Debunking Mexican American Apartheid: A Long, Dark Silence of Law, a Brief Shining Moment of Justice

Article excerpt

Michael A. Olivas, ed., "Colored Men" and "Hombres Aqui": Hernandez v. Texas and the Rise of Mexican American Lawyering. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2006.

Sometimes an event comes to official societal attention like a bolt out of the blue and in the process, for a brief shining moment of justice, breaks the long, dark silence of caste oppression. So it was with an unlikely civil-rights case, Hernandez v. Texas, involving a drunken barroom brawl and a club-footed murder suspect, which in 1954 became the first ever tried by Mexican American lawyers before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the first to open up for persons of Latin American ancestry the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A toilet sign in a county courthouse in rural Texas featured in the Court's unanimous decision and Chief Justice Earl Warren's landmark opinion, which is why it is also the apt title of this unique and compelling collection of essays edited by Michael A. Olivas.

"Colored Men" and "Homores Aqui" brings together the papers presented by a distinguished group of legal scholars and historians at the "Hernandez v. Texas at Fifty" conference, held in 2004 at the University of Houston Law Center, the closest law school to the case, to commemorate the golden jubilee of this critical bur almost forgotten U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a criminal case involving Mexican Americans and jury selection--decided just days before its twin but far more memorable desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. Professor Olivas adds ah introduction and an enlightening litigation history of Hernandez, a chronology, judiciously chosen appendices (including trial briefs)--and a wonderfully engaging personal history by Judge James de Anda, the lone survivor and youngest member of the team of Mexican American lawyers that tried the case, who shared his recollections at the conference fifty years later--all of which greatly enhances the value of the volume and humanizes the tale that it tells.

In 1950 a twenty-four-year-old gas station attendant, Pedro "Pete" Hernandez, was accused of murdering tenant farmer Joe Espinosa in Edna, a small town in Jackson County, Texas, southwest of Houston, where as far as could be documented, no person of Mexican origin had ever served on a jury. He was indicted and convicted by all-white juries--a verdict that was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Gustavo Garcia, an experienced Mexican American civil-rights lawyer, represented Hernandez without a fee, seeing the case as a challenge to the systematic exclusion of persons of Mexican origin from all forms of jury duty in Texas. Joining Garcia were Carlos Cadena and John Herrera of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and James de Anda and Chris Alderete of the American G.I. Forum.

The Supreme Court agreed to reexamine the case and heard the arguments in January 1954. Garcia argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection not only on the basis of race, white and black, but of wholesale discrimination as a class, including exclusion from jury selection. The state of Texas countered that the Fourteenth Amendment covered only two racial groups, whites and blacks; that Mexican Americans were classified as white, not black; and therefore that Mr. Hernandez's rights had not been violated inasmuch as the juries that indicted and tried him were "composed of members of his race." The fact that no person with a Spanish surname had served on any type of jury for twenty-five years, according to the state, was mere happenstance. Garcia and his associates challenged those claims with evidence that in Jackson County discrimination and segregation were common practices, and that Mexican Americans were shunned as a class apart.

Indeed, the lawyers themselves knew firsthand the experience they were describing. Back then, there were fewer than two dozen Mexican American lawyers in the entire state of Texas. …