Landmark desegregation case on education commemorated during Cinco de Mayo

CONEJOS/ALAMOSA — The nation’s earliest and longest-unheralded victory in the war against educational segregation took place in the San Luis Valley between 1912 and 1914 and the big winners were Alamosa’s children.

On Saturday, District Judge Martin Gonzales took the stage at the celebration of Cinco de Mayo in Alamosa to discuss the impact of the suit, the first of its kind in the nation funded by grassroots efforts.

In 1914, The Denver Catholic Register called the decision “historic,” noting that it “was the first time in the history of America that a court fight was made over an attempt to segregate Mexicans in school.” The suit grew from grassroots concern for equal education of Alamosa’s children.

Lying unnoticed from 1914 to 2016 and labeled Francisco Maestas et al vs. George H. Shone et al, the suit dates back to 1912 when Alamosa was still part of Conejos County. Ten-year-old Miguel Antonio Maestas was forced to walk seven blocks from his home on the north end of Ross Avenue to the “Mexican” school building at the intersection of Ninth and Ross and some children had to walk even farther.

The McKinney directory of Alamosa listed the “Mexican Preparatory School” as being at Ninth and Ross. There was no telephone number.

On Sept. 2, 1913, Maestas went to the Superintendent of Schools and asked to enroll his son. The request was refused and Maestas was told he had to enroll his son in the “Mexican School.” Land for the school was purchased in 1909 for a building to serve only “Mexicans” and was documented as such. The school board ordered all “Mexican” children to attend the school, no matter how far they had to walk.

Maestas filed suit and was soon joined by fellow Hispanics, who contributed whatever they could, along with the Sociedad Protectiva de Trabajadores Unidos (SPMDTU) and the Catholic Church.

Despite the fact that the area had long been part of the United States and the persons involved were born here, the reference was repeatedly made to “Mexican” children versus “American” families. It was assumed that “Mexican” children could not be educated in English and the school board maintained it was doing them a favor, giving them their own school.

Parents pulled their children out of school and educated them at home, an action Gonzales compared to the battle of Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862 in which a poorly equipped band of Mexicans and mixed breed persons thwarted the well-equipped and supported French to win freedom from their rule.

After a lengthy trial, District Court Judge Charles Holbrook, a southerner, determined that the plaintiffs had made a sufficient case for admittance of the students and issued an order to the school board and superintendent to admit the children to the public 

school most convenient to their homes. Holbrook stated that “in the opinion of the court … the only way to destroy this feeling of discontent and bitterness which has recently grown up, is to allow all children so prepared, to attend the school nearest them.”

That ruling stood and still stands.

Because of that, Attorney Nicolas Sarmiento took the microphone and announced that a committee has been formed to erect a monument to Maestas v. Shone. Support is encouraged and public donations are accepted and may be made in care of the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area.

The Alamosa office is located at 623 4th Street in Alamosa and the Antonito office is located at 5045 U.S. Highway 285 in Antonito. For more info, contact Katie Dokson SdCNHA marketing and outreach specialist.