From Mops to Microphones: The Latino Child, Early Childhood Education, and the San Antonio Economy

The child’s role in the adult imagination dictates much of our public policy, particularly in the area of education.  The way in which adults choose to educate their children is a manifestation of how local communities perceive and respond to the problems that surround them.  In clarifying the role the Latino child should play in our economy, both historically and presently, the rhetoric of educational policies and initiatives places the Latino child at the center of the relationship between education and business.  That rhetoric has changed drastically over time.

In the early 1900s, ethnic minority, low-income children posed a problem to the public school system in Texas.  The state refused to provide adequate education to such a large group that not only needed education in the traditional subjects, but also English language lessons and Americanization instruction.

Beginning in 1910, school systems in El Paso, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Antonio created departments for psychological testing and research to gauge the intellectual abilities of its students.  The IQ test justified the beliefs of many social scientists that intelligence was genetic, and more importantly, race-based.

Shows the typical dilapidated, inadequate, rotting old shack, which is one of the mainstays of the ‘Mexican Ward School’ os [sic] Mathis. Notice rotting lumber. No screens on windows. No screen doors. Improper lighting. No fly-proofing or rat-proofing. Inside, it is dark, crowded and generally of an uninviting appearance.
George I. Sánchez was a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1948, he completed “A Study of the Educational Opportunities Provided Spanish-Named Children in Ten Texas School Systems,” for which he took numerous photographs of school buildings and toilet facilities. The above photograph, taken in 1946, is of the Mexican Ward School in Mathis, Texas. Sánchez’s own caption for this photo reads, “Shows the typical dilapidated, inadequate, rotting old shack, which is one of the mainstays of the ‘Mexican Ward School’ os [sic] Mathis. Notice rotting lumber. No screens on windows. No screen doors. Improper lighting. No fly-proofing or rat-proofing. Inside, it is dark, crowded and generally of an uninviting appearance.” Used by permission of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

In an article for the Los Angeles School Journal in 1927, William J. Cooper, the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, stated, “[W]e build on a biological foundation.  We cannot make a black child white, a deaf child hear, a blind baby see, nor can we create a genius from a child whose ancestors endowed him with a defective brain…teachers should study biology.” (As quoted in the book: .)

Believing that ethnic Mexican children’s limited intelligence meant they needed to attend industrial schools, public school officials placed these children in woefully inadequate facilities—in some cases, the student to teacher ratio in segregated schools was 70:1 versus the average 32:1 of Anglo schools—and taught a curriculum that emphasized vocational training over intellectual pursuits.

Vocational education, an Anglocentric curriculum, and school segregation policies, as one historian – Gilbert G. Gonzalez – argues, served corporate interests that required a cheap labor supply.  These children would find it very difficult to break the impecunious cycle, finish high school, and attend college.  Eventually, vocational schooling began in the earlier grade levels to encourage children to take the same jobs as their parents when they reached adulthood.

The High School in Mathis, Texas, also taken in 1946. For this photo, Sánchez’s caption reads: “Shows the modern Mathis High School with its beautiful architecture, ventilation, lighting system and well-kept grounds. The school has a total of 10 Latin American students and approximately 120 to 150 Anglo American students.” Used by permission of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

Education’s role in frustrating Mexican Americans’ efforts in breaking into the middle-class was not lost on public school officials.  Herschel T. Manuel was an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin beginning in 1925.  Born in Indiana, Manuel didn’t come into contact with Mexican Americans until he moved to Texas, but in 1928, he received funding to study the state of education for Mexican children.

In 1930, he published The Education of Mexican and Spanish-speaking Children in Texas, in which he discusses attitudes toward Mexican children amongst school officials.  In his book, Manuel recorded the unfavorable comments of several superintendents in Texas, and one is worth quoting at length:

“Most of our Mexicans…transplant onions, harvest them, etc.  The less they know about everything else the better contented they are.  You have undoubtedly heard that ignorance is bliss; it seems that it is so when one has to transplant onions.  The white people claim that when a Mexican gets a little education he becomes bigoted, wants to become a contractor, etc.…If a man has very much sense of education either, he is not going to stick to this kind of work.  So you see it is up to the white population to keep the Mexican on his knees in an onion patch or in new ground.  This does not mix well with education.”

The relationship between childhood education, labor, and business remains with us today, and it’s not limited to finding workers to harvest onions, but also finding workers to fill a great need in San Antonio’s growing technology industries.  At present, the San Antonio population can’t provide a sufficient number of skilled and educated employees, so that it has to continually recruit individuals from elsewhere.

Brainpower Initiative Task Force (Click for full PDF)

Recently, a Houston nonprofit organization found San Antonio’s schools to be the lowest performing when compared to Texas’ other metropolitan areas.  These two issues came together when a committee led by the CEOs of two of San Antonio’s largest companies, USAA and H-E-B, found that investing in pre-kindergarten programs would help improve the quality of San Antonio’s future workforce.

The Pre-K 4 SA initiative that will be on the November ballot identifies early childhood education as the meeting ground for our present economic woes and our children’s future middle-class prospects.  In fact, the relationship between education and business has consumed much of the rhetoric promoting the Pre-K 4 SA initiative.  For example, Mayor Julián Castro stated in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:

“We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education. We know that pre-K and student loans…are a smart investment in a workforce that can fill and create the jobs of tomorrow. We’re investing in our young minds today to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”

The Pre-K 4 SA initiative hopes to give low-income children an opportunity early in their lives to get on a competitive track in becoming middle-class adults.  Many of these low-income children are ethnic minorities.  Mayor Castro appeared on NBC Latino to promote the Pre-K 4 SA initiative, providing justification for beginning such a program.  In the interview, Mayor Castro stated, “The destiny of the United States is interwoven with the destiny of the Latino community.

Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

“Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the United States, and they’re folks who are a great asset to the United States’ future.”  That is, Latino children are a great asset to the United States’ future; therefore, we need to invest in their education.  Mayor Castro invokes this relationship between business, education, and Latinos in a way that assumes Mexican American low-income children will find a path to upward mobility, strengthening the San Antonio economy in the process.

In sharing his family’s compelling history in his DNC speech, Mayor Castro stated his mother worked hard “so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone”—a metaphor that captures not only the human ability to overcome hardship, but also the ways in which attitudes toward the Latino child’s role in the relationship between childhood education and business have changed over time.

However, the very need for the Pre-K 4 SA program—one that requires a 1/8 of a penny increase in the sales tax, a brain trust of educational leaders and businessmen, and donations from the community and corporations—points to the inability of the state to fully move passed the lingering effects from turn-of-the-century views on education to provide all of our children with a pathway to the middle-class.

Philis M. Barragán Goetz, a San Antonio native, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Lecturer in the American Studies program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  Her dissertation, “Escuelitas and Children’s Literature of the Southwest,” examines the emergence of Mexican and Mexican American community schools from the late 1800s to the middle of the twentieth century.  She lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of central San Antonio with her husband and daughter. 

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...