In this slim volume, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez tells three stories about the civil rights struggles of Mexican Americans in Texas. The first story recounts the successful effort in 1969 to desegregate the public schools in Alpine, a small town in south Texas. The second story describes efforts in 1960 to integrate the police and fire departments in El Paso. The third story is about the original (and fitful) formation of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) during the late 1960s.
Although Rivas-Rodriguez calls these "important milestones" in the advancement of Mexican Americans in Texas, the episodes serve better as examples of the many small steps required to move forward. Integration of the Alpine public schools was not a reprise of Topeka or Little Rock. Instead, integration occurred in Alpine when hundreds of parents organized to register their children at the traditional Anglo school. This meant there were too few students left at the school "on the other side of the tracks." The two schools had to be consolidated, and they were. Similarly, integration of the El Paso police and fire departments occurred after a newly appointed Mexican American civil service commissioner did the detailed administrative work necessary to challenge and change entrenched discriminatory practices. And that was only possible because the community had organized to elect El Paso's first Mexican American mayor. Even the story about MALDEF is not about its dramatic victories, such as the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe which struck down Texas's attempts to deny educational funding for undocumented immigrant children. Instead, the story is about the twisted bureaucratic path to its initial formation—about the support of the Ford Foundation, the difficult first few years, and the forced move to San Francisco.
Rivas-Rodriguez calls on oral histories and contemporary sources to offer an interesting but idiosyncratic look at the lives and personalities of some of the leading figures driving these events. She does not claim that her reporting on these stories is the definitive history of the events, nor should she. There are too many unexplained detours and gaps for that. But that does not undermine the value of the book, and in fact, it may enhance it. The book is a reminder that while we often view civil rights progress through the prism of its charismatic leaders and dramatic events, that is a flawed, or at least an incomplete, picture. Progress also occurs—maybe even most often occurs—in small steps, in out-of-the-way places, through hard bureaucratic work, in fits and starts, and when the community comes together to act collectively and cooperatively. Rivas-Rodriguez reminds us of this through the three stories in this volume.
University of Nebraska–Lincoln