Lawyer Gus Garcia (left) and his client Pete Hernandez (center)
After the U.S.-Mexican War, Mexican citizens living on conquered lands were offered U.S. citizenship. Full legal rights were another story. They would not come for 100 years with the landmark Supreme Court decision, Hernandez v. Texas. Last night, a new documentary about the 1950s court battle and the conditions that led to it was screened at the Latino Cultural Center.
A Class Apart, directed by Carlos Sandoval and Peter Miller, makes it television debut Feb. 23 at 9 p.m. on PBS’ American Experience series. Why did Sandoval, founder of the Vistas Film Festival, want to tell this story? “It encompasses a lot of parts of myself,” he told me before the screening. “I’m a lawyer. I grew up in the time of the aftermath of the decision. And I love history.”
The film is narrated by Edward James Olmos and deals with the discrimination faced by Mexican-Americans after World War II. Lawyers for a man convicted of murder successfully argued that he didn’t get a fair trial because no Mexican-Americans were allowed to serve as jury commissioners or grand jurors, and none were considered for the trial jury.
This was a time when these citizens, some of whom had fought for their adopted country, were forced to use separate bathrooms and were banned from restaurants and other public accommodations with signs like “We Serve Whites Only, No Spanish or Mexicans.” The Supreme Court decision acknowledged that Mexican-Americans were entitled to their rights under the 14th Amendment.
Image courtesy of the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Papers at Texas A&M University