A&E  

A Class Apart

PBS's American Experience premieres film showing challenge of Jim Crow-style discrimination against Mexican Americans, 2.23

Published on LatinoLA: January 27, 2009


A Class Apart


In 1951 in the town of Edna, Texas, a field hand named Pedro Hern?índez 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, Hern?índez v. Texas, all the way to the Supreme Court, where they successfully challenged Jim Crow-style discrimination against Mexican Americans.

On Monday, February 23, PBS's American Experience premieres 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.

The film begins with the little known history of Mexican Americans in the United States. In 1848, The Mexican-American War came to an end. For the United States, the victory meant ownership of large swaths of Mexican territory. The tens of thousands of residents living on the newly annexed land were offered American citizenship as part of the treaty to end the war. But as time evolved it soon became apparent that legal citizenship for Mexican Americans was one thing, equal treatment would be quite another.

"Life in the 1950s was very difficult for Hispanics," Wanda Garcia, a native of Corpus Christi, explains in the film. "We were considered second-rate, we were not considered intelligent. We were considered invisible."

In the first 100 years after gaining US citizenship, many Mexican Americans in Texas lost their land to unfamiliar American laws, or to swindlers. With the loss of their land came a loss of status, and within just two generations, many wealthy ranch owners had become farm workers. After the Civil War, increasing numbers of Southern whites moved to south Texas, bringing with them the rigid, racial social code of the Deep South, which they began to apply not just to Blacks, but to Mexican Americans as well.

Widespread discrimination followed Latinos from schoolhouses and restaurants to courthouses and even to funeral parlors, many of which refused to prepare Mexican American bodies for burial. During World War II, more than 300,000 Mexican Americans served their country expecting to return home with the full citizenship rights they deserved. Instead, the returning veterans, many of them decorated war heroes, came back to face the same injustices they had experienced all their lives.

Latino lawyers and activists were making progress at state levels, but they knew that real change could only be achieved if Mexican Americans were recognized by the 14th amendment of the US Constitution -- something that could only be accomplished by bringing a case to the Supreme Court.

In his law office in San Antonio, a well-known attorney named Gus Garc?¡a listened to the desperate pleas of Pedro Hern?índez's mother, who traveled more than one-hundred-and-fifty miles to ask him to defend her son. Garc?¡a quickly realized that there was more to this case than murder; the real concern was not Hern?índez's guilt, but whether he could receive a fair trial with an all-Anglo jury deciding his fate.

Garc?¡a assembled a team of courageous attorneys who argued on behalf of Hern?índez from his first trial at the Jackson County Courthouse in Texas all the way to Washington, DC. It would be the first time a Mexican American appeared before the Supreme Court.

The Hern?índez lawyers decided on a daring but risky legal strategy, arguing that Mexican Americans were "a class apart" and did not neatly fit into a legal structure that recognized only black and white Americans. As legal skirmishes unfolded, the lawyers emerged as brilliant, dedicated, humorous, and at times, terribly flawed men.

"They took a gamble," says University of California-Berkeley professor of law Ian Haney-L??pez in the film. "They knew, on the up side, that they could win national recognition for the equality of Mexican Americans, but they knew, on the down side, that if they lost, they would establish at a national level the proposition that Mexican Americans could be treated as second class citizens."

The Hern?índez case struck a chord with Latinos across the country. When funds to try the case ran out, the Mexican American community donated to the cause in any way they could, despite limited resources.

"They would come up to me and they would give you crumpled-up dollar bills and they'd give you coins. These were people who couldn't afford it, but couldn't afford not to," recalled attorney Carlos Cadena, Gus Garc?¡a's partner in the case.

On January 11, 1954, Garc?¡a and Cadena faced the nine justices of the US Supreme Court. Cadena opened the argument. "Can Mexican Americans speak English?" one justice asked. "Are they citizens?" asked another. The lack of knowledge stunned Gus Garc?¡a, who stood up and delivered the argument of his life. Chief Justice Earl Warren allowed him to continue a full sixteen minutes past the allotted time, a concession a witness to the argument noted that had not been afforded to any other civil rights lawyer before Garcia, including the renowned NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall.

On May 3, 1954, the US Supreme Court announced its ruling in the case of Hern?índez v. Texas. Pedro Hern?índez would receive a new trial ÔÇô and would be judged by a true jury of his peers. The court's legal reasoning: Mexican Americans, as a group, were protected under the 14th Amendment, in keeping with the theory that they were indeed "a class apart."

"The Hern?índez v. Texas story is a powerful reminder of one of many unknown yet hard-fought moments in the Civil Rights Movement," says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. "It's easy to forget how far the country has come in just fifty years, reshaping our democracy to include all Americans."

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of WGBH Boston
Senior producer Sharon Grimberg
Executive producer Mark Samels

A Class Apart is a co-production of ITVS and LPB, in association with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and PBS, with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and additional support from The Houston Endowment, The Horace and Amy Hagedorn Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts, Humanities Texas and the Funding Exchange/Paul Robeson Fund.

Exclusive corporate funding for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is provided by Liberty Mutual. Major funding is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by public television viewers.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is closed captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, and described for people who are blind or visually impaired by the Media Access Group at WGBH. The descriptive narration is available on the SAP channel of stereo TVs and VCRs.

Television's most-watched history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been hailed as "peerless" (Wall Street Journal), "the most consistently enriching program on television" (Chicago Tribune), and "a beacon of intelligence and purpose" (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America's past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including twenty-four Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and fourteen George Foster Peabody Awards, one most recently for Two Days in October.

WGBH Boston is America's preeminent public broadcasting producer. More than one-third of PBS's prime-time lineup and companion Web content as well as many public radio favorites are produced by WGBH. The station also is a pioneer in educational multimedia and in access technologies for people with disabilities. For more information visit wgbh.org.

For more information about AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and A Class Apart, visit tpbs.org/americanexperience

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