but also how many more are able to receive a well enough education that could possibly encourage them to pursue a higher level of education. The lack of bilingual and bicultural staff not only affects how each student is taught, but also how they are treated. When southern whites look at Latinos and they are sometimes confused because they do not understand where they lie in the racial hierarchy. Latinos are not white but they are not black either, so as to not worry about it some teachers ignore Latino students, especially those with darker skin. A male respondent who researched education in Georgia stated, “In Georgia there are Black people and White people. They don’t know what to do. You’re not White, so they either treat you like you’re Black, or they just ignore you.” Ignoring students not only makes them feel like less of a person but also makes them feel subordinate to whites, which contributes to the high dropout rates. Students do not want to be somewhere they do not feel accepted or wanted. Just because they have been absorbed into the white education system, it does not mean that they have received full assimilation into the system.
Many of the Latinos who dropout of high school are those who entered the system as older students and are placed in ESOL courses and then quickly moved over to regular classes due to the lack of resources the school has for Latino students. Students who are not given the proper amount of attention do not feel confident in their ability to be in regular courses and become frustrated with the fact that they are behind the rest of their peers, thus finding it easier to drop out. Many Latino students are also academically “tracked” into lower courses because it is assumed they will not perform well in the upper division classes, this discourages them and limits their opportunities to attend college. Latino students who have the ability to perform at the same level, or possibly even better, than white students are tracked into lower classes because of this assumption. It is not assumed for white students that they will not be able to perform well in a class,rather they are observed and their academic abilities are given more attention than Latino students. The current education system creates a dilemma for many students who have the ability to perform well but either lack the necessary means needed to help them improve or are affected by preconceived notions of racial inferiority (either intentional or not) and not given the adequate attention to place them in classes necessary to benefit them.
It is crucial to take into account the Latino population in the United States because it has had a significant increase. Currently, Hispanic students in secondary education make up about 13% of the school population in grades 9-12, but by 2030 it is expected to increase to 23%. The Latino population makes up a large portion of the United States education system, which is why they should be able to attend schools where their educational needs can be fulfilled in order to better prepare them for a higher education. The Latino population can not go ignored; It is predicted that father down the road Latinos are going to become the majority minority in the public education system if the increase of Latinos in secondary education continues its trend. When the Latinos become that majority, that is when they will not be able to be ignored. School districts need to start implementing strategies that suit the needs of minority students.
The United States education system has certainly come a long way since the Mendez v. Westminster case and Brown v. Board of education, but minorities still struggle to obtain the same opportunities as whites. The education gap between Latinos and Whites is very much evident in the twenty first century and the factors that contribute to this can be seen through cultural and systematic challenges Latino students face. Prior to the Westminster case Latino students failed to receive adequate attention and this is very much the same today. Latinos remain as the minority with the most high school dropouts and much of it is due to the fact that the education system has not fully evolved to meet Latino student’s educational needs.