Hispanics Struggle for Parity in Texas

Hispanics Struggle for Parity in Texas

By Elaine Davenport

Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 11-13

By the year 2010, Hispanics will be a majority of the population in Texas and will be more numerous than any other ethnic group, whites included, in California.

In sheer numbers and in buying power, Hispanics have growing clout. In America as a whole, the Hispanic market is now estimated at nineteen million and is expected to reach fifty-five million within thirty years. And in politics, both Democrats and Republicans count Hispanics as a potential “swing” vote in Texas, California, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois in the November elections.

Yet Hispanics still suffer from discrimination in education, jobs and housing, and are currently launching widespread struggles for equality, much as blacks did in the 1950s and 1960s.

The struggle is especially evident in south Texas, where Hispanics are seeking a federal court order to make more state money available for higher education. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund claims deliberate neglect exists when just 3 per cent of the state’s higher education budget serves 9 per cent of the population.

Texas’s important universities are all located north of an east-west line running through San Antonio. South of that line are just two little-known four-year universities-where faculty salaries start at about $16,000 a year-and a long list of NO’s: No accredited medical schools, no accredited law schools, no accredited health science schools, and no doctoral program except in bilingual education. By contrast, cities such as Dallas and Houston are overrun with degree programs.

Equally grim statistics exist in other social categories in south Texas: Jobs-for the past two decades, counties in south Texas have led the nation in unemployment. Poverty-federal statistics put residents of south Texas among

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the poorest of the poor in the U.S., worse off than residents of Appalachia. Housing-researchers say more than 30 percent of the region’s housing is substandard, citing the so-called “colonias,” the make-shift slums that have sprouted along the Mexican-American border.

For now, higher education is where Hispanics are demanding equality. Dr. Juliet Garcia, president of Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, says the formula for dividing the annual $4.5 billion state expense for higher education has shortchanged south Texas.

Sidebar: Equal Opportunity Discrimination

“Everyone who lives in south Texas is being discriminated against without regard to ethnicity, or economic status, because we simply don’t have the diversity of programs available in other parts of the state,” says Garcia.

Students know there is bias: “A lot of people are forced into going to a vocational school because they don’t have the money to go somewhere else. They just settle for that and the cycle continues,” says Martha Luna, a senior at Pan American University in Edinburg. Ms. Luna will put off going north to medical school because neither she nor her family can afford both school fees and away-from-home living expenses.

Anyone with a high school diploma or the equivalent can apply to Pan American, and many rely on the university’s Learning Assistance Center for remedial help in reading, math and composition. Half of last year’s nearly 10,000 students used the Center. Of those, 34 per cent were from homes with less than $9,000 annual income; 82 per cent were first-generation college students, whose parents had attended an average of 8.1 years of school; and 46 per cent said English was their second language.

“That tells you our job is a tremendous one,” says Dr. Sylvia Lujan, director of the Center.

The lawsuit filed last December is part of a two-pronged attack on the decades-old problem. During its last session, the Texas State Senate passed a resolution asking the state’s two most prominent universities-the University of Texas and Texas AM University-to investigate ways of improving education for their poorer cousins to the south. Discussions between officials from north and south have ranged from bringing Texas AI University in Kingsville and Pan American into the state-wide systems of UT and Texas AM, and collaboration on improved programs for the south Texas colleges, including Laredo State University and Corpus Christi State University.

None of this sounds very promising to some Hispanic leaders, who have heard most of it before and now are trying to get something concrete done. In May, a joint legislative committee set up because of the Senate resolution heard testimony from Kenneth Ashworth, State Commissioner of Higher Education. He said that he would take steps to get the next state legislature to appropriate money for new programs at south Texas colleges.

State Senator Carlos Truan, who co-chairs the committee, made a blistering plea for action now: “In my 20th year in the legislature, I’m serving notice that we’re not going to take it any more and we want specific answers to the problems of south Texas. So far we get less than half the per capita funding for higher education in south Texas. We don’t have any professional schools. We have only one doctoral program and that being fourteen years ago, and we are demanding equity from you, the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the board you represent. We want to be fairly and equitably treated in the distribution of money, facilities and programs.”

It is no coincidence that the squeeze is on at a time when national politics is close to the top of everyone’s agenda. The Democratic presidential candidates held one of their debates in south Texas, in what is considered an important Democratic voter stronghold. And in June Democratic frontrunner Michael Dukakis stopped in San Antonio for the funeral of Willie Velasquez, 44, the man credited with igniting an explosion of Hispanic political power over the last fifteen years.

Velasquez, who died of cancer, was head of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, based in San Antonio. Much as Martin Luther King Jr. strove to put blacks on the political map in the 1960s, Velasquez began in

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the early 1970s, through sheer hustle and organizational abilities, to get Hispanics registered to vote. Over the past decade, the number of Hispanic voters in Texas has more than doubled, and Velasquez’s work in California has borne similar fruit.

Sidebar: A Critical Core of Lawmakers

Slowly, more Hispanics have been elected to office. The twenty-five Hispanics now in the Texas House and Senate make up about 15 percent of the 181 total members, whereas twenty years ago there was a bare handful. And of Texas’s twenty-seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four are Hispanic.

“Hispanic members of the Legislature now form a critical core of lawmakers who are forcing the state’s two premier universities to include south Texas in their plans for the future,” writes Jesse Trevino, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. “The votes Velasquez has harnessed have been the key to the turnaround in the academic and economic fortunes of this area of Texas.”

Nationally, more than four million voters are considered Hispanic, a generic category for persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Latin origin. That is still less than 5 per cent of all American voters, but their potential influence is great because they are concentrated in six states.

Sheer numbers are making Hispanics more visible and powerful, but there is also growing fear and suspicion of them. “Anglos are more scared of Hispanics now than they were of blacks in the fifties and sixties,” says columnist Trevino. “We’ve got a different culture, religion, and we’re slow to assimilate-to become American,” says Trevino. “There’s never been so large a population that’s bilingual and has a bond with a potential enemy-Mexico.”

In a recent column, Trevino wrote about the problem of Anglo backlash. A press release from Baylor, the large Baptist university in Waco, announced that Texas could be facing a situation similar to what South Africa is going through if projected population estimates hold.

“There are rising tensions among Hispanics, many of who believe they have not been treated fairly and will continue to be treated unfairly,” the press release continued. “Much of the state’s new population in the next ten to twenty years will not speak English but Spanish….The day is quickly coming when the Anglo Texan, the native Texan, will himself be a minority.”

Sidebar: A Fear of Two Texases

Alarmed, Trevino called the professor who had been quoted, and learned that the statements had been mangled by an energetic writer from the university’s information office. “I stopped worrying about it,” wrote Trevino. “But driving home that day, it occurred to me that someone did write it, and that someone believes that kind of future awaits Texas….The fear, of course, is that the state is on its way to becoming two separate Texases.”

“The old ethnic bugaboo refused to die,” says Trevino. “The fear is that now we have the numbers, something could set us off end we’d do un-American things.”

The numbers, as it happens, are elusive whether non-citizens as well as citizens are included. “This is a new distinction,” says Trevino, “and reflects what people fear most about us-our sheer growth in number. If you count non-citizens, Texas will gain representation in the U.S. Congress and get more federal money. Yet there is a reluctance to recognize reality.”

Other evidence of fear and loathing among the Anglo population includes a negative reaction to funding for bilingual education and an overwhelming vote in favor of a non-binding measure on the Republican primary ballot in March to declare English as the state’s official language.

Just at a time when Hispanics could use strong direction, one of the most important leaders, Willie Velasquez, has died prematurely. And Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio and widely considered the most important and visible Hispanic in the country, has put his political prospects on hold due to personal reasons which include the birth of a son with a congenital heart defect.

Cisneros was considered a strong contender for the 1990 governor’s race until he ruled himself out. And with that exit went much of the visibility of the Hispanic plight. Cisneros was a constant reminder that there is a tide of Hispanics who are good for the country and who spend money but who also need a good education, jobs and decent housing. Cisneros’s Harvard education and matinee-idol good looks made him and thus fellow Hispanics more acceptable and less of a threat to Anglos than they might otherwise have been.

“The Hispanic issue is still largely invisible,” says Trevino. “That just sets us up for a misunderstanding on where we should go as a state. With half our kids dropping out of school, what will the state have to look forward to when we’re in the majority? There’s going to be, and already is, a lot of anger on all sides.”

That same thought is uppermost in the mind of Reynaldo Garcia, who became the first Hispanic to serve as a federal judge when appointed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. “Education is the only thing to get the people out of the cycle of poverty, but if it isn’t close to home, they won’t have it,” he says. “If we’re going to be in the majority, you’d better educate us.”

Elaine Davenport is a reporter and producer who divides her time between Austin, Texas, and London, England