In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center agreed to investigate a complaint about the treatment of Latino students and their parents in a Louisiana school district. The Center found that the school district failed to respond to a hostile school environment that was created for Latino youth. Latino students were beaten by other students at school for speaking Spanish, they and their parents were harassed for proof of citizenship, and the district failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation support for Spanish-speaking parents. The Center also found that school officials were prematurely pushing students out of classes for English language learners. The Center, in short, found that the school district was stifling educational opportunities for Latino students.
Educational discrimination in the South has become more complicated since the Civil Rights Era. It is no longer an exclusively Black-White issue. The influx of Mexican immigrants has created new challenges for public schools. The Latino population in the United States has grown from less than 5% in 1960 to a staggering 19% in 2022. Their numbers also have increased in Southern states. School officials in the South are now encountering issues of race, class, and language. Because very little has been written about the historical experiences of Mexican immigrants in public schools in the Deep South, we believe it would benefit school leaders to understand how the politics of race has historically affected Mexican immigrant children. Having a sense of the past, we contend, puts school leaders in privileged positions to make well-informed decisions. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, the historical nature of most current reform proposals magnifies defects and understates the difficulty of changing the system.
From the Schoolhouse Door to the U.S. Secretary of State
We tell a story about an incident that took place in a small Louisiana town in 1915. A school board member stood in front of the schoolhouse door and refused to let several Mexican children into a White school, claiming the children were racially mixed. A complaint was filed with the Mexican consulate in New Orleans, an investigation was conducted, a report was written, and it was sent to the Mexican Ambassador, Eliseo Arredondo, in Washington, D.C. From there, Ambassador Arredondo informed Robert Lansing, the U.S. Secretary of State, about this incident in Cheneyville, Louisiana (Rapides Parish). Arredondo explained to Lansing that a school board member had not only thrown several Mexican children out of the school, but he also described how the board member became aggressive, threatened the children, their parents, and told them he would physically hurt them if they returned to the school. The Mexican Ambassador asked the U.S. Secretary of State to intervene and help “prevent this unjust discrimination.”
This incident is important because individuals from the highest branches of government—both domestic and foreign—were notified that Mexican immigrant children faced intimidation, racial hatred, and were barred from a public school because a school board member believed they were racially mixed. While this story is chiefly about how school leaders in this Louisiana parish responded to the school board member’s actions, we also provide insights into how Mexican immigrants were treated in a place and time where racial segregation was understood in Black and White terms, a region of the nation where school segregation was legal under the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine. We found this case in the Mexico City archives—the Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada, Acervo Histórico Diplomático, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores—and we also went to Louisiana to investigate. There was no record of the incident in the parish school board minutes, and it was not reported in the local press. In addition, the U.S. Department of State ordered the Louisiana Governor to investigate the incident, and that order was passed on to the State Superintendent of Instruction. But there was no record of an investigation or that the state intervened. Even though this story is incomplete, we have enough information to illuminate the context of the incident.
We believe it is important to have a sense of the historical experiences of Mexican immigrants in the Deep South during the early twentieth century to appreciate the uniqueness of this case. Historian Julie Weise became central because her work allowed us to acknowledge the complexity of this story. In her book Corazon de Dixie, Weise found that Mexicans arriving in Louisiana and Mississippi during the early 20th century had varied experiences. It depended on their social class, skin color, and where they lived and worked. Life was different for Mexicans who lived in the Mississippi Delta and rural Louisiana compared to those who settled in New Orleans. New Orleans was racially diverse, urban, and cosmopolitan. It was a location where Mexican immigrants understood Jim Crow, and they learned how to navigate the color line. Those who arrived in New Orleans more closely resembled European immigrants as they arrived by boat rather than crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. However, within 100 miles of New Orleans, where cotton and sugar-producing areas recruited Mexicans for agricultural work that was performed by Black laborers, Mexicans were seen as similar to Black people, and Jim Crow also unofficially applied to them.
The Black-White racial world in central Louisiana made it difficult for school leaders to look beyond the binary system that was in place. In this community, they struggled with the Mexican immigrant children. School leaders and others were divided or unsure about how Mexican children should be “raced.” For example, they did not challenge the school board member’s claim that Mexican children were racially mixed, there were disagreements about whether the Mexican children had “Negro blood,” and no one claimed the Mexican children were White. This was fascinating because Mexicans in the United States had a fluid and perplexing racial classification. As legal scholar Laura Gomez notes in her book Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race, after the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo suggested Mexicans had White status because naturalization was limited to White persons. The treaty naturalized Mexicans living in the newly acceded territory in the American Southwest. Even though Mexicans were given a new racial category after 1848 by the U.S. government, they were not seen or treated as White citizens. Some Americans, in fact, viewed Mexicans as a mongrel race. As we consider what was and what was not said about the racial category of the Mexican children in this Southern community, their mestizo appearance (Indian and European ancestry) was most likely too visible for them to “pass” as White.
When school leaders in the community were making sense of the school board member’s actions, the county superintendent consulted with the District Attorney and found that there were no laws that prohibited Mexican children from attending the school. The superintendent wrote a letter to the principal of the school where the children were thrown out to inform him of the District Attorney's opinion. Acting under legal advice, the county superintendent instructed the principal to admit the Mexican children into the school. But time had passed. It was too late. We do not know what happened to the Mexican children and their families. Their lives remained largely invisible in the public school and community census records.
But there was more to consider. As we reflect on this case, this incident raises new questions about the intersections of race, class, education, and local political economies. That is, Mexican parents in the community were attempting to enroll their children in the White school in late October, where the school would have been in session for well over a month. The segregated Black schools would just be starting so its students could work through the harvest. In the Southwest, school administrators and school boards of education often used the late enrollment and the work life of Mexican families to provide cover for segregating and excluding Mexican students, arguing that their different schedule would be disruptive to White students and entering a White school later would put Mexican students at an academic disadvantage. School leaders and school boards of education generally placed Mexican children in either separate classrooms or separate schools across the Southwest.
The late enrollment and work-life realities of the Mexican families would have been readily available as a reason to enroll Mexican children in the town’s segregated Black school. However, enrolling Mexican immigrant children in a Black school was not discussed. This incident points to an important difference about how race was perceived and acted upon in the Deep South compared to the Southwest. In the Southwest, school leaders used language, academic unpreparedness, and work schedules as pretexts to exclude or segregate Mexican children. The school board member in this Louisiana school did not attempt to hide why he threw the Mexican children out of the White school. He threw them out of the school because he saw them as racially mixed. This incident was about race. No other reason. There is more work to be done to understand better the extent to which the mestizo heritage of Mexican children factored in decisions to exclude or segregate them in public schools. This is an issue that school leaders, school boards of education, and White parents continue to wrestle with in the United States.
What we accessed in the Mexico City archives, including the Mexican consulate’s investigative report, revealed two compelling issues that deserve some attention. First, the White family who took the Mexican families and their children on their farm to work feared the school board member who threw the children out of the school. They feared him because of his financial and political standing in the community. The school board member was a powerful individual. In her book, Rapides Parish: An Illustrated History, Louisiana historian Sue Eakin argued that planters in Rapides Parish were “the government” after the 1896 Plessy decision. Eakin was clear that planters owned newspapers and were influential in the parish. This may explain, we hypothesize, why the local press did not cover the incident because of who the school board member was in the community. Second, we gained further understanding of why racial conflicts may often be hidden from the public record. While the Rapides parish was functioning under a legal system that served Black and White children in separate schools, it was evident from the Mexican consul’s report that some school officials were nervous about this incident because they did not want problems with U.S. and Mexican government officials. In fact, the Rapides school board president expressed to the Mexican consulate investigator that he did not want the complaint to go to Washington, D.C., implying that he would have been pleased to keep public records devoid of the incident. We hypothesize, again, that this may explain why the parish school board minutes had no record of this incident. School board members, perhaps, did not want this incident to part of the district’s historical memory.
Past, Present, and Future
School discrimination for Latinos in Louisiana has changed. We seriously doubt that what took place in 1915 would occur today. Nonetheless, the 2014 Southern Poverty Law Center’s findings suggest that despite civil rights laws and other protections children currently have in American public schools, school leaders continue to struggle with Mexican immigrant youth. The Center found that Latinos were in a hostile schooling environment, they were harassed, English language learners were inadequately served, and their parents were kept out of the loop in school affairs. Almost one hundred years separate these two events. Yet, what Mexican immigrant youth experienced in both periods is lamentable.
We believe school leaders and school boards of education can learn from the past. Given that this incident was not recorded in the parish school board minutes and was not covered by the local press in 1915, what can school leaders learn from this case today? First, school leaders need to acknowledge that local politics and power relationships within and outside of schools continue to influence how inequality functions and how issues get reported. Presently, this can be a dilemma for Mexican immigrant families who commonly try to avoid attention because it endangers their economic well-being. We recommend procedures be implemented in school districts where educational professionals take responsibility for reporting inequality. Reporting inequality must become an institutionalized cultural norm—similar to how leaders in other professions are required to report. Second, school board members must understand that board minutes are important public records that preserve critical information. Board minutes inform multiple players in schools and communities about where the district has been and where it is going. School boards have the power to determine what’s included and what gets excluded on board agendas. They also can be written in ways that minimize or downplay important occurrences. We suggest board minutes document accurate information and include all voices in school districts, especially those who have been historically marginalized.
In the end, the records kept in the Mexico City archives preserve a moment in time about what we know about the treatment of Mexican immigrant children in the Deep South in 1915-1916. During this brief period, we know why a school board member threw Mexican children out of a White school, how school administrators responded, how the racial category of Mexican immigrant children became elusive, and how the Mexican and U.S. governments became involved. If records of this incident were limited to the parish school board minutes and the local press, this story would have been buried, lost, or, certainly, untold.
Rubén Donato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Bob & Judy Charles Endowed Chair and professor of Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice in the School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. Jarrod Hanson (email@example.com) is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.