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Landmark Supreme Court case changed juries, life for Mexican-Americans


May 2, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.

Allison Rosa stands at the base of a statue of Jesus that her great-great-grandfather brought from Mexico nearly 70 years ago. The old statue is crumbling apart, but still stands watch over the Rosa family cemetery, just East of Edna, on Saturday.

The signs were clear:

"No Mexicans Served Here," outside of restaurants. "Hombres Aqui" beside "Colored Men" tacked to a separate restroom door. "No Spanish" in classrooms.

In South Texas in the 1950s, Mexican-Americans faced discrimination every day. Children attended segregated schools, ostensibly to master English, though sometimes they were blocked from secondary education. And in Jackson County, 25 years of records revealed that although almost 15 percent of the county was Mexican-American, none had ever served on a jury.

Fifty-five years ago Sunday, a U.S. Supreme Court decision changed that. Hernandez v. Texas was the first time racism against Mexican-Americans was legally acknowledged.

"They said, 'You're white; the jury is white,'" longtime civil-rights activist Benny Martinez said, summing up the state's case. "The Supreme Court said we're a different kind of white."

The case started with a shooting at an Edna cantina. An all-white jury convicted Pete Hernandez of murdering Joe Espinosa and sentenced him to life in prison.

Because the county actively kept Mexican-Americans off juries, Hernandez was denied his 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process, his lawyers argued.

Proving prejudice was key to Hernandez's case.

Alfred Rosa Jr.'s grandmother, Pauline Rosa, was a witness who stood up against the pressures of the small town and said she faced discrimination.

"No one wanted to come out and say, 'Yeah, they're discriminating against me,'" her grandson said. "She said, "I'm not scared of anybody.'" Pauline Rosa died last year at 93.

Although Pauline Rosa and her husband lived comfortably and owned land, racism built barriers against the family. When Rosa first tried to enroll her four children in high school, they were not allowed to attend.

Withholding education from Hispanic children was common, said Martinez, who is a retired teacher. Martinez also has been a member of the civil rights group, the League of United Latin American Citizens since 1953.

Although her story was not unique, Rosa faced backlash from the Mexican-American community for her testimony. They feared her testimony would make their lives worse.

"There was still lots of discrimination at the time," Alfred Rosa, 38, said. "A lot of Mexican people came out against her. She said, 'I don't care what they think. I'm trying to do better for my kids.'"

The Mexican-American community did back Hernandez's lawyers when they argued the case before the Supreme Court, Martinez said. He remembers working at barbecues, raffles and dances to raise money for Hernandez's attorneys.

"Back then, a lot of people were very loyal to doing civil rights, because at the time, there was a need for it," Martinez said.

Since then, education has become a linchpin to the Hispanic civil rights movement, Martinez said. While racism exists, he said, there are fewer overt cases that require an overhaul in the system, as the Hernandez case did.

Raising scholarship money has become one of LULAC's major thrusts recently, said Joe Garcia, a district director with the group.

"There are still things out there we deal with," he said.

Alfred Rosa's grandmother told him the change came slowly.

"It's not like the case brought about sweeping change," said Rosa, who lives in Edna and teaches in the Tidehaven school district.

"Jackson County is a little slower than Victoria County," to change, he said. "It's come a long way from where it was 50 years ago. I'm raising my kids here. I certainly feel like I can do whatever I want to do."



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