SAN ANTONIO — In five performances, a re-enactment of a Latino theater company’s play about historic but overlooked Mexican-American student strikes reignited sadness and pride among audiences while raising concerns about the present.
The play “Crystal City 1969,” which premiered in 2009 in Dallas, was performed for the first time in San Antonio last weekend at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
The play tells the story of student school walkouts and boycotts in Crystal City, Texas, when thousands of students demanded change from white school and local leaders and an end to the discriminatory and racist treatment of Mexican-American students.
“They would scold us if we spoke Spanish in class. The discipline was very uneven. We had no Chicano advisors. They demoted us. They were very racist with us,” Severita Lara told NBC News in 2019.
The students went to the school board with 13 demands, including more Mexican-American teachers, the inclusion of Mexican-American history in the curriculum, a fair discipline system, and more cheerleading for Mexican-Americans, since the faculty had placed limits on the number of Mexican Americans. I could be on the team.
They also demanded educational equity. Lara said that she was not allowed to take a chemistry class because she was told it was only for college bound students. She went and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.
The play captures some of that, how women and mothers became the catalyst for fathers to organize and how their actions were part of the formation of the Raza Unida Party by one of the strike organizers, José Angel. Gutierrez.
“When we were active, there were no books. There were no mentors. There was no one to tell us how to do what we had to do. There was just anger,” said Gutierrez, who became a lawyer and is a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Students in San Antonio and other South Texas communities also organized walkouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Some audience members had experienced what happened in the play, having their own memories of being beaten up at school by teachers and principals for speaking Spanish and denied educational opportunities.
But the events depicted in the play, new to some, serve as a reminder of what is at stake now, as conservative elected leaders and school boards ban ethnic studies books and those with LGBTQ characters and themes and set limits. to the teaching of Black, Latino and other history, according to David Lozano, who co-wrote the work with Raúl Treviño.
“This is our story and it is also a story that we have been denied growing up in schools and even in college. You can have a master’s degree and still not know the history of Crystal City,” said Lozano, who is executive artistic director of the Cara Mía Theater in Dallas.
“As long as this story is denied in our schools, this story remains relevant, and this is 53 years after the first day of the (Crystal City) strike,” Lozano said.
The performances in San Antonio were the first opportunity for some of the former students who had participated in the walkouts to see the play and gave current students and residents of Crystal City the opportunity to see it. Crystal City is about two hours from San Antonio, but the play has never been performed there.
The attendance at the play in Austin and San Antonio “tells me that Latinos love our history. We are hungry. We are hungry for our history and we still don’t understand it,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez, director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, or CMAS.
“The other thing is that I think there are some unfinished business. I think you can see it when you look at political representation…trying to get people to understand that this community belongs to them and that they need to make that claim,” he said. , “to make sure our elected officials are truly protecting your best interests.”
Rivas-Rodriguez said that at each performance, someone raised the issue of current movements against teaching about race, racism and identity, such as the recent blockade by the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of a new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.
“People see… that if we want our history to be taught in school and our history woven into the biggest American stories and the Texas stories, we need to stand up and be told and then make sure that they are included, and if there are attempts to not include them, we must inform our elected officials,” he said.
It is a painful story for those who lived through it. Rivas-Rodriguez said she heard her sister, who sat next to her in a performance Saturday, sobbing during the play “because we recognized that these are some of the things that happened to us in our childhood.”
Rivas-Rodriguez grew up in Devine, Texas. When her mother, who said she spoke “perfect English without an accent and perfect Spanish without an accent,” led her to enroll in first grade, the superintendent tried to enroll Rivas-Rodriguez in a class for children with learning disabilities.
“My mother asked why and he said, ‘Well, she doesn’t speak English, does she?'” Rivas-Rodriguez said. She then asked Rivas-Rodriguez if she spoke English.
“That was one of the many ways they managed to segregate the children, to make them feel different,” Rivas-Rodríguez said.
James Garcia, a Phoenix playwright and journalist who hosts a Latino-focused radio show, “Vanguardia America,” experienced similar discrimination growing up on Chicago’s South Side. Growing up in a Mexican-American household, he did not speak English. On his first day of school, he couldn’t tell the teacher that he needed to go to the bathroom.
“Next thing I knew, I was on the front steps of the school and they said, ‘Wait here until your mom comes to get you,'” she said. “I found out later that they told him not to bring him until he learns English.”
“People forget that there was some kind of cultural trauma that affected Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” Garcia said. The effect of that kind of discrimination was to tell Mexican-American and Mexican students that their language, their culture, was worthless, worthless and something to be ashamed of, Garcia said.
Works like “Crystal City 1969” and “Voices of Valor,” a play Garcia has performed about Latinos who fought for the country, help dismantle Hollywood’s portrayals of Mexicans as bad guys, thieves and ignoramuses, Garcia said.
The staging of the play in San Antonio was part of the UT CMAS 50th anniversary celebration, which occurred during the pandemic and therefore delayed some of its events. It also performed last year in Dallas and outdoors in Austin to an enthusiastic crowd of about 600, according to Lozano, along with some who watched it online.
Olga Muñoz Rodríguez was a 26-year-old mother who helped students in Uvalde, Texas, organize strikes in 1970, after the school board decided not to renew the contract of a teacher, George Garza, the only Spanish-speaking teacher at the school. , Robb Elementary.
This is the same school where 19 students and two teachers were killed by a gunman last year.
Rodríguez attended one of the “Crystal City 1969” showings over the weekend. “I kept wanting to say, ‘That happened in Uvalde!'” said Rodríguez, 78, who later wrote and published his own newspaper and a book about Uvalde’s heroes. “They inspired the children of Uvalde. They inspired all of us.”