UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía Speaks About Latino Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement at Arizona State University

View the full lecture below:

For many Americans, mentions of the civil rights movement conjure up images of the struggle for Black-White racial equality—at least that’s the first thing that usually comes to mind.

“The Latino community’s struggle, if it is recognized at all, is often seen as little more than an historical echo of this ‘greater’ conflict,” UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía said during a civil rights lecture she gave Tuesday at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation.

But Latinos have always been part of the civil rights movement, and in many cases, they were its trailblazers, especially in the realm of public education, she explained.

Watch Janet’s interview on the PBS Arizona program “Horizonte”

Her full speech, which you can watch in the embedded video above, goes on to describe how powerful U.S. politicians have often stoked fear, xenophobia, and racism with the goal of creating policies that favor elitist economic interests over the right of all people to seek and achieve the American Dream.

It was the keynote address for ASU’s annual John P. Frank Lecture series, which has previously hosted influencers such as U.S. Supreme Court U.S. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who gained widespread media attention for disclosing his status as an undocumented immigrant.

“Manifest Destiny may have taken America from sea to shining sea, but its history is marred by the systematic expulsion of racial and ethnic minorities,” she said, noting the many times people of non-European descent have been interned, deported, or had their children forcibly separated from them.

For example, Murguía noted that at the onset of the Great Depression, U.S. authorities rounded up a million people of Mexican origin and sent them Mexico even though 60% of them were U.S. citizens. This scenario repeated itself two more times during the right-wing McCarthyism campaign of the early 1950s.

“This boom-then-bust relationship with Mexican workers and the lack of regard for Hispanic American citizenship makes it abundantly clear that, for much of U.S. history, the Latino community has been considered more of a commodity than part of the American citizenry,” Murguia said.

But she also said Latinos have a long history of bravely and boldly combatting these injustices—and that tradition dates back to the U.S. invasion and seizure of the northern parts of Mexico during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848.

“Under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, all those in the newly acquired territories of Texas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona—including people of Mexican origin- were declared American and guaranteed rights as U.S. citizens,” she noted. “But much like the rights of newly freed slaves after the Civil War, the status of many of these citizens was soon violated by the same tactics used in the South under the Jim Crow laws.”

And while it would take another decade for civil rights legislation to widely make the American press during the case of Brown v. the Board of Education in the Deep South, one of the first successful lawsuits against desegregation actually took place in California in 1943. That year, Mexican-American businessman Gonzalo Mendez and his Puerto Rican wife Felicitas partnered with the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to sue Orange County, California for not admitting their children into the public school system on grounds they weren’t considered White.

“The historical significance of Mendez to the fight for educational equality cannot be overstated. It was the first case to declare that the policy of ‘separate but equal’ was unconstitutional,” Murguía noted.

In 1972, the Puerto Rican educational non-profit ASPIRA and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund won a lawsuit against New York State City Board of Education after it was found that the school system had not provided equal learning opportunities students because of their ethnicity and native language. Two years later, ASPIRA joined forces with a group of Chinese parents in California in a legal battle to for native language assessments. The case, known as Lau v. Nichols, landed in the Supreme Court where it was unanimously decided that not attempting to provide supplemental language instruction to English learners violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And in 1982, a group of bold Latino parents risked deportation while embarking in a legal fight to enroll their children in school. In this 1982 case, Plyer v. Doe, the court found denying education to undocumented children unconstitutional.

Since its founding in 1968, UnidosUS has worked alongside many of these aforementioned advocate groups to advance educational equity for Latino students. In the early 1990s, UnidosUS successfully led a coalition to petition George H.W. Bush to issue an executive decree holding the federal government accountable for the performance of Latino school children. At that time, dropout rates for Latino students were 34%. Today, they are 10%. UnidosUS also helped shape the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the first piece of legislation to ensure that accountability was extended to local and state schools. And since 2016, UnidosUS has been pushing to make sure that act’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, created accountability for the educational achievement of English learners.

“Children’s education should not be based on their ZIP codes. The resources devoted to their schools should not be based on their national origin. Every child has potential. Every child can succeed,” Murguía said, noting these issues were especially pertinent to Arizona where nearly half of all students are Hispanic and 7% of the student population are English learners.

With those numbers in mind, Murguía said that earlier this year she spoke with Arizona Governor Douglas Anthony Ducey’s staff about her concerns that there were no Latinos on the State Board of Education.

“In January of this year, a new Latino member was finally appointed, which is great. But now we have only one out of 11 board members. How is that equity?” She asked, adding that only 10% of the state’s teachers are Hispanic and that only 50% of Latino high school students are college ready on graduation day.

“Educational quality leads to economic equity. Arizona is ham-stringing itself by failing to fully invest in these children. The future of the state depends on them—all of them,” she said.

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