Photo Gallery: Mexican Americans Who Made A Difference

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Meet a group of Texan lawyers, mothers, advocates, and others — including the murderer and victim whose fatal clash led to a landmark court case, Hernandez v. Texas and the acknowledgement of Mexican Americans’ equality before the law. These individuals’ leadership in revealing injustices and seeking to right them is a legacy handed down from the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s to today.

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When the body of Private Felix Longoria returned home to Three Rivers, Texas after World War II, the local funeral parlor refused to hold a wake, claiming “the whites would not like it.” Longoria, a war hero killed in the Philippines, could only be buried in the separate Mexican section of the cemetery. Longoria’s wife and mother went to Hector Garcia, founder of the American G.I. Forum, who contacted several congressmen and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Though denouncing the obvious prejudice, Johnson said he had no authority over private funeral homes, but he could arrange for a burial for Private Longoria with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. The funeral took place a month later at Arlington, with Johnson in attendance.

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Born in Mexico, Hector Garcia and his parents immigrated to Texas where he earned a medical degree. After serving in World War II, Dr. Garcia started the American G.I. Forum in 1948 to improve veterans’ benefits and medical care, and the organization soon took up education, housing, taxation and employment issues too. Garcia gained national attention when he became involved in the Longoria incident.

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Pauline Rosa was a Mexican American resident of Edna, Texas in the 1940s and 50s, when Latinos were legally considered “white,” but met with discrimination. Children of Mexican descent attended segregated — and inferior — schools. When Rosa tried to enroll her English-speaking, American-born children in Edna’s white school, they were denied admission because they were Mexican American. Rosa testified during Hernandez v. Texas to help lawyers Gus Garcia and Carlos Cardena illustrate the widespread discrimination against Mexican Americans.

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Caetano Espinosa was a tenant farmer known to everyone in the small town of Edna, Texas simply as “Joe.” On August 4, 1951, Pedro Hernandez shot and killed him. Gus Garcia and John J. Herrera took Hernandez’s case, in which he was found guilty of murder. Garcia and Herrera, along with fellow attorney Carlos Cadena, appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they won the right to have Mexican Americans serve on juries alongside whites — a major civil rights victory for Latinos.

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When Pete Hernandez killed Joe Espinosa, nobody thought it would result in a landmark legal case that would give Mexican Americans equal rights in the eyes of the law. Hernandez, a field worker with a bad leg, had been insulted by Espinosa and shot him in anger.

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Gus Garcia took the murder case of Pete Hernandez, arguing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and securing an equal rights victory for Mexican Americans in 1954. Before the landmark trial, Garcia was known for his work ending segregation of Mexican American children in schools from California to Texas. He was also the legal advisor for the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum. However, Garcia was plagued by alcohol addiction: he was hospitalized several times and ultimately had his law license suspended, before dying of a seizure in 1964.

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Carlos Cadena worked side by side with Gus Garcia in the historic case of Hernandez v. Texas. That same year Cadena helped appeal another case, ultimately decriminalizing boxing matches between people of different races. Cadena also helped found the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund before becoming the first Mexican American chief justice in Texas in 1977.

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An experienced Houston trial lawyer, John J. Herrera won two remarkable civil rights cases with Gus Garcia, including Hernandez v. Texas in 1954. The other case (1948) declared school segregation of Mexican Americans illegal. Herrera was the first Latino political candidate in Harris County, Texas, though in eleven years of running for office he never won. Herrera became president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and served in several other national advocacy organizations.

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James DeAnda (second from left, next to Robert Kennedy) was the youngest of the four lawyers who argued the Hernandez v. Texas case. After graduating from law school in 1950, DeAnda searched for a job for months — most white firms would not hire someone of Mexican descent. He finally got a job with John Herrera for $25 a week. Over two decades, DeAnda fought for Mexican American rights, winning important cases against segregation and discrimination in Texas schools, and co-founding the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 1979, DeAnda became the second Mexican American appointed as a federal judge.

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George Sanchez, a professor and civil rights activist, fought against standardized tests for Spanish-speaking children, school segregation based on non-proficiency in English and other discriminatory policies. After serving as president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Sanchez founded the American Council of Spanish Speaking People in the Fifties, and helped Mexican Americans find legal redress for their civil rights grievances.

|Photo Credit: WGBH

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Funding Exchange/The Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media
  • Houston Endowment
  • Humanities Texas, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities
  • New York State Council on the Arts
  • ITVS
  • The Horace & Amy Hagedorn Fund at the Long Island Community Foundation
  • Latino Public Broadcasting