Thursday, January 01, 2015

My New Year’s Day Reflection on the late Dr. George I. Sánchez

I count myself among the many who are very happy to see that Texas A & M History professor Dr. Carlos K. Blanton produce this important work on legendary figure, University of Texas at Austin Professor George I. Sánchez (1906-1972), originally from New Mexico (scroll down to read the FoxNews Latino report on the publication of this book).  Through his work at the Mexican American Archive located at the Benson Latin American Collection at UT Austin, Dr. Blanton was able to rescue his memory for the generations.

The College of Education where I work at the University of Texas at Austin is named after him. It's actually amazing that— except for folks in the community in Austin and others that have researched his writings—very few people know very much about him.

I remember one published piece that I read by him where he referred to Anglos as suffering from cultural indigestion because they cannot digest the Mexican. By this, he alluded to not only the cultural and linguistic differences that were the target of Americanization education policy of this time period, but more poignantly, to the complete othering of the Mexican at the time (1940s and 50s). 

Because of my parents’ experience with Jim-Crow-like, de facto segregation growing up as Mexican Americans in West Texas—together with their families’ struggle to counter this (particularly my grandparents who were Presbyterian ministers at the time; later, as Baptist clergy), I can very easily imagine the particularly bigoted time period within which Dr. Sanchez labored and with such courage.

As someone active in the community and dedicated to the important role that research can play in the policy making, legislative, and judicial process at local, state, and national levels, the data that he gathered and the stories that he told and heard about severe poverty, stagnant social mobility, and the appalling conditions of the schools, I am confident that this stirred his conscience as a relatively “privileged” professor at UT though he also didn’t walk on a bed of roses.

Dr. Sanchez’ memory this evening inspires the thought and memory of one of his contemporaries, with whom he also worked, namely, the late Attorney Gustavo “Gus” Garcia (July 27, 1915 – June 3, 1964) another legend in his own right (here's a helpful link:

His phrase, "cultural indigestion" stuck with me not only because it was a visceral expression, but also because it appeared in the context of a serious, official publication (that would, of course, end up finding its way into his merit evaluations and thusly, impacting his salary).  He was an “uppity Mexican" who “didn’t know his place.”

My friend and colleague, Dr. Doug Foley, who worked with and knew Dr. Sanchez quite well shared with me that he was an extraordinary scholar, intellectual, activist, and human being. He was very passionate about all that he did. Yet he passed away in serious economic straits.  Hopefully, we can get a full rendering of how his departure from this world played out in Blanton's biography.

No doubt that in life, he led it quite triumphantly.  He nevertheless paid a dear price for his commitments.  Us faculty of color at UT are indebted to Dr. Sanchez' offering and sacrifice—and those of others, as well, like Drs. Américo Paredes (1950-99), founder and director for many years of the Center for Mexican American Studies; Carlos E. Castañeda (1896-1958) after whom the “PCL” library is named alongside that of Ervin S. Perry (1935-70), first African American to be appointed to the rank of full professor; and John L. Warfield, first Director of the Center for African American Studies.

Where would we be without these elders—our elders? And what about society as a whole? Our society has a long history now of benefiting from an expansion of "others'" rights—that of course, comes with responsibility. Minimally, these responsibilities include making sure that the next generation knows what was so painfully fought for—together with what was won and lost. And how was it all experienced in the process? It is important for us to know these things.

The legendary late African-American civil rights attorney and legal scholar, Dr. Derrick Bell (1930-2011), spoke of what his experience of breaking down segregation in the Deep South meant to him. I think it is in his book, SILENT COVENANTS, where he asserted that the simple act of standing up to injustice was triumphant in itself.  That resonates with me.

This is going to be a very tough legislative session here in Texas, my friends. We—all hands on deck!—very much have to use our research like Dr. Sanchez would have us do to educate the vote on the committees, in and across the two chambers, and the public at large.  Now, more than ever.

Praise again to Dr. Carlos Blanton for this important contribution to Texas history. And yes, we are still definitely in an "age of discovery" with respect to Mexican American/ Tejano History.   What readers can locate immediately are resources related to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook Online. (I happen to know that they get a million "hits" a month, by the way.)  Currently, History Professors Emilio Zamora from the University of Texas at Austin and Andrés Tijerina from Austin Community College are working to expand the number of entries on Mexican Americans in Texas.

Happy New Year, everybody!  Feliz Año Nuevo!

-Angela Valenzuela


Biography hopes to place forgotten Latino scholar in his rightful place among civil rights giants

  • George Sanchez MAIN.jpg
George I. Sanchez regularly is left out of books on the civil rights movement. His role is seldom mentioned in studies on desegregation cases. Even people in his birth-state hardly know his name, though his imprint on New Mexico's educational system still is felt today.
A new biography seeks to change that.
This month, Carlos Blanton released "George I. Sanchez: The Long Fight for Mexican American Integration." He's hoping the biography finally places the Latino scholar in his proper place among civil rights giants.
A project that took more than a decade, Blanton wrote the book after combing through previously unknown letters, writings and materials to reconstruct the life of a man who was at the center of some of most important civil rights moments in history.
"I started this book only thinking of him as a cultural scholar," said Blanton, a history professor at Texas A&M University. "Then, I found a civil rights activist."
Sanchez was born in Albuquerque in 1906. At 16, he worked as a public school teacher at a small rural school in Yrisarri, New Mexico. He became superintendent of the Bernalillo County school district six years later.
That experience sparked his mission to reform the state's educational system, particularly IQ testing of Latinos and American Indians, which he viewed as racially biased. Eventually, Sanchez became what would be equivalent to the state's deputy secretary of education.
His 1940 classic "Forgotten People" was one of the first studies to document how Hispanics were losing land and influence to poverty and white encroachment. The book drew attention from the University of Texas, which eventually offered Sanchez a job as an education professor.
There, Sanchez wrote other books, became a national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and corresponded with lead NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on desegregation strategy. He wrote presidents, challenged politicians and spoke out against discrimination of blacks and Latinos.
"He did not shy away," Blanton said. "He knew that he was sacrificing a lot but he kept at it because he knew it was important."
The biography is the first detailed account of Sanchez, who died in 1972. Often called the "dean of Mexican American studies," there are a dozen or so schools in Texas and California named in honor of Sanchez. However, there is none in his birth-state of New Mexico.
His granddaughter Cindy Kennedy, 51, a Santa Fe teacher, believes the book will introduce her grandfather to a new generation who unknowingly benefited from his work.
"He has been forgotten and I think it's about time he gets recognized," Kennedy said.
And maybe, she said, a school in New Mexico soon will be named in his honor.
The Sanchez book follows last year's release of a biopic on farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez. The books come at a time when some Latinos writers are calling for more biographies of Latino civil rights icons such as lawyer John J. Herrera or labor leader Emma Tenayuca.
"We are still, in a lot of ways, in an era of discovery," Blanton said. "There is so much more material for us to uncover."

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