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.