Dr. Mahaffy of the Latino Studies department presented a film called “A Class Apart” in the Myers Auditorium of McComsey.
This film was a moving and powerful depiction through the eyes of the lawyers, citizens, and activists of Mexican Americans’ battle to achieve civil rights.
“We are showing it in honor of Constitution day,” said Dr. Mahaffy.
She also said the purpose of showing this film was this particular era of American history barely gets any media attention despite its significance.
This film took place in the 1950s and featured Mexican Americans speaking of their experience of segregation and discrimination in the Southwest. According to them, the values about African Americans by southern Caucasians were applied to Mexican Americans.
One man in the documentary said, “A lot of Mexicans were killed for no reason at all… neighbors got upset… and called us nasty Mexicans.”
This Jim Crow style discrimination affected their everyday life. Mexican American children and Caucasian children had very different educational settings.
Mexican schools were dilapidated and did not even have indoor plumbing whereas Caucasian schools had indoor plumbing and good schools with up to date supplies and books.
A brazen team of Mexican American lawyers wanted to prove to the nation their people were not being protected under the fourteenth amendment, which states all citizens of the United States have the right to life, liberty, and property and cannot have those rights taken away from them without due process of law.
These lawyers needed a case that would allow them to bring their claim to the Supreme court. In August 1951, they got their chance.
The film told the story of the Hernandez v. Texas trial and the lawyers that helped it go all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington DC, Gus Garcia and Carlos Cadena.
This was the one shot they had in a generation to give Mexican Americans their rights. Chief Justice Early Warren presided. After a Supreme Court battle that shook the very foundations of the constitution, the ending result emerged on May 3, 1954.
The court ruled that from that point on, Mexican Americans were protected under the 14th amendment and that it was “un-American to not treat Mexican Americans as citizens of the United States.”
When all was said and done, the Hernandez lawyers were seen as heroes and Carlos Cadena was named the first Latin American court justice of the state court of Texas and later became chief justice.
The fight for Mexican Americans’ civil rights was a largely ignored and yet gaping wound in American history. “A Class Apart” was a documentary of momentous proportions. Though only a small audience viewed this presentation, each and every person seemed rapt with attention and curiosity.
I actually found myself becoming increasingly more intrigued, angry and passionate about the characters’ plight as the film progressed.
I also felt it was my duty as a newspaper writer to bring the public’s attention to it, especially after what Dr. Mahaffy told me before I viewed the film. After all, as the movie said, “[This moment in history] belongs in the Pantheon of great moments in American history.”