This Texas school has banned Spanish. It can become a national park
Jessi Silva remembers going to the Marfa, Texas, grocery store as a child while her mother went to get a shopping cart. But there was a problem.
“A white lady was going to take the cart,” said Jessi, now 72. “My mother was there first. The English lady gave my mother a dirty look. My mom gave him the grocery cart. And I thought to myself, why is she doing this?
“They are both women. But one was white and the other Hispanic, ”Jessi said. “And it hurt, like his dignity wasn’t taken into account.” I did not understand why.
This story, which was told to me recently, says so much in a few sentences. Many Latinos across the country have similar stories.
Decades have passed since Jessi saw her mother abandon that cart. Although defenders have put blood, sweat and tears in their efforts to end discrimination against Latinos, anti-Latino racist sentiment persists in our country. Hatred, resentment, and violence toward Latinos predate the formation of the United States, and anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years has made matters worse for Latinos.
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Much of the anti-Latino sentiment in the United States is based on racist claims that immigrants from Latin America refuse to assimilate into American culture. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a single American culture, nor should we expect immigrants to dilute their identities to match a racist perception of what it means to “be American.” The truth is, Latinos have faced obstacles meant to keep their experience separate and unequal from that of their white counterparts.
Sometimes it’s as easy as picking up a basket. Other times, it’s structural. For example, in the southwestern United States, many school systems separated children of Mexican descent from their white peers. It was not written in the laws of the state; it was just common practice.
Instead, these students were sent to “Mexican schools”, where they received second-hand textbooks and furniture. In Marfa, Jessi Silva went to a school called Blackwell School.
In 1892, the local school district of Marfa built a new school for white children only. The Mexican-born students stayed at the old school across town, which was eventually named Blackwell School.
In a misguided effort to teach them English, students were prohibited from speaking Spanish in lessons and paddled for disobeying this rule. A teacher even organized a mock funeral to “bury Mr. Spanish”, represented by scraps of paper written by students disavowing the language, in a box under the schoolyard.
Students thrived despite prejudice
Despite the unfair conditions imposed by the school district, Blackwell’s students thrived. The Blackwell School has become a source of pride for the local Latin American community, a meeting place and a cultural point of contact for them.
The students gave their all in class, on the ball field and in the marching band. Despite the conditions, many teachers were determined to give Blackwell’s students the best education possible. Today, many Blackwell alumni and their descendants are prominent local leaders in West Texas.
Jessi Silva remembers Ms. Evelyn Davis, her tough but kind English teacher, who she credits with helping take a college entrance test years later. In a twist that is symbolic of the complicated legacy of the Blackwell School, Ms. Davis was the teacher who buried Mr. Spanish.
Blackwell School closed when mandatory integration policies came into effect in the 1960s. Years later, a group of Blackwell alumni, including Jessi, formed the Blackwell School Alliance for non-profit purposes. lucrative. They mobilized to take possession of the school property and save it from future development. They dug up Mr. Spanish, ceremoniously claiming the tongue taken from them.
Most of the old “Mexican schools” have been demolished. The Blackwell School is one of the last to witness to unjust racial segregation, as well as the resilience and strength of their community in the face of discrimination.
Biparty legislation introduced
The Blackwell School Alliance saved their school. Now, it’s time to take the next step for more permanent protection. Last week Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Introduced the Blackwell School National Historic Site Act. Representatives Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, and Filemón Vela, D-Texas, introduced complementary legislation to the House.
Latinos have made a huge contribution to American culture and deserve to be represented in American national parks. The Blackwell School National Historic Site is said to be one of the first national parks dedicated to the protection of contemporary Latin history.
The National Park Service is our nation’s greatest storyteller. We hope they will tell this story to travelers passing through Marfa, which is now an eclectic town and tourist destination near Fort Davis National Historic Site and Big Bend National Park.
We hope that by learning stories like Blackwell’s, visitors to our national parks can help bridge the gaps racism has left in our country.
There is not a single American identity. The beauty of our country is that there are countless unique identities, all of which deserve to be seen, heard and recognized in our national parks.
Theresa Pierno is President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.