February 13, 2009

a class apart

Hernandez v. Texas was a case that helped establish equal protection under the law for Latino Americans who, whether citizens or not, were treated as second class citizens under the law. As late as 1962, returning from Houston to Odessa with a carload of high school students and the school's football coach, I was with a group refused service at small town cafe somewhere between Austin and Odessa. It was a quarter of an hour or more before we realized we were being purposely ignored. When Coach went to counter and talked to the waitress, his body stiffened and angry words were exchanged, but we left without service. One of the guys with us appeared to be Latino (he was) and that was all it took. Our friend was a kid. We were all kids, except for the coach (who was probably in his 60's). The ironic thing, from our perspective, was that Martin couldn't even speak much Spanish. His parents had this notion that if he spoke only English, he could avoid the discrimination they had suffered. I assure you that few people I talk to realize the extent of the racial prejudice in Texas during this period.

In 1951 in the town of Edna, Texas, a field hand named Pedro Hernández murdered his employer after exchanging words at a gritty cantina. From this seemingly unremarkable small-town murder emerged a landmark civil rights case that would forever change the lives and legal standing of tens of millions of Americans. A team of unknown Mexican American lawyers took the case, Hernandez v. Texas, all the way to the Supreme Court, where they successfully challenged Jim Crow-style discrimination against Mexican Americans.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents A Class Apart from the award-winning producers Carlos Sandoval (Farmingville), and Peter Miller (Sacco and Vanzetti, The Internationale). The one-hour film dramatically interweaves the story of its central characters— activists and lawyers, returning veterans and ordinary citizens, murderer, and victim — within the broader story of a civil rights movement that is still very much alive today.

Get your family together. Sit down and watch. It will premiere on PBS on Monday, February 23. Check your local listings to see when it will be on in your area.

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