Seneca’s thoughts on the upcoming PBS “A Class Apart”

February 14th, 2009 · 21 Comments

PBS’ American Experience series will broadcast on February 23 a compelling, yet largely unknown segment of Latino history. This one hour show will focus on the landmark case, Hernandez vs Texas decided by the US Supreme Court. The high court’s ruling on May 3, 1954 included a new trial for the Mexican-American defendant. This trial would be judged by a true jury of his peers. The court’s reasoning was that Mexican-Americans, as a group, were protected under the 14th Amendment, in keeping with the theory that they were indeed “a class apart.”

American Experience executive producer Mark Samuels is cited: “The Hernandez v. Texas story is a powerful reminder of one of many unknown yet hard-fought moments in the civil rights movement. It is easy to forget how far the country has come in just fifty years, reshaping our democracy to include all Americans.” The story is not widely known or appreciated among Latinos most probably because first of all this powerful civil rights case derives from a murder case (Hernandez slayed his boss after a heated argument in a grotty cantina in Edna, Texas) and second: the tragic demise of the lead protagonist Gus Garcia.

As one of two lead lawyers in the case Gus Garcia, a native Texan, easily fits into the pantheon of Latino and American unsung heroes. Garcia, a brilliant lawyer, with almost unmatched legal reasoning along with his equally talented partner, Carlos Cadena, constituted a truly impressive legal team. Both faced the nine justices of the US Supreme Court in January 1954. Cadena opened the argument. One Justice then asked: “Can Mexican Americans speak English?” followed by “are they citizens?” This lack of knowledge stunned Gus Garcia who stood up and brilliantly 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 noted had not been afforded to any other civil rights lawyer before Garcia, including the renowned NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Clearly, Garcia’s oratory skills and brilliant legal reasoning impressed the high court.

Unfortunately, the significance of the case is lost in our Latino collective memory. Perhaps as mentioned before the fact that this uniquely Latino civil rights case was the only one to reach the high court and win a favorable ruling for Mexican Americans (but Latinos writ large), yet it is ‘stained’ because it stems from a murder case (Hernandez was ultimately found guilty of murder). And perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that Gus Garcia, a gifted lawyer and a truly Latino asset in our history, winds up becoming a chronic alcoholic who apparently suffered from deep depression, which was further exacerbated by emotional challenges in his personal life. He died prematurely in 1964. By this time, he had become a troubled figure who was disbarred (legal license to practice suspended) and generally considered to have died in a sad and tragic condition.

In sum, a murder case spawned this renowned high court drama, which yield a landmark decision for Latinos.  Yet the defendant was ultimately found guilty and the Garcia tragedy together served to not glorify or single out the high court ruling as a proud moment in our history of  struggle for equality. It should be pointed out that Carlos Cadena did go on in the 1970’s to be elected to the Texas Supreme Court. Gus Garcia became a legend among the Latino leadership in Texas in the late forties and the fifties. He was tall, handsome (with the looks of a Raymond Chandler character in a murder mystery in Los Angeles of the 1930’s and 1940’s), resourceful, charming, articulate and truly the best his generation had to offer. Had he not taken to drinking and self-destructive behavior, which suggest psychological or mental stability issues brought on by depressive bouts of drinking. Politically, he had been elected as the first Latino to the San Antonio School Board in the late forties. He was truly a natural born and most promising leader. Henry B. Gonzalez became his political heir apparent in terms of popularity and stature as the first Mexican-American in Texas elected in 1956 state senator. Henry B led in 1957 the famous several days long filibuster against Jim Crow type legislation in the Texas legislature. He was about the same time denied entry along with his six children and wife to a Texas State Park for being ‘Mexican.’

Basically, the civil rights struggles in Texas of the fifties, which include Garcia, Cadena and Gonzalez as leading protagonists are largely forgotten. Forgotten also is the awareness and willingness in our Latino community to tackle the residual restrictions or manifestation of excluding Latinos from total legal protection under the law. In Washington, too often outsiders are heard to comment: the affirmative action and civil liberties legal efforts rarely if ever involve Latinos. One Deputy Secretary of a leading Cabinet Agency is infamously cited when asked if blacks and women successfully brought suits to promote their cause, then where were the court rulings on redressing Latino employment practices in hiring and promotion, he readily replied: “…you guys do not sue!” Hence, the PBS documentary should reawaken or at least make us reflect in the Latino community how far we have come and how far we still have to go to get equity in the system. The courts plainly remain an option, but our Latino political leadership, especially at the federal level, should be more responsive and sensitive to the existing deficiencies in the systems. With the increasing backlash against immigrants (with a latent anti-Latino/anti-Hispanic sentiment) witnessed in recent years the Latino community faces ever-increasing challenges in the job place, the university admissions, the promotions to military general officer or senior civil servants as well as in the upper echelons of corporate America, as well as available credit, decent housing, health care and primary and secondary school hurdles. Certainly, we must not feel we have to shake the system ‘down,’ but we should shake it ‘up.’

Do watch the PBS Feb 23 program “A Class Apart;” note that it is not the 1940’s Cary Grant WASP film with the same title. This PBS documentary is a timely reminder of what the Latino agenda should include. This includes citing or noting historic events like ‘Hernandez v. Texas’ in children’s and college text books to avoid the loss of essential milestones in the Latino journey.

Tags: Civil Rights · Crime · Henry B. Gonzalez · Latino History · Seneca · Substance Abuse and Latinos · Supreme Court

21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anna // Feb 14, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954)[1], was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that decided that Mexican Americans and all other racial groups in the United States had equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    Pete Hernandez, a Mexican agricultural worker, was convicted for the murder of Joe Espinosa. Hernandez believed that the jury could not be impartial unless members of other races were allowed on the jury-selecting committees, seeing that a Mexican American had not been on a jury for more than 25 years in his particular county in the U.S. state of Texas. Hernandez and his lawyers took the case to the Supreme Court. The legal team included Gustavo C. Garcia, Carlos Cadena, James deAnda, Chris Alderete, and John J. Herrera.

    Chief Justice Earl Warren and the rest of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Hernandez. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects those beyond the racial classes of white or Negro, and extends to other racial groups, such as Mexican American in this case.

    The ruling was yet another step forward in the American Civil Rights Movement and another hit to racial segregation in the USA. This time, racial minorities other than African Americans benefited from such a ruling. The ultimate impact of this ruling, however, was that now all racial groups of the United States were protected under the 14th Amendment.

    The oral arguments of this case have been lost. However, the United States Supreme Court docket sheet and letter from Justice Clark to Chief Justice regarding joining opinion are available online.

  • 2 webmaster // Feb 14, 2009 at 11:09 pm


    Thank you for linking to the case information for people.

    This case should be given more attention in our schools and should be something that Latino American kids learn about. Equal protection under the 14th amendment enabled Mexican-Americans to be judged by a jury of their peers and to ultimately sit on juries for defendants of other races/groups.

    Worth reading and looking through is this slide show that Seneca found, which features some of the characters in this documentary:

  • 3 Anna // Feb 14, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Re: …”yet it is ’stained’ because it stems from a murder case (Hernandez was ultimately found guilty of murder). And perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that Gus Garcia, a gifted lawyer and a truly Latino asset in our history, winds up becoming a chronic alcoholic and apparently suffered from deep depression…”

    There you go with your “shame” issues. The case is not stained, nor does it matter if one of the lawyers later suffered from depression and alcoholism.

    The issue here is that the 14th Amendment was extended to Mexican-Americans and our history was acknolwedged. America isn’t just black and white with us in some legal limbo “Other” category.

    I’m also glad that this is being shown on PBS and American Experience. I just hope they get it right.

  • 4 Anna // Feb 14, 2009 at 11:45 pm


    I agree with you that this case should be taught in the schools, along with Mendez v Westminster (1946), the first case to ban segregation in schools, and Perez v Sharp (1948), which set the legal precedent for the Supreme Court case that banned interracial marriages (Loving v US).

    We set the precedents for anti-discrimination cases, but that’s erased and we’re told that other people won our rights. What a crock.


  • 5 RealDemocrat // Feb 15, 2009 at 9:32 am

    We’ve already moved past the 60’s…

  • 6 Alisa // Feb 15, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Let’s hope this spurs more awareness all around. Thanks for posting.

  • 7 Anna // Feb 15, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Re: “We’ve already moved past the 60’s…”

    We’ve moved past many eras, but we should still know our history.

  • 8 india blanca // Feb 15, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    I disagree with Anna when she attempts to bash Seneca over what she calls “shame” issues…in fact it is a shame…first, that our Latino youth are robbed from the opportunity to grow up knowing that the first lawyer to be given an extension to speak before the highest court of the land was a Mexican American… second that a brilliant lawyer such as Gus Garcia ends up losing his license to practice law, ends up an alcoholic who would be seen wondering in park benches and who dies a premature death. I think all of it speaks of the psychological issues that the marginalization we experience, as Latinos, can have even upon the brightest professional. Alcoholism is an addiction that afflicts many of our people, and it is a shame.
    I believe that Anna misses the point; raising awareness is not simply going to Wikipedia and pasting the technical explanation of a historic event. It is going beyond to put it in perspective and allow us the opportunity to understand those unsung heroes who have struggled for our cause and triumphed. Yet at the same time, who are human beings just like any of us with their frailties and who many times do not find the support in our own community to overcome their challenges. ….don’t you think?

  • 9 Anna // Feb 15, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    India Blanca:

    I agree with you that it’s unfortunate that our history has not been taught in the schools, and that this lawyer had problems with drinking and depression, but Seneca said that the case itself is “stained” and I disagree with that.

    Nothing takes away from Gus Garcia’s achievement. Throughout history many men who achieved great things had problems with depression and alcohol. People are human. I agree, though, that it speaks to the oppression that he had to face. It was probably difficult to know that no matter how hard you worked that you were considered a foreigner in your own country, in a state that your ancestors settled, named, and built.

    Seneca also implies, and I could be misreading him, that the nature of the case and the lawyer’s problems are the reasons the case has been lost to our “collective memory.” I don’t agree with that either. We don’t fit into the black/white paradigm that America has promoted for the last few decades and anything that pierces that illusion is brushed aside. It’s changing now, finally.

  • 10 RealDemocrat // Feb 15, 2009 at 9:30 pm


  • 11 india blanca // Feb 16, 2009 at 10:49 am


    If you read Seneca carefully, you will see that what he said was:

    “Unfortunately, the significance of the case is lost in our Latino collective memory. Perhaps as mentioned before the fact that this uniquely Latino civil rights case was the only one to reach the high court and win a favorable ruling for Mexican Americans (but Latinos writ large), yet it is ’stained’ because it stems from a murder case (Hernandez was ultimately found guilty of murder). ”

    In other words this was not a case where technically our rights were abused but where one of ours had murdered someone. Hence, Seneca’s remark that the case was “stained”…it seems to me his remark had absolutely nothing to do with Garcia’s alcoholism or depression… if one pays attention, I believe Seneca is simply attempting to explain (and I would bet: understand) why we have allowed it to disappear from our collective memory. I also think that the fact that he put the word stained in quotation marks means that he does not agree.
    I think it is very important that we pay close attention when we read other people’s comments so we do not distort or take them out of context….When I read what Seneca wrote I get the impression that he finds Gus Garcia to be an admirable man, at no point do I find that Seneca thinks Garcia’s personal problems “take away” from his achievement .I find Seneca’s entries to be full of insight.

  • 12 Anna // Feb 16, 2009 at 11:16 am

    India Blanca:

    Seneca tied the two together:

    “Yet the defendant was ultimately found guilty and the Garcia tragedy together served to not glorify or single out the high court ruling as a proud moment in our history of struggle for equality.”

    Again, I disagree that the nature of the case or the problems with he lawyer are the reasons this case was lost to history. We didn’t “allow it” to disappear. All of our history was scrubbed from 20th century textbooks, not just this one case. The people who win the wars write the history books. Until recently we were not in a position to affect school curriculums or even PBS programming. Now that we have that ability, this case, and I hope the others will be made known.

  • 13 india blanca // Feb 16, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    …now you are paying closer attention…Seneca did tie the two together to try to explain the loss of this case from our collective memory,
    but he did not do so in the way you originally stated : “There you go with your “shame” issues.”

    As a matter of fact, if you read closely he calls Garcia’s alcoholism a tragedy.
    At any rate, since you seem to always want to have the last word…this will be my parting thoughts…hopefully in some way I provoked you to read more attentively and not to distort the meaning of other’s words

  • 14 Anna // Feb 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I do think that to call an important civil rights case “stained” because it stemmed from a murder case and because of the lawyer’s problems later in life does suggest an issue with shame.

    He wants a certain type of hero and dramatic narrative, and because that didn’t happen, he thinks the case is diminished. My point was that in the long run, what matters is the outcome of the ruling and how it affected the lives of Mexican-Americans.

  • 15 Michaelr // Feb 16, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    As usual, Anna the “Apologist” you again inserted your foot into your mouth. Seneca is a social critic. He doesn’t copy and paste paragraphs from Wikipedia like someone we’re now very familiar with, nor is he a cheerleader for public thieves and elected flojos.

  • 16 Anna // Feb 16, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    So cutting and pasting a summary of a case from Wikipedia is a crime too? Does that make it stained? lol

    I posted details of the case because they weren’t in the article. Big deal.

  • 17 Anna // Feb 16, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    More info on the case:

    This paper highlights two important legacies of Hernandez v. Texas. First, as other commentators have observed, the Court’s decision represented a critical inroad on the commonly-understood view that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment only protected African Americans. Until 1954, this narrow understanding had worked to the detriment of Mexican Americans seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights. The legal challenge to the Black/white paradigm of civil rights ultimately triumphed, with the Equal Protection guarantee now protecting all (including whites), not just some, races from invidious discrimination. The Court in Hernandez v. Texas thus continued the gradual expansion of the Equal Protection Clause.

    Although this important aspect of Hernandez v. Texas is well recognized, not much attention has been paid to why the Supreme Court made such an important ruling at this time in U.S. history. The author of the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren, a native son of California, knew well from personal and professional experience of the discrimination against Mexican Americans, in the Golden State. Indeed, the World War II period – when Earl Warren was California’s Attorney General and later Governor – was one of the most concentrated and well-publicized periods of anti-Mexican violence in California in the entire twentieth century. The Mexican American community reacted with outrage to what it perceived as a racially biased law enforcement and criminal justice system. Earl Warren’s experience with the Mexican American civil rights struggle undoubtedly contributed to the timing of the Court’s decision in Hernandez v. Texas.

    Appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1953, Earl Warren previously had served as Attorney General and Governor of California, a racially diverse state that had experienced more than its share of racial tensions during his life. His experience as a political leader at the center of several high profile racial controversies no doubt allowed him to have a better fundamental understanding of the complexities of racial discrimination against Mexican-Americans. This experience helps explain how Chief Justice Earl Warren could write an informed opinion like Hernandez v. Texas.

  • 18 Ramon Munoz // Feb 17, 2009 at 8:36 am

    The case Hernandez v. Texas involved a Mexican American defendant, was argued before the US Supreme Court by two Mexican American lawyers. Why do we refer to them as Latinos? Do the terms Mexican, Mexican American, or Chicano continue to be unacceptable? Why do do we have be “anything but Mexican” (or Mexican American or Chicano) to borrow a phrase from Rudy Acuna?

  • 19 webmaster // Feb 17, 2009 at 8:49 am


    I think that we can call them Mexican-American or Chicano. I’m not one to get into semantic wars over the terms Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, mestizo, etc. Gosh, the census isn’t even exactly clear on what exactly to call us. I wonder what the descendants of the parties involved in this case call themselves.

    The point here is that we want people to become more aware of this case, watch the PBS documentary, and encourage others to do so, so that we aren’t scrambling next time Ken Burns or some other film maker decides to skip over our contributions as Americans in portraying “history.”

    Thanks for dropping by, and we have blogged about Dr. Acuña’s commentary before on this site:

  • 20 BettyM // Feb 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Thank you for bringing this show to our attention. I won’t miss it!

  • 21 Juan Carlos // Feb 23, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Thank you for the article and very interesting discussion.

    Race Crit Richard Delgado offers two additional insights: first, that the case was a product of an “interest convergence” between Mexican-Americans and Whites (applying Mary Dudziak’s Cold-War analysis of Brown v. Board).

    Second, that “celebrating” the case may threaten to overshadow current problems and inequities within our community. This is similar to the Brown v. Board celebrations every so many years that mask the very real unfulfilled promises of Brown in the name of formal equality.

    Feel free to read my brief thoughts on the case, here:

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