1968 Edcouch-Elsa High School demonstrators recall discrimination, walkout

She wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish in school. He noticed the school board lacked Mexican American representation. A pregnant teen was told she was a disgrace to Hispanics.

“We had to do something,” Frank Vallejo, now 67, said. “Otherwise, it would have kept on going like that.”

Student leaders — Raul Arispe, Mirtala Villarreal and Xavier Ramirez — began organizing a walkout, a nonviolent direct action to change pervasive discrimination and racism existing within the school system in the Edcouch-Elsa area. Institutionalized discrimination against Hispanics existed in school districts throughout the Rio Grande Valley, as late as the 1960s, when Spanish-speaking students were told to speak English, among other forms of discrimination.

Some were punished physically for speaking Spanish in school.

Teachers and students told them: “You are in the United States; you’re not in Mexico. You need to speak English,” according to Homero Treviño, a senior student at Edcouch-Elsa High School in 1968.

Hispanics experienced discrimination, even though minorities made up a majority of the population in the Valley.

“They controlled it all — the cities, the school districts, everything,” Eddy Gonzalez said of whites living in the area.

Gonzalez, who eventually served on the board of aldermen in Edcouch, said he was labeled a “troublemaker” for not going along with authority, questioning why he had to shave his sideburns, while blonde-haired students could walk the halls of the high school unshaven.

It was the late 1960s — the Vietnam War reached its peak around 1968. In April of that year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Around the country, students were walking out of their classrooms, protesting discrimination.

In March, thousands of students walked out of East Los Angeles schools to call for an improved educational system, having dealt with overcrowded classrooms and decaying school buildings, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The movement was taking shape around the country.

Soon after, Edgewood students in San Antonio left their classrooms for the same reasons.

Locally, a similar civil rights movement started taking shape — students in the Valley were fed up with inequality.

“Things were not right back then. Not only here — a lot of schools had the same thing,” Treviño said.

Edcouch-Elsa High School student leaders and participants began meeting on weekends, planning to walk out of school the morning of Thursday, Nov. 14, 1968.

Though students organized in secret, meeting outside of school grounds, the school’s administration apparently caught wind of their movement. The school’s superintendent sent a letter to parents, informing them of a new protesting policy, calling for participants to be expelled from school.

The student organizers weren’t intimidated.

When the day arrived, the bell rang and students, nearly 200 by some accounts, walked out of their classrooms through the doors and out into the parking lot and a sidewalk near the school.

That’s where Gonzalez spotted his mother waiting nearby in support. Gonzalez told his parents about the walkout and explained he would be fighting back against discrimination at the hands of administrators and teachers.

Quickly, the students crowded nearby, calling on teachers to treat them fairly. They wanted to be allowed to speak Spanish in school, among other demands on their list.

The walkout, part of a nationwide movement, attracted the attention of national news outlets.

“Civil rights protests by Mexican-American students in Edcouch, Texas has spread to two other locations in the Rio Grande Valley,” CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite said in a broadcast in November 1968.

CBS News sent one of its reporters to interview students outside the school.

“The practice here has been one of domination, the Anglos dominating the Latins,” the reporter said over-the-air.

“They want us to forget our native tongue,” a student told the reporter. “I don’t think that’s fair for us.”

The next few days, students stood outside of their school, some holding signs.

“We want better education,” one student’s picket sign read.

Sheriff’s deputies responded to the location, arresting five students there, according to Treviño, who said he was jailed and given a $500 bond.

“Let me tell you, it was weird because I was the oldest of a six-member family,” he said. “I felt that me being the oldest, I wanted to graduate, but at the same time, I didn’t want my brothers and sisters to go through the same situation I had gone through. So, that’s why I did what I had to do.”

Soon after, a lawyer helped with his release, and he tried to return to school. Treviño, though, was not allowed back in the classroom because he was among the protesters who were expelled from Edcouch-Elsa schools.

Determined, student leaders called nearby school districts, asking if they would accept students expelled from Edcouch-Elsa High School. They had one offer from La Joya High School, where most of them went for a semester or two until a U.S. district judge ruled they must be allowed to return to Edcouch-Elsa High School.

The school’s superintendent denied allegations of civil rights violations.

“We do not have discrimination in the school system,” said then-Superintendent A.W. Bell in the CBS News report aired that year. “There may be isolated cases of discrimination that we don’t know about.”

The judge’s ruling spurred other changes.

“By the time, when we returned, the principal was gone,” Treviño said. “The superintendent was gone, and the community aide that was Hispanic, he was assistant principal at the high school.”

Then “a lot of Hispanic teachers were hired,” including one beloved by many of them, Rudy Cisneros, current owner of Cisneros Jewelry in Weslaco.

Treviño, Gonzalez and Vallejo graduated from Edcouch-Elsa High School.

Though Treviño had an “embarrassing” experience as a teen, having been arrested by law enforcement, he went on to work in the field. He started his career with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and retired after working 20 years with the Edcouch-Elsa school district as a security officer.

His children graduated from Edcouch-Elsa High School, and his grandchildren attend the district’s schools.

“It’s an excellent district,” he said.

Treviño has taken note of current Hispanic representation on the school board.

“Everything has completely changed,” he said. “Now all the administrators that are there right now, including the board members, they’re all Hispanics.”

For Gonzalez, the U.S. still has work to do in regard to civil rights, comparing the current political climate to racism that caused unrest in the 1960s.

“What really gets to me, here we are 50 years later, and we’re still having to fight the discrimination that we were fighting back then,” Gonzalez said. “It’s still there.”

cgarcia@themonitor.com