Jessi Silva remembers going to the grocery store in Marfa, Texas, as a child, tagging along while her mother went to get a shopping cart. But there was a problem.
“A white lady was gonna take the cart,” Jessi, now 72, said. “My mother was there first. The Anglo lady gave my mother a dirty look. My mother let her have the grocery cart. And I thought to myself, why is she doing that?”
“They’re both women. But one was white and one was Hispanic,” Jessi said. “And it hurt, like her dignity wasn’t accounted for. I didn’t understand why.”
This story, recounted to me recently, says so much in just a few sentences. Many Latino people across the country have stories just like it.
Decades have passed since Jessi watched her mother relinquish that shopping cart. Although advocates have put blood, sweat and tears into their efforts to end discrimination against Latinos, racist anti-Latino sentiment still lingers in our country. Hatred, resentment and violence toward Latinos dates to before the United States was formed, and anti-immigrant rhetoric of recent years has made things worse for Latinos.
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Much of the anti-Latino sentiment in the United States is based on racist assertions that immigrants from Latin America refuse to assimilate to American culture. Never mind the fact that there is no one, single American culture, nor should we expect immigrants to dilute their identities to match a racist perception of what “being American” means. The truth is that Latinos have faced barriers meant to keep their experience separate and unequal from white counterparts.
Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a shopping cart. Other times, it’s structural. For example, in the American Southwest many school systems used to segregate children of Mexican descent from their white peers. This was not written into state laws; it was just common practice.
These students instead were sent to so-called Mexican schools, where they were given secondhand textbooks and furniture. In Marfa, Jessi Silva went to one called the Blackwell School.
In 1892, the local school district in Marfa built a new school for white children only. Students of Mexican descent remained at the old schoolhouse across town, which eventually was named the Blackwell School.
In a misguided effort to teach them English, students were forbidden from speaking Spanish on schoolgrounds and paddled for disobeying this rule. A teacher even led a mock funeral called the “burial of Mr. Spanish," represented as slips of paper written by students disavowing the language, in a box beneath the schoolyard.
Students thrived despite prejudice
Despite the unjust conditions imposed by the school district, students at Blackwell thrived. The Blackwell School became a source of pride for the local Latino community, a meeting place and cultural touchpoint that was just for them.
Students gave their all in the classroom, on the ballfield and in the marching band. Despite the conditions, many teachers were determined to give students at Blackwell the best education possible. Today, many Blackwell alumni and their descendants are prominent local leaders in West Texas.
Jessi Silva remembers Mrs. Evelyn Davis, her tough but kind English teacher, whom she credits with helping her pass a college admissions test years later. In a twist that is symbolic of the Blackwell School’s complicated legacy, Mrs. Davis was the teacher who had buried Mr. Spanish.
The Blackwell School closed when mandatory integration policies took effect in the 1960s. Years later, a group of Blackwell alumni, including Jessi, formed the nonprofit Blackwell School Alliance. They rallied to take possession of the school property and save it from future development. They dug up Mr. Spanish, ceremonially reclaiming the language that was taken from them.
Most of the old “Mexican schools” have been demolished. The Blackwell School is one of the last ones still standing as a testament to unfair racial segregation, as well as their community’s resilience and strength in the face of discrimination.
Bipartisan legislation introduced
The Blackwell School Alliance saved their school. Now, it’s time to take the next step for more permanent protection. Last week, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Alex Padilla, D-Calif., introduced the Blackwell School National Historic Site Act. Reps. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, and Filemón Vela, D-Texas, introduced companion legislation in the House.
Latinos have contributed enormously to American culture and deserve representation in America’s national parks. The Blackwell School National Historic Site would be one of the first national parks dedicated to protecting contemporary Latino history.
The National Park Service is our country’s greatest storyteller. It is our hope that it will tell this story to travelers passing through Marfa, which is now an eclectic town and tourist destination near Fort Davis National Historic Site and Big Bend National Park.
It is our hope that by learning stories like the ones at Blackwell, visitors to our national parks can help heal the divides racism has drawn in our country.
There is no one, single American identity. The beauty of our country is that there are countless unique identities, all deserving to be seen, heard and recognized at our national parks.
Theresa Pierno is president and CEO of The National Parks Conservation Association.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: This Texas school banned Spanish. It may become a National Park