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The True Story

The Mexican American Experience in Texas, Book Cover

The Mexican American Experience in Texas: Citizenship, Segregation, and the Struggle for Equality
by Martha Menchaca

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2022.
432 pp. $29.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by
Sara Segura

I was raised along the Texas-Mexico border and grew up considering myself to be as Mexican as an American can be and as American as a Mexican can be. Like other Mexican Americans, including Selena, I never understood why we were “ni de aqui, ni de alla” (nor from here, nor from there). Seventh grade Texas History did not make me feel any better, and it was not until my last semester as an undergraduate that I discovered a history of Texas where Tejanos like me made significant contributions and influences. As a graduate student, I read Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, a book that examines land, class, and race relations between Anglos and Mexicans along the Texas border. In 2018, historian Monica Muñoz-Martinez published The Injustice Never Leaves You, where she explores recovered histories of racial violence against ethnic Mexican residents in Texas between 1910 and 1920 at the hands of the Texas Rangers. Historian Zaragosa Vargas’ Crucible of Struggle: A History of Mexican Americans from Colonial Times to the Present Era provided an assessment of Mexican American history. As a Tejana, I still wondered about the experience of Mexican Americans in Texas. Twice colonized, first by the Spanish, then by the Americans, what was it like? Did they, too, feel "ni de aqui, ni de alla?”

   Anthropologist Martha Menchaca has researched and written about constructing the white race in Mexican Americans, the marginalization and discrimination of Mexicans in California, and the naturalization of Mexicans in Texas during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her latest book, commissioned as part of the Texas Bookshelf Project, The Mexican American Experience in Texas: Citizenship, Segregation, and the Struggle for Equality, Menchaca offers “a historical overview of Mexican Americans’ social and economic experiences in Texas from the Spanish to the present.” The book examines how Spain’s racial order encouraged people of mixed-heritage to migrate north into present-day Texas, the replacement of the casta system with a political system that “discriminated against people based on national origin and racial ancestry,” the violence along the Texas-Mexican border experienced by Mexican Americans as their status as U.S. citizens was questioned, and the enforcement of racial segregation. Using Texas archives and legal documents, Menchaca analyzes major turning points in the advancement, denial, and reversal of Mexican Americans’ civil rights quest by revisiting events that had local and national impacts. The book unfolds the ways in which Mexican Americans in Texas overcame political oppression and exclusion.

   Menchaca includes several case studies that promote critical thinking and dispel stereotypes about how things in Texas came to be. Mexican Americans were active participants in their fight for equal rights in Texas, including their right to U.S. citizenship and establish land ownership. One such study is the examination of the legal case Hardy v. De Leon, which ultimately ruled that "conquered people after a war do not become aliens by law, nor do they lose their property rights." In 1843, Milton H. Hardy appeared in front of a judge in the Victoria County Probate Court, applied to become the executor of Sylvester De León under the false premise that Sylvester owed him money at the time of his death, and fraudulently acquired 4,000 acres of the De León land grant. Upon finding out, Fernando De León (Sylvester’s brother) filed a lawsuit on behalf of his surviving nephews as rightful heirs of the De León land grant. In response to the charges, Hardy claimed Martín De León and his family were alien enemies because they supported Mexico in the Texas fight for independence and, therefore, under state law, could not own land in Texas. The case quickly turned on Hardy as his actions to acquire the De León land grant meant he would be tried for failing to disclose the land grant could possibly be reverted back to and owned by the State of Texas. This led to a change in testimony by most of Hardy's conspirators, who confessed to lying on his behalf. Fernando De León's lawyer was left to prove that Martín De León, like most Texas residents, was given citizenship after the Texas Revolution and no Texas law stated that Mexicans would be incorporated as aliens. However, the court ruled in favor of the De León family, stating that only one nephew who was born in New Orleans, on U.S. soil, after the Texas Revolution and therefore was not an alien enemy, was entitled to his father’s land. Hardy appealed the case, and the Texas Supreme Court upheld the ruling but reversed the district's ruling on Sylvester De León's legal status as a traitor and overturned the courts' ruling on alienage, stating it was an "international principle for conquered people to obtain the political status of their new nation." The win legally defined the citizenship of Tejanos and protected their property acquired through Mexican land grants.

   In another case study that involves student walkouts in Crystal City, Menchaca eradicates the rationale that Mexicans were discriminated against because of social class differences, not racism. After the "East Los Angeles Walkouts," Mexican American students across the nation began to challenge the idea that they should "be satisfied with the unequal education opportunities offered to them." In December of 1969, Mexican American students at Crystal City High School grew tired of tolerating the “ethnic-racial hierarchy” imposed upon them by administrators and teachers. Mexican American students were not allowed to hold student leader positions, punished for speaking Spanish at school, never nominated Homecoming Queen, and only one Mexican American was allowed on the cheerleading team despite accounting for much of the school population. Additionally, the administration controlled the opportunities available to Mexican American students by having faculty vote on student nominations instead of a student body vote. Prepared to make demands, two thousand students and their parents staged a walkout and picketed Crystal City schools. Two weeks later, the school board continued to refuse student demands to diversify the curriculum with Mexican American Studies, an end to punishment for speaking Spanish during school hours, and ethnic representation in faculty and administration. By the end of Christmas break, the school boycott continued. This prompted Texas senator Ralph Yarborough to invite Severita Lara, the student leader, and two other students to visit him in Washington D.C. After listening to the students’ complaints, Senator Yarborough alerted the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare to begin an investigation. After negotiating a settlement, the school board “reluctantly approved the students’ demands.” This case study does not only unveil “covert” institutional racism, but its win sparked a social movement as activists in south Texas began to run as candidates for office in local politics and led to the formation of a third party: La Raza Unida Party (RUP). These countermobilization efforts spread into neighboring counties, and RUP candidates were overwhelmingly voted into office. As a result, Mexican Americans began to win elections and gained political agency in Texas.

   Overall, the book successfully delivers valuable insights into the history of Mexican Americans in Texas. Menchaca demonstrates how Mexican Americans successfully challenged segregation and achieved political rights as citizens, despite prevailing institutional racism and an equally prejudiced judicial system in opposition to them. Although the Mexican American experience in Texas has been a history of defense and struggle to obtain social, political, and economic equality, Menchaca demonstrates how Mexican Americans in Texas were active agents in the fight for equity. Moreover, their accomplishments have allowed younger generations, like me, the advantages that transpire with citizenship. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Texas history, Mexican American history, and the history of the United States. It is sure to captivate audiences as young as students in high school. Ultimately, Menchaca answers the question many of my U.S. history students frequently asked, “Miss, where were we?”

Sara Segura is an Academic Advisor I for the College of Education at Texas State University. In addition, she maintains certification for 4-8 social studies and 7-12 history with graduate work in Mexican American Studies curriculum. Her passion to support and empower students of color as they navigate academia led her to a background in education. Her current areas of interest are Race, Gender, and Labor. Sara is a first-generation student who holds a BA in History and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in History from Texas State University