On April 17, Enrique Alemán, Jr., Professor and Chair in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, screened his film "Stolen Education" at Brown University. The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Education, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), and the Center for the Study of Race + Ethnicity in America (CSREA) and attracted dozens of students, faculty, and staff from the Brown University community.
After his mother, Lupe Alemán, passed in 2002, Alemán informed the audience, he discovered that she had been a lead plaintiff--at nine years old--in a 1956-57 court case involving Mexican-American children who had taken the stand against the discriminatory practices of their schools. Lupe had never told her children about this landmark case. Intrigued, Alemán managed to track down the other seven children who had testified, who were all grown and were scattered around South Texas. Segregation in South Texas schools has been commonplace throughout the state’s history, and Alemán’s research and personal interviews served to expose, recapture, and reclaim a shocking piece of history.
In deciding the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed de facto school segregation, forcing school districts to close “Mexican” and “Black” schools. Rather than meet the letter of the law, local school boards across the country rejected the Court’s mandate and developed alternative methods for denying equal educational opportunity.
The Driscoll, TX district was systematically placing Spanish-surnamed students into three years of first grade called “Beginners,” “Low 1st,” and “High 1st.” The students were never tested for academic ability but rather were placed into this tracking system based solely on racial identity.
As both an academic and the son of a civil rights activist, Alemán questioned what we can learn from these actions 60 years later and what we can apply to the context of education equality today. Then he began the film, which he had co-written with Rudy Luna as well as produced, introducing the Brown University community to shocking and sometimes heartbreaking footage.
Ritual oppressions to maintain hierarchy kept a racist structure in place, discouraging Mexican-American children from succeeding. The American G.I. Forum, which challenged denial of services to Mexican-American veterans, turned their sights on the education of the veterans’ families, helping to expose inequality. Out of all who testified in the case, Albesa Hernandez, who had attended the “Mexican” school in Driscoll as a child, was the first parent and only mother to take the witness stand in 1956.
But it was the children who suffered both from discrimination and from taking a stand in court. Like many of her Mexican-American peers, Alemán’s mother Lupe had been almost 21 years old when she graduated high school. Her delayed education was not because of a lack of intelligence but because of a three-year track forced upon Mexican-American first graders in her system. All eight of the children who testified, including Lupe, had been born in the United States and spoke English, yet were sorted into an educational delay that did not affect their white peers.
As a 31-year-old attorney, James DeAnda argued the case in federal court. His strategy to place children on the stand to prove English proficiency was unprecedented. President Jimmy Carter later appointed him only the second Mexican-American to serve on the federal bench in 1979.
Judge James Allred ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the Driscoll School District had treated “students of Mexican extraction” in an “arbitrary, unreasonable and unlawful” manner. He ordered the dismantling of Driscoll’s discriminatory system the following year.
Until Alemán’s documentary film, none of the students that testified had spoken publicly about their participation in the winning of this landmark case.
In heart-wrenching interviews, those former child witnesses spoke of how they and their families had lost their bilingual capacities and ancestral identities. They were shamed if they spoke Spanish at school - sometimes even beaten or not allowed to use the restroom - and so turned only to English, forsaking their families’ native tongues. The shame they felt for speaking Spanish in school became shame at home for speaking English around their families. They felt torn between two worlds, forced to participate as members of the English-speaking one while being treated differently than their white peers.
Consuelo, one of the former court witnesses Alemán interviewed, remembered the day she vowed that her own children would grow up speaking English to avoid shame and punishment; she thought of it as the language necessary for her children to succeed even if it meant turning their backs on their history. Her statements were echoed by the other witnesses Alemán later interviewed - Marcelina, who wanted life to turn out differently for her boys than it had for her; Carmen, who had been only seven years old when she took the stand but never spoke of the case to anyone, equating it with the same shame when teachers punished her by placing her in the corner of the room if she spoke Spanish in school; Marcus, who had grown up in an environment of low expectations where Mexican American students would not think of applying to college and where was goal to de-Mexicanize students; and Reynaldo, whose formative years in the school system had affected his entire life; he ended up dropping out of school, caught between pressure to conform and pressure to retain his identity while receiving messages that he would never succeed.
Most heartbreaking of all, the last two children who participated in the court case, Olga and Mary, were unable to participate in Alemán’s interviews or in the film because that episode of their lives was still too painful to face - even after six decades.
Today, Alemán reported, education equity measures are being taken, but we should still use this case as a model to prepare kids better in the future than we did in the past. The Adelante Partnership, he was pleased to report, starts letting children as young as 5 years old hear the message that college is possible for them. We made mistakes in the past, but we can learn from that historical discrimination and discouragement. We can make the future better for others.
When Alemán welcomed questions following the film, he was asked, since Mexican-Americans fall outside of the Black/white binary, how South Texas thinks about race functions today. Alemán stressed the importance of working with both brown and Black youth to give them a lens, tools, and language to confront whiteness. We negated history, he acknowledged; the interviews in “Stolen Education” show that. It’s time to bring that negation to light and push back.
Another attendee, who volunteers in Providence schools and witnesses racial and ethnic stereotypes, wondered how Alemán would educate children on this topic. Alemán noted how today’s kids, facing threats of deportation, can connect to and articulate the issues children faced in the 1950s. It’s an asset to provide children with the space to grapple with ideas - like how children spoke two languages but only the language of the privileged was allowed in schools - and encourage them to learn to emphasize with others.
An audience member noted how Alemán had interviewed the current Driscoll, TX school superintendent in his documentary, questioning the superintendent’s attitude of appearing to gloss over a past error during her interview by stating that the district is better than that now. Is this true? Alemán acknowledged the administration’s discomfort with its role in a painful history; so far, administrators have declined invitations to attend any screenings of “Stolen Education.” He would like to see this black spot in history formally acknowledged, whether by becoming part of the curriculum or being memorialized in a plaque, so that mistakes can be both remembered and avoided.
Alemán was asked for tips on interviewing reticent people and noted that he had built trust with his interviewees by meeting with them multiple times before they appeared on film, by validating their stories, and by explaining his intentions. He advised budding documentarians to spend time with interviewees authentically. He also noted that his own Chicano feminist perspective made his positionality part of the story.
Finally, someone noted that the Texas Board of Education passed a possible ethnic studies curriculum last week and wondered what Alemán thought of the news. Alemán endorses ethnic studies, noting his partnership in Salt Lake City that has helped youth navigate topics such as microaggression. More than 50% of Texas schools contain brown children, so ethnic studies are important in that state.
Alemán thanked the students, faculty, and staff for attending the screening, and he responded to additional questions and comments during a brief, informal reception immediately following the conclusion of the Q&A.