Discussion Questions, Viewing Comprehension and Classroom Activities Guide, and Further Reading Save it for later
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A Class Apart offers insights into social studies topics including Texas history and the area's transition from Spanish to Mexican to independent to U.S. control, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and its long-term effects on the U.S., discrimination against minorities including Mexican Americans, Earl Warren and Supreme Court activism, civil rights in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, issues of immigration, Hispanic Americans today, and more. Use the program in your classroom, or delve into the resources on this Web site.

Discussion Questions from Active Voice

What did you learn from this film, and how might you act on what you learned?

Imagine that you could send a copy of this film to anyone in the world. To whom would you send it and what would you say to them about why you want them to see it?

Describe a moment in the film that you found particularly inspiring or disturbing. What was it about that scene that moved you?

The Significance of Historical Memory

Did you already know about the history recounted in the film? What is the impact of people and communities knowing or not knowing this history? Who benefits and who is harmed by having this history remain invisible? In particular, how might greater knowledge of the Hernandez case influence the way Latinos see themselves today?

What role does the acknowledgment of historical wrongs play in a nation’s ability to heal from long-term discrimination? In your view, what form should that acknowledgment take?

In the film, we hear a radio interview in Spanish with Gus García, an example of local media coverage of the case. Elsewhere the case received little coverage. How does media coverage influence the impact of an event like a Supreme Court civil rights victory? Do you know of current struggles for justice that are not reported in mainstream media outlets? What are the effects of their exclusion?

Citizenship and Constitutional Protections

What is the significance of the film’s title, “A Class Apart”?

The film observes that, “Legal citizenship for Mexican Americans was one thing; equal treatment turned out to be quite another.” In what ways can laws guarantee equality? In what ways are laws limited in their ability to guarantee equality? In addition to changing laws, what kinds of things need to happen to eliminate discrimination when it is infused in the social code (not just the legal code) of a community or country?

For decades, Americans have debated the value of diversity and whether or not it should be actively promoted by law (e.g., in affirmative action policies). What do you learn about the value of diversity from the questions about Mexican Americans that members of the Supreme Court asked Gus García and Carlos Cadena?

Why did attorneys representing the State of Texas support the right of the court to exclude Mexican Americans from juries? How would inclusion of Mexican Americans, especially in trails of white defendants, challenge the social order? How would you define or describe a “jury of your peers”? Would it have to include people of your race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, age, or gender? Why or why not? Why is judgment by a jury of peers important enough to American democracy that it is guaranteed by law?

What do you learn from the film about the significance of the Supreme Court? Why did theHernandez lawyers feel the need to have their case heard before the Supreme Court? How does the Supreme Court differ from local, state, and lower federal courts, both in terms of jurisdiction and in terms of who serves and how they come to hold their positions?

In what ways did the victory in Hernandez v. Texas benefit Mexican Americans? How did the decision benefit all Americans?

Prejudice and Discrimination

Prior to viewing the film, what images came to mind when you heard the term Mexican American? What were the sources of your ideas about Mexican Americans? In what ways did the film confirm or challenge your ideas?

Given the history of discrimination against Mexican Americans because they were not perceived as white, how is it that America came to define Mexican Americans as legally white? What role did racism play in the designation of Mexican Americans as white?

How was the experience of Mexican Americans similar to and different from the experiences of African Americans?

Thousands of Mexicans came to be American citizens as the result of a military conflict in 1848 in which the United States took control of former Mexican territory. What did you learn from the film about the integration of a resident population into a new nation? In what ways does this history impact your view of today’s immigration debates? What lessons does the experience of these early Mexican Americans hold for people in the world today who are displaced by war or forced to live under a new government? What lessons does it hold for today’s Latino Americans?

Describe the discrimination faced by Mexican Americans prior to the Hernandez decision. For those in the room who were part of that community, what discrimination did you experience or witness? What are the long-term effects of pervasive discrimination such as being denied jobs, being prohibited from buying homes in good neighborhoods, not having quality schools, or the existence of “sundown towns”? How have those effects filtered through subsequent generations, even after the most blatant discrimination has ended? Is there discrimination against Latinos today? If so, how has it changed?

Veteran Ramiro Casso says, “We went to fight to give people liberty and to give them their civil rights, and then we come back home and we find that it is the same way as we left it.” What role did World War II veterans play in making demands for civil rights? How did their military service change perceptions and expectations? Why was the 1949 denial of a memorial service to Pvt. Felix Longoria a pivotal moment? What is the current relationship between military service and struggles against discrimination?

Leadership and Change

Would you call Gus García a hero? Why or why not? What lessons about him would you teach in schools? Would they include his battles with alcohol and mental illness? Why or why not? What are the benefits and drawbacks from the desire for perfection in our heroes?

History often recounts only the stories of leaders or famous people. In what specific ways did ordinary people make possible the victory achieved by the lawyers? What did you learn about community involvement in change from the experience of people like Pauline Rosa or those who contributed their pocket change?

How do you think the Supreme Court victory influenced the way that Mexican Americans saw themselves? How did it influence the community’s ability to fight for and claim their civil rights?

This teachers’ resource was developed by Active Voice for Camino Bluff Productions. Visit activevoice.net for more information.

Discussion Questions

Answer the following questions as you watch the film.

1. In what town, and in what year, did Pete Hernández kill Joe Espinosa?
2. How did the United States gain control of large amounts of Mexican territory?
3. Did the Mexican American residents of these territories become U.S. citizens? Were they treated as the equals of Anglo citizens?
4. What stereotypes did many Anglos who settled Texas have about Mexican Americans? Where did these prejudices come from?
5. How did the segregation of Mexican Americans differ from the segregation of African Americans?
6. How many Mexican Americans served in the armed forces in World War II? How did their experience change Mexican Americans’ view of themselves?
7. What scandal arose regarding Private Felix Longoria? What did it symbolize? How was the controversy ended?
8. What is the Fourteenth Amendment? Why did Mexican Americans see it as a way to have their rights respected? Why did some states argue that it did not apply to Mexican Americans?
9. Who was Gus García? Did he believe Hernández was innocent or guilty? Why did he take the case?
10. Why did Hernández’s lawyers not sleep in town during the trial?
11. How many Mexican Americans were on Hernández’s jury?
12. What happened when Hernández’s lawyers tried to use the courthouse bathroom? Why was this relevant to their case?
13. How did the trial judge react when Hernández’s lawyers complained about the lack of Mexican Americans on the jury? How did the trial end?
14. What was the “class apart” argument on which Hernández’s lawyers based their appeal? What was the state’s argument in response?
15. Why were some Mexican Americans concerned about the appeal of this case?
16. How did the Texas Supreme Court rule on the case?
17. To what court did Hernández’s lawyers appeal next? In what way was this a “first” in U.S. history?
18. How did Mexican American activists raise money to pay for the court case?
19. What was the court’s ruling? What happened to Hernández?
20. How did the outcome of the case affect Mexican Americans across the country?

The Story of Texas

To understand the key events by which Texas passed from Spanish control and eventually joined the United States.

View the film chapter titled “Pepper Bellies,” which mentions the United States’ takeover of large areas of Mexican territory, including Mexico. What events led Texas to become part of the United States — and how might CNN have reported them on TV if it had existed back then? To find out, divide the class into eight groups and assign each group one of these events:

• Mexico declares independence from Spain (1821)
• Mexico grants Stephen Austin the right to bring Anglo settlers to Texas (1821)
• Texas declares independence from Mexico (1836)
• Battle of the Alamo (1836)
• Battle of San Jacinto (1836)
• United States annexes Texas (1845)
• Mexican-American War begins (1846)
• Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed (1848)

Each group should imagine that it is a CNN crew covering its assigned event and should prepare a brief (3-5 minute) news story for viewers on the event. These stories should answer the five basic questions of a good news report: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Groups should write the script for their story and then act it out for the class, going in chronological order.

Discuss the following questions:
• Based on what you have learned about these events, do you think it was inevitable that Texas would become part of the United States? Why or why not?
• Do you think any of these events helped lead to the discrimination Mexican Americans suffered in Texas? Explain.

“Impeach Earl Warren”

To examine the Hernandez v. Texas case in the context of the Warren Court’s other landmark decisions.

View the film chapter titled, “Arriving in Washington.” Hernandez v. Texas was just one of a number of decisions the Supreme Court issued under Chief Justice Earl Warren that caused great controversy — so much controversy that many conservatives called for Warren’s impeachment. To learn more about these decisions, divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the following cases to research: Abington School District v. SchemppBrown v. Board of EducationEngel v. VitaleEscobedo v. IllinoisGideon v. WainwrightGriswold v. ConnecticutHarper v. Virginia Board of ElectionsIn Re GaultMapp v. Ohio, and Miranda v. Arizona.

Have each group give a brief report to the class on (a) the specific circumstances of the case, (b) how it reached the Supreme Court, (c) what constitutional issues were involved, and (d) the Court’s ruling and why it was important. As each group makes its presentation, list the case on the board along with a one-sentence summary of the Court’s ruling.

Discuss as a class:
• Do the Court’s decisions in these cases appear to reflect the same values and priorities as its decision in Hernandez v. Texas? Why or why not?
• What might have happened if Hernandez v. Texas had come before the Supreme Court at a time when the Court had different values and priorities? How might that have affected the lives of Mexican Americans across the country?

“To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution”

To understand the Court’s decision in Hernandez v. Texas and the reasons for it.

View the film chapter titled, “The Decision.” As a class, examine the written opinion of the Court by Chief Justice Warren. Have volunteers read portions of the decision as outlined below, and discuss the following questions for each segment:

• Paragraph 1 (“The petitioner, Pete Hernández. . . .”): On what did Hernández’s lawyers base their appeal to the Supreme Court — was it the outcome of the trial, or the way the trial was conducted? On what passage do you base your answer?
• Paragraphs 2-3 (“In numerous decisions . . . between ‘white’ and Negro.”): Does the Court see this case as a question of whether there has been discrimination on the basis of race or color? Explain your answer.
• Paragraph 4 (“As the petitioner. . . .”): Is Hernandez charging that Texas’s system for selecting jurors is flawed? Explain your answer.
• Paragraph 5 (“The petitioner’s initial burden. . . .”): List four pieces of evidence demonstrating that Mexican Americans were discriminated against.
• Paragraphs 6-7 (“Having established . . . and/or petit jury.’ ”): Have Hernández’s lawyers provided examples of Mexican Americans who were denied the right to serve on juries? Explain.
• Paragraphs 8-10 (“The petitioner met . . . must be reversed.”): How did the jury commissioners from Texas respond to the charge of discrimination in jury selection? Why did the Court not accept their arguments?
• Paragraph 11 (“To say that. . . .”): What is proportional representation? According to the Court, how many Mexican Americans must be on the jury in Hernández’s case?

As the film notes, Hernández received a second trial following the Court’s decision, but the outcome of the second trial was the same as for the first trial. Why, then, is this case considered important?

Hispanics Today

To learn about the current status of Hispanics in areas such as population, income, and health care.

View the film chapter titled, “ Epilogue.” Today Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States. To learn more about them, look as a class at tables from the Census Bureau showing the number of Hispanics in each state and in major U.S. cities, as well as how Hispanics compare with other population groups in health coverage and areas such as education and income.

Using the data in these tables, work together as a class to prepare a series of graphics on the state of Hispanics today. For example, you might prepare a U.S. map with the states color-coded according to their Hispanic population, or a bar graph comparing Hispanics with other racial/ethnic groups in terms of the share of the population who are uninsured or poor. You might also want to compare one of the above tables with comparable Census data from previous years.

Review the graphics as a class. Which of your findings surprised you? What do they suggest about some of the issues facing Hispanics today?

Hispanics and Immigration

To examine how issues related to immigration might affect Hispanics’ rights.

View the film chapter titled “Epilogue.” In recent years, the controversial issue of illegal immigration has raised civil rights concerns among many Hispanics. Because many illegal immigrants are Hispanic, efforts to combat illegal immigration could have the side effect of harming Hispanic citizens. (For example, Hispanic citizens might be turned down for jobs because employers fear they might not be in the country legally.)

Explore this issue by having each student bring in a news article, editorial, or research report dealing with illegal immigration that was published within the past three months and summarize it for the class. Using this material, discuss the following questions:

• What are some ideas for dealing with illegal immigration that have recently been proposed or enacted at the local, state, or federal level?
• What are the main arguments for and against these ideas? 
• Do any of the articles suggest that efforts to fight illegal immigration are harming Hispanic citizens? If so, how?

Ask students to look at the issue of illegal immigration from the perspective of Hispanics. What special reasons might some Hispanics have for supporting proposals that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in this country permanently and legally? On the other hand, what special reasons might some Hispanics have for supporting a crackdown on illegal immigration? Can you come up with a way to address illegal immigration that takes both of these views into account?

Hints for Completing the Classroom Activities

The Story of Texas

In their reports, groups may want to incorporate brief interviews with historical figures such as Santa Anna or Stephen Austin.

“Impeach Earl Warren”

Groups may want to consult this biography of Warren and these descriptions of some landmark cases in the Court’s history.

“To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution”

You may want to point out to students that an important precedent Warren cites in his opinion — Norris v. Alabama — concerned the famous Scottsboro case of the 1930s, in which an all-white jury convicted several young African Americans of rape. What does this link between theNorris and Hernandez cases suggest about different groups’ struggles for equal rights?

Hispanics Today

Instead of creating the graphics as a class, you may want to divide the class into groups and have each group choose which graphic it will create.

Hispanics and Immigration

Encourage students to find publications that concern local issues, if possible, and that have appeared as recently as possible. Non-governmental organizations that publish materials related to immigration include the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Immigration Law Center.

An alternative activity would be to focus on a specific legislative proposal, such as the CLEARAct proposed in Congress, which would involve state and local police in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. This proposal has been both praised and criticized.

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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