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‘Crystal City 1969’ highlights Mexican American student walkouts

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SAN ANTONIO — In five performances, a Latino theater company’s revival of a play about historic but neglected Mexican American student walkouts has reignited audience grief and pride, while raising concern for the present.

The play “Crystal City 1969”, created in 2009 in Dallas, had its first performance in San Antonio last weekend at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

The play tells the story of Crystal City, Texas, student school walkouts and boycotts, when thousands of students demanded change from school and local leaders, who were white, and the end racist and discriminatory treatment of Mexican American students.

Student walkout in Crystal City, Texas, December 20, 1969.San Antonio Express-News Photograph Collection / UTSA Special Collections

“We would be out of luck if we spoke Spanish in class. Discipline was very uneven. We had no Chicano advisers. They put us down. They were very racist with us,” Severita Lara told NBC News in 2019.

The students went to the school board with 13 demands, including more Mexican American teachers, the inclusion of Mexican American history in the curriculum, a fair discipline system, and more cheerleading slots for Mexican Americans — since the faculty had limited the number of Mexican Americans. could be part of the team.

They also demanded equity in education. Lara said she wasn’t allowed to take a chemistry class because she was told it was only for college-going students. She went there and got a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.

The play captures some of this, how women and mothers became the catalyst for parents to organize and how their actions were part of the formation of the Raza Unida party by one of the walkout organizers, José Angel Gutierrez.

“When we were active, there were no books. There were no mentors. There was no one to tell us how to do what we needed to do. There was just rage,” said Gutiérrez, who became a lawyer and is a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Students in San Antonio and other South Texas communities had also staged walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Some audience members had lived through what happened in the play, having their own memories of being beaten at school by teachers and principals for speaking Spanish and being denied educational opportunities. .

A play dramatizing history by former Crystal City students who staged walkouts to protest racism and unequal treatment was staged to sold-out crowds.  From left to right, panel host and blogger Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, attorney and professor Jose Angel Gutierrez (former student and walkout organizer), Diana Serna (Crystal City student leader), Diana Palacios (former cheerleader cheerleader refused a position in the team because there was already a Mexicana), Severita Lara (former student leader), Mario Treviño (former student leader).  Credit: David Lozano, Executive Director of Teatro Casa Mía.
From left to right, panel host and blogger Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, lawyer and professor José Angel Gutiérrez (former student and walkout organizer), Diana Serna (Crystal City student leader), Diana Palacios (former cheerleader cheerleader turned down a position on the team because he was already a Mexicana), Severita Lara (former student leader) and Mario Treviño (former student leader).Courtesy of David Lozano

But the events depicted in the play, new to some, are a reminder of what’s at stake now, as conservative lawmakers and school boards ban ethnic studies books and those with LGBTQ characters and themes and impose limits on teaching Black, Latino and other history, according to David Lozano, who co-wrote the play with Raul Treviño.

“It’s our story and it’s also a story that was denied to us growing up in schools and even in college. You can have a master’s degree and not know the history of Crystal City,” Lozano said. , who is the executive artistic director of the Cara Mía Theater in Dallas.

“As long as this story is denied in our schools, this story is still relevant, and this is 53 years after the first day of the (Crystal City) strike,” Lozano said.

The screenings in San Antonio were the first opportunity for some of the former students who had participated in the walkouts to see the play and gave current students and residents of Crystal City the chance to see it. Crystal City is about two hours from San Antonio, but the play was never performed there.

Attendance at the play in Austin and San Antonio “tells me that Latinos love our story. We are hungry. We’re starving for our history and we’re still not getting it,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, or CMAS.

“The other thing is I think there’s unfinished business. I think you can see that when you look at the political representation…trying to get people to understand that this community belongs to them and they have to do this request,” she said. , “to make sure our elected officials are truly protecting their best interests.”

Rivas-Rodriguez said that at every performance, someone raised the issue of current movements against teaching about race, racism and identity, such as the recent administration blockade by the governor of Florida. Ron DeSantis for a new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.

“People see … that if we want our history to be taught in school and our history to be incorporated into the great American stories and the stories of Texas, we need to stand up and be counted and then make sure they are included , and if there are attempts to not include them, we need to let our elected officials know,” she said.

It is a painful story for those who lived it. Rivas-Rodriguez said she heard her sister, who sat next to her during a performance on Saturday, sniff the piece “because we recognized that these are some of the things that happened to us in our childhood.”

Rivas-Rodriguez grew up in Devine, Texas. When her mother, who she said spoke “perfect English without an accent and perfect Spanish without an accent,” took her to enroll in first grade, the superintendent tried to enroll Rivas-Rodriguez in a class for children with learning disabilities.

“My mom asked why and he said, ‘Well, she doesn’t speak English, does she?’” Rivas-Rodriguez said. He then asked Rivas-Rodriguez if she spoke English.

“It was one of the many ways they managed to separate the kids, to make them feel different,” Rivas-Rodriguez said.

James Garcia, a Phoenix playwright and journalist who hosts a Latino-focused radio show, “Vanguardia America,” faced similar discrimination growing up in Chicago’s Southside neighborhood. Growing up in a Mexican American family, he spoke no English. On his first day of school, he couldn’t tell the teacher that he had to go to the bathroom.

“The next thing I knew, I was on the school steps and I was told, ‘Wait here until your mum comes to get you,’” he said. “I found out later that they told him not to bring him back until he learned English.”

“People forget that there was some kind of cultural trauma that affected Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” Garcia said. The effect of this type of discrimination was to tell Mexican American and Mexican students that their language, their culture, was worthless, worthless and something to be ashamed of, Garcia said.

Plays like “Crystal City 1969” and “Voices of Valor,” a play Garcia directed about Latinos who fought for the country, help dismantle Hollywood portrayals of Mexicans as villains, thieves, and villains. ignorant, said Garcia.

The staging of the play in San Antonio was part of the UT CMAS 50th anniversary celebration, which occurred during the pandemic and therefore delayed some of its events. It was also staged last year in Dallas and outdoors in Austin to a cheering crowd of about 600 people, according to Lozano, as well as some who watched it online.

Olga Muñoz Rodriquez was a 26-year-old mother who helped students in Uvalde, Texas organize walkouts in 1970 after the school board decided not to renew the contract of a teacher, George Garza, the the school’s only Spanish-speaking teacher. , Elementary Robb.

This is the same school where 19 students and two teachers were killed by a gunman last year.

Rodriquez attended one of the performances of “Crystal City 1969” over the weekend. “I kept wanting to say, ‘It happened to Uvalde! ‘” said Rodriquez, 78, who went on to write and publish his own diary and a book about Uvalde’s heroes. “They inspired the children of Uvalde. They inspired us all.”

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