"Bring back Sal Castro," Protestors demand that the LAUSD board of education reinstate teacher Sal Castro, who assisted the student demonstrators. La Raza Photograph Collection. UCLA Newsroom.

6-Context: Chicanas/os & Higher Education in California

Thomas O'Donnell, Ph.D., Principal Analyst, Office of Academic Diversity

A Century of Discrimination

The educational opportunities available to Chicana/o students in California by 1968 had a long history that had evolved over many decades of discrimination and protest. In the broader American context, that history can be traced back to at least 1848 and the end of the Mexican American War with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Read more about the context of “Continental Colonialism” and the dispossession of Natives and Mexican Americans in the Southwest.

In a previous article, we quoted Jose Montoya, a speaker at the UMAS symposium at UCD who decried the labelling of Chicano students as “retarded, slow learners, and not college material by educators after they are given IQ tests based on reading comprehension of the English language.” Marisol Moreno, who wrote her dissertation on “The Chicana/o Student Movement in California’s Public Higher Education, 1967-1973,” examines that discrimination starting with the efforts of Progressive-era reformers to remake public schools as a place to “socialize students to the new industrial order while supposedly sorting them according to intelligence.” As a result, for Mexican Americans who occupied a space in the Anglo-American mind “suited for menial labor,” they were discouraged from pursuing a college education.[1] That process, Moreno explains, turned Mexican Americans “into a proletariat" and "coincided with the development of public higher education in California.”[2]

As a consequence of the dispossession and segregation of Mexicans in the early twentieth century, the ethnic neighborhoods that concentrated nonwhite residents led to school districts that were underfunded and inadequate to the task of preparing all students for that new industrial order. “With limited access to a quality education that would aid upward mobility,” according to Moreno, “Mexican Americans remained politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized throughout the twentieth century.”[3]

Mendez v. Westminster Commemorative Stamp, 2007.
Challenging Segregation in Education

By the 1930s, in response to their de jure and de facto second-class citizenship status, Mexican Americans began challenging segregation in the courts. According to Carlos Muñoz, these challenges represented the first time in US history “that any racial or ethnic group had taken a legal approach in struggles for educational equality.”[4] The first case was filed in Texas in 1930, Jesús Salvatierra v. Independent School District, and although the plaintiffs initially won, the decision was overturned by an appeals court. A more successful case followed a year later in California. In Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, Mexican American parents also won their case after their children were denied admission to an all-white elementary school. However, as Muñoz points out, segregation in schools persisted until 1947 when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling in Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County that separate Mexican schools were unequal and illegal. Notably, the NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall, filed a brief in support of Mendez and eventually used some of the same arguments in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.[5]

World War II

Latinos in World War II: Fighting on Two Fronts

Soldiers of the 65th Infantry training in Salinas, Puerto Rico. August 1941 United States Army.

"At the heart of the modern Latino experience has been the quest for first-class citizenship. Within this broader framework, military service provides unassailable proof that Latinos are Americans who have been proud to serve, fight, and die for their country, the U.S. Thus, advocates of Latino equality often note that Latinos have fought in every U.S. conflict from the American Revolution to the current conflict in Afghanistan."

History professor emerita Lorena Oropeza wrote an article for the National Park Service about the participation of people of Mexican descent that fought in World War II. Read the article here.

Higher education in California experienced a period of tremendous growth after World War II, particularly in California. Moreno counts more than 100 public two- and four-year colleges in the state, including 9 UC campuses.[6] However, as numerous scholars note, Chicana/o students did not enroll at rates proportional to their population and, then as now, were disproportionately enrolling in community colleges.[7]

As early as the 1930s, during the Great Depression, California residents connected a college education with improved economic prospects. The rapid growth of the defense industry with its plethora of white-collar and engineering jobs after World War II only intensified that belief.[8] According to Patricia Gándara of the California State Assembly Office of Research, “between 1929 and 1969 one-third of the nation's increased productivity was attributable to advances in knowledge that came out of its universities.”[10] Members of the Mexican American Movement (MAM) also believed, as did many other minorities that faced discrimination in the U.S. at the time, that their participation in the military, defending democracy around the globe, would improve their circumstances when they returned home.[9]

Unfortunately, the expectation that “Mexican Americans were finally about to profit from democracy and the ‘American way of life,’” proved wrong. Within a few years, “Mexicans in the US had lost much of the ground they had gained in employment during the war. Anti-Mexican sentiment, fueled by the racism and McCarthyism permeating the postwar period, prevented consolidation of their wartime gains.”[11]

California’s Master Plan

Although the demand for and rapid growth of publicly funded higher education was a great boon to the state, it exposed the weaknesses that had come with decades of unstructured growth between the UCs, Teacher’s Colleges (what would become the CSUs), and community colleges. The University of California, which had enjoyed a place of preeminence in the state and wielded tremendous political power, worried that the ambitions of the CSUs would create competition for increasingly scarce state funding and federal grants. To address the problem, the state legislature created a committee to develop what became A Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960-1975 to delineate the roles of each of the three systems of public education and limit the overlap or competition for students and resources.[12]

Although the MPHEC received praise for its clear delineation of responsibilities, it further embedded disparities in access. The group that drew up and implemented the plan, “a team made up predominately of wealthy Anglo male educators, politicians, and philanthropists,” according to Moreno, “recommended raising admission standards to the University of California and the state colleges so as to shift less qualified students to the community colleges.” The requirement to take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) was also added to sort eligible students.[13]

Watch for future articles on the 1968 East Los Angeles Walkouts that highlighted the education barriers nonwhite students faced and their protest against them. “Public schools regularly placed Mexican American students in non-college track courses, many of which included ovations classes such as auto shop and home economics.”[14]

Thus, when UMAS held its symposium in 1968, Chicana/o students were woefully underrepresented in public higher education in California. In their 1972 study, “Chicanos and Public Higher Education in California,” Ronald W. Lopez and Darryl D. Enos report Chicanas/os comprised 16% of the state’s population, 11.4% of high school seniors, and 3.2% of UC students. In 1968, at UC Davis, there were 84 “Mexican or Spanish American” undergraduates (1%) and 18 graduate students (0.7%). By 1970, almost certainly in response to the protests of the late sixties, UC Davis enrolled 171 Chicana/o undergraduates (1.7%) and 34 graduate students (1.1%). An improvement but still very unsatisfying numbers and the student demands at Davis continued.[15]

Read the next article in this series:

Context: Continental-Colonialism

Read More:

California. California State Legislature. Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education. Chicanos and Public Higher Education. Ronald W. Lopez and Darryl D. Enos. 1972.

California. Master Plan Survey Team. A Master Plan for Higher Education in California 1960-1975. Prepared for the Liaison Committee of the State Board of Education and the Regents of the University of California. 1960.

California. Legislative Interim Committee on the Survey of Higher Education. “Strayer Report.” A Report of a Survey of the Needs of California in Higher Education. 1948.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “Suzzallo Report.” Commission of Seven, State Higher Education in California: Report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Recommendations of the Commission of Seven. Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1932.

[1] Marisol Moreno, “‘Of the Community, For the Community’: The Chicana/o Student Movement in California’s Public Higher Education, 1967-1973,” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2009), 47-8.

[2] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 40.

[3] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 50; See also Carlos Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (United Kingdom: Verso Books, 2007), 33.

[4] Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 40.

[5] Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 62.

[6] Moreno, “Chicana/o Student Movement in California,” 38.

[7] See for example, Rodolfo F. Acuña, The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches of Academe (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011); Patricia Gándara, “Chicanos in Higher Education: The Politics of Self-Interest,” American Journal of Education 95, n. 1 (November 1986): 256-272; Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement in California,” ch. 1; Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, ch. 1.

[8] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 64-5.

[9] Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 52. See also Christopher Tudico, "Before We Were Chicanas/Os: The Mexican American Experience in California Higher Education, 1848-1945," dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2010.

[10] Gándara, “Chicanos in Higher Education,” 260.

[11] Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 58.

[12] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 67-9.

[13] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 71-2.

[14] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 77.

[15] California State Legislature, Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education, “Chicanos and Public Higher Education in California,” (1972), Appendix F-6, Appendix E.

[16] Moreno, “The Chicana/o Student Movement,” 78.