The year was 1968. In East Los Angeles, thousands of Chicano students walked out of their classrooms to protest deficient educational resources and opportunities. At Lanier and Edgewood high schools in San Antonio, hundreds more did the same, leaving their own schools to demand better curriculum, facilities, and funding for students that looked like them.

Rosie Castro stands for a photograph at Barrio Barrista.
Rosie Castro is participating in a conference commemorating the 1968 civil rights hearings on Mexican-American rights. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It was easy to see the discrimination we were suffering from in terms of lack of educational opportunities and discrimination in the schools from poor teachers, poor books – secondhand books – really, classrooms that were dilapidated,” said community organizer Rosie Castro, who attended Our Lady of the Lake University at the time. “A second[-rate], inferior education was holding our people back.”

Months later, some of these same San Antonio students reported to OLLU to witness the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conduct hearings on the experience of Mexican-Americans. Starting Thursday, a national conference will mark the 50th anniversary of the commission’s hearings and reflect on what has changed since December 1968 and what remains to be done.

“Holding Up the Mirror: The 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearing on Mexican Americans in the Southwest” will take place Nov. 15-17 at OLLU Chapel Auditorium and examine new and old topics pertaining to civil rights of Mexican-Americans. The conference is free and open to the public.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still Mexican-American and African-American [kids] going to underfunded schools, poor schools of the residential areas where they live, because of their low income,” Executive Committee Chair J. Richard Avena said. “We are hoping through some of these panels that some of the young leaders will be encouraged to go forth with our findings and go to the state legislature and go to members of Congress and go to other people and demand change.”

In 1968, Avena’s work with the civil rights commission brought him to San Antonio. He planned to stay only six months and then return to Washington, D.C., but has remained here the last five decades.

In that time, Avena said he has seen immense progress in minority employment, representation of Mexican-Americans on juries, and treatment of Spanish speakers in schools.

Still, he conceded, there is more to be done. That’s why the conference will highlight such issues as immigration and voting rights that may not have been a focus at the 1968 hearings.

Panels will address topics including the role of housing as a dream or fundamental right, economic security and digital equity, bilingual education, and the significance of the Voting Rights Act. For a full schedule, click here.

Notable speakers include former mayors and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretaries Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro; U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio); Mayor Ron Nirenberg; María Antonietta Berriozábal, San Antonio’s first Latina city councilwoman; and former Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla.

Bertha Perez, co-chair of the conference program, had just graduated from OLLU when the hearings came to campus. As a new teacher and young graduate student, Perez attended hearings when she could and witnessed a lot of excitement among her peers in the Mexican-American community following the hearings.

Perez credits the hearings with strengthening organizations like MALDEF, the Mexican American Unity Council, and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Young students who attended the hearings in 1968 are today’s leaders, and Perez hopes the same will be true in the next five decades. That’s why she and other organizers chose to place a student on each of the 24 panels.

“My generation was there 50 years ago … and there’s less and less of us,” said Castro, whose sons Joaquín and Julián have gone on to careers in public service. “So it will be up to the students to be the leaders that will carry forward the kind of programs that will make a difference and increase opportunities for all of the folks in the United States.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.