ALAMOSA – Last week, with a standing room only audience packed into a classroom at Adams State University, recently retired District Judge Martin Gonzales told the compelling yet still relatively unknown story of a local legal case known simply as “the Maestas case.”
Gonzales, who was the first Hispano appointed to be district judge in the San Luis Valley and spent twenty-five years on the bench, told the story with a narrator’s voice deeply connected to “Mi Raza” , a phrase that literally translates from Spanish as “my race” but more broadly means ‘my people’ and the shared cultural history Hispanos have experienced – as it relates to this story – in the San Luis Valley.
, the cultural and historic heritage shared by Gonzales and others whose familial roots in the valley go back 400 years.
“Mi Raza was here before Plymouth Rock, before the United States even existed,” Gonzales said. That statement sets an important context to the story that followed.
Almost 110 years ago, long before the Supreme Court 1954 ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education that declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate classrooms for black and white students, Francisco Maestas of Alamosa initiated a battle on behalf of his 10-year-old son, Miguel.
The Maestas family lived at 117 Ross Street, north of the railroad tracks that ran east to west through town. In 1909, when Alamosa was still part of Conejos County, the local school district constructed the “Mexican Preparatory School” – known locally as the “Mexican” school – to serve the large numbers of Hispanic students whose families lived in the immediate area, primarily because of its close proximity to the railroad where many of the men worked.
The result – there were two schools in Alamosa: the “Mexican” school and the “American” school.
In 1912, in what Gonzales described as “perhaps good intentions” to serve the monolingual Spanish speaking students”, Superintendent Thomas of the Alamosa School District mandated all Mexican-American students attend the so called Mexican school to allegedly prepare them to enter high school where all instruction was in English.
Despite many of the children coming from families whose presence in the valley went back generations, despite those families being citizens of the United States, despite the children speaking English, they were, nonetheless, required to attend the “Mexican” school.
“Put yourself in the context of those two schools and a community that saw fit to create that division,” Gonzales said to the audience. “Think of yourself as a student who has to walk blocks in the winter – with temperatures getting down to forty below zero back then - to get to a school that is far away as you walk past the school that is close to your house. That was the circumstance of those two schools.”
The people impacted viewed that possible “good intention” as anything but. “Mi raza thought this was racial discrimination,” Gonzales said. “And I agree.” He went on to quote a Jesuit priest who visited the area at the time. “The Americans who built that school built it so that American boys would not have to mingle.”
Gonzales – the retired judge who spent 25 years on the bench viewing all facts in relation to other facts – also provided a big picture context to the story he told.
In 1913, Alamosa was separated from Conejos County, an act connected to larger forces taking shape in the state.
During those years, the KKK was beginning to have a presence in Colorado. The strength and momentum of the Klan would become undeniably clear as, by the mid-1920s, Klan members controlled the Colorado State House and Senate, the office of Secretary of State, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven benches on Denver District Court, and city councils in some Colorado towns spread throughout the state.
Gonzales suggests those factors played a role in some of the decisions made.
“It was the beginning of real, severe divisions of race, religion and class,” he said. “The lore – how mi raza looked at the creation of this county as told by viejitas and viejitos - was that Alamosa was created in response to Hispanic votes in Conejos County.”
Despite this looming backdrop, Francisco Maestas made a decision.
As a railroad worker who knew well the dangers his young son faced in crossing train tracks every day, Francisco Maestas went to the office of the Superintendent of Schools on September 2, 1913 and asked to enroll his son in the “American” school closer to his house.
His request was refused. Other parents made similar requests. They, too, were refused.
Describing an atmosphere of “struggles and contradictions”, Gonzales said, “Being mi raza, we started organizing. We circulated petitions. We got signatures. We even organized a boycott”, he said, referring to the 180 parents who, in protest of Superintendent Thomas’ decision, pulled their children out of school in the “first vestige of a school walk-out in Colorado.” Gonzales made special mention of J.R.C. Roybal, a teacher at the Mexican school who was one of the prime organizers of the movement.
“We asked politely of the school board and were turned down,” Gonzales said. “We asked politely of the state and got turned down.”
At that point, the people turned to the courts.
The lawsuit, addressing a state statute and not federal, was handled by a very young lawyer, probably handling one of his first cases.
In his suit, the attorney described the actions of the school board as being discriminatory, pointing out that of the more than eight hundred Hispano residents of the community, 150 of them were children. English proficiency was not the issue, as was proven when children took the stand and both spoke and understood English. He stated that, contrary to state law, the school board was discriminating against those children based on their race.
In March of 1914, at the end of a two year struggle, Judge Holbrook ruled in favor of Maestas et. al. v. the Board of Education.
Gonzales read the ruling: “In the opinion of the court, the only way to destroy this feeling of discomfort and bitterness which has recently grown up is to allow all children, so prepared, to attend the school nearest to them.” .
At that point, Gonzales directly addressed the crowd. “So,” Gonzales asked. “¿Y qué? So what? Why does this matter? It matters because of who I am. I want to shout it’s because of who I am that I must look to my history to define that. That history, of which this case is part, defines mi raza in this area, even though we didn’t know it. Our history, in subtle and not so subtle ways, must provide a sense of who we are. Only then can we have true equality among the races and among ourselves. Anything else is a bit of a lie. Your history defines who you are. Whether you are Anglo or Dutch. It defines you.”
And when asked by the Valley Courier what is the larger takeaway for the valley, the state and even the nation in this year of 2022, Gonzales replied, “It shows that all people of whatever background can and should strive to make the world a better and more just place. Success can be found even against what may seem overwhelming odds.”