Even as efforts to deny the teaching of history continue throughout Texas, some artists are working outside of schoolrooms to bring important events of the past to light.
Dallas playwright David Lozano said his 2009 bilingual stage play Crystal City 1969, which tells the story of student-led walkouts at the city’s high school inspired by the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, “is always relevant.”
This is the first time the play has appeared in San Antonio, as a co-production of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the Cara Mía Theatre in Dallas and the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. All five weekend performances of the play at the Guadalupe Theater are sold out.
Though the play is set 53 years in the past, “we’re still dealing with discrimination in schools, but in different ways.” Lozano said. “For example, this history is not told in our textbooks, in middle school and high school. So we still have to fight for what we’re taught.”
Students rise up
The three young students at the heart of Lozano and co-writer Raul Trevinõ’s play are based on real-life Crystal City students Severita Lara, Diana Serna and Mario Treviño, played by actors Gisela Guajardo, Mies Quatrino and Dayan Rodriguez.
The three students were fed up with being told they couldn’t speak Spanish in school, among other indignities foisted upon the students by the city’s white leaders.
As the play illustrates, their requests were simple: from no more punishment for speaking Spanish to equal representation on the cheerleading squad and a chance at a Mexican American student becoming homecoming royalty — all of which had been made impossible by school administrators.
After their first walkout, student demands were met and they declared victory, only to have the decision reversed by the superintendent of the school district. As the all-white school board hardened its stance, the students rallied support among their peers and joined with Chicano Movement leader and Crystal City native José Angel Gutiérrez, who had led earlier protests at the school.
Gutiérrez — along with other notable San Antonians, including indigenous activist and artist Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez — went on to establish La Raza Unida political party and helped Crystal City Chicanos understand the power of numbers, both in terms of economics and demographics.
Gutiérrez whipped up a fervor among parents of the students and encouraged some to run for the school board and city offices, eventually achieving a school board majority and vaulting Lara to Crystal City mayor in 1993.
An appropriate setting
Lozano said he’s pleased to have the opportunity to perform the play in San Antonio, which he called “the heart of the Chicano movement in Texas, and a real bastion of La Raza Unida.”
Last September at a conference of La Raza Unida, the 78-year-old Gutiérrez told the San Antonio Report that “when we took over the Crystal City Schools in 1970, the first thing we did was we moved away from an Anglo-centric curriculum. We said no more learning about white people, we’ll learn about ourselves.”
Education would be what he called “Three B”: bilingual, bicultural and biliterate. “Read, write, speak and live your culture pre-K through [grade] 12.”
Though Gutiérrez bemoaned the loss of political power in Crystal City and the recent slide back to disempowerment in schools, 16-year-old Patricia Ramirez said she recognizes what her forebears achieved.
“It’s really cool to see how people have fought so we can have our rights, so we can be ourselves more” and be comfortable speaking Spanish, she said. A main lesson Ramirez said she’ll take away from the play is that when one people can prosper, the whole of the people can prosper.
Ramirez was one of 100 McCollum High School students in attendance at the Thursday matinee, and one of 300 students from schools around the city invited by Sarah Zenaida Gould of the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute and the Guadalupe Center.
McCollum teacher Natalie Clifford said her students loved hearing Spanglish spoken freely by the play’s characters and appreciated seeing themselves and their families represented onstage.
One other audience member had a close relationship to the events portrayed. Lydia Nevárez was a senior at Crystal City High School in 1969, and still has the sheet of paper distributed to students by Lara advocating for students to elect their own homecoming queen.
“I still have that little paper that they gave us, and I remember that we met with José Angel at his house,” Nevárez said.
Seeing the events she experienced portrayed onstage was “very emotional” for her, she said. Nevárez kept a scrapbook at the time and has shown it to her daughters Mélida and Melissa, who sat next to her watching the play.
“I shared this with my daughters, and I told them ‘This is very important, that you don’t ever forget what happened and who you are now, to stand up for your rights and be proud of who you are.’”
Sunday at 5 p.m. following the final performance of Crystal City 1969, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center will hold a Facebook Live public plática with Gutiérrez and Gould moderated by Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, creator of the ¿Que Means What? Latina lifestyle blog.
Breaking news reporter Raquel Torres contributed to this story.