Beyond Tragedy, Uvalde’s Cultural History and Its Role in the Civil Rights Struggle

Uvalde Civil Rights BELatina Latinx
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An unthinkable tragedy put the city of Uvalde on the map for many people. However, its cultural and political history has been more important than it is given credit for.

As Axios reported, Uvalde has deep roots in the struggle of Mexican Americans for civil rights.

The May 24 mass shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers, took place in a school district that was the site of one of the most crucial school walkouts in civil rights history.

A territory marked by violence

Uvalde County, named after the Spaniard Juan de Ugalde, was a hunting ground for the Comanche, Tonkawa, and Lipan Apache Indians, and colonialism saw the passage of Spanish and Portuguese.

This territory also saw the passage of settlers, military, and immigrants, and its first settlements date from the mid-19th century, which transformed Uvalde into a fruitful commercial zone.

The pre-Civil War years saw the proliferation of school districts, and during the Mexican War, Mexicans were prohibited from traveling through the county under threat of lynching.

By 1860 Uvalde County had a population of 506; most county residents were engaged in cattle ranching. Because agriculture was generally believed to be impractical without irrigation, the plantation system never developed in Uvalde County; as a result, only twenty-seven enslaved people resided in the county at the time of the Secession Convention in 1861.

Many Uvalde County men fought for the Confederacy, while Unionists such as Reading Black fled to Mexico to avoid persecution.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, at the end of the Civil War, Uvalde County remained the last frontier district court seat for a region that included the unorganized territories of Zavala, Kinney, Edwards, and Maverick counties.

A New Century and an Economic Awakening

During the first decade of the 20th century, Uvalde’s population grew substantially, from 4,617 in 1900 to about 11,233 in 1910. This growth was largely due to economic development, where one-fourth of all mohair produced in the United States in 1903 came from the county.

By that year, farms in Uvalde were thriving, successfully growing peaches, plums, figs, pears, onions, tomatoes, squash, melons, potatoes, cabbages, and beans.

The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, while bringing instability and violence, also forced many Mexicans to move to Uvalde County, being instrumental in clearing large tracts of land, digging ditches, and pushing the county’s agricultural development.

The construction of the Uvalde and Northern Railway to Camp Wood and the Asphalt Beltway in 1921 and the expansion of asphalt mines in the southwest corner of Uvalde County at Blewett and Dabney also employed Mexican Americans.

Twenty years later, 40 percent of Uvalde residents were Mexican American, but the opportunities came with a hefty price tag.

As a result of deed restrictions that prohibited Anglo owners from selling to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, Mexican Americans were limited in their purchase of urban lots to those located in the colonias.

Uvalde and the Civil Rights Struggle

By the early 1960s, Mexican Americans made up half of the county’s population. However, their rights continued to be overlooked.

One of the first efforts to get Latinos in the county access to true equality began with creating the Tomas Valle Post of the American Legion, an organization in honor of World War I veteran Tomas Valle.

After all, if Latinos were willing to give their lives for the nation, the least they could ask for was fair rights.

By that time, however, the county’s churches maintained segregated places of worship until 1965, when the first integrated Catholic church emerged in Uvalde.

Meanwhile, the agricultural industry continued to grow with the sweat and toil of Latinos.

In 1970, a militant section of the Mexican-American Youth Organization formed in Uvalde City in 1968 and organized a strike to protest the district’s refusal to renew the contract of Josue “George” Garza, a popular Mexican-American teacher.

As Axios explains, the students delivered to the all-white school board a list of 14 demands, including hiring more Mexican-American educators and offering Chicano history courses.

The protest lasted six weeks. The Texas Rangers responded to the school board’s pleas for help to help control the volatile situation.

The school board refused to negotiate, and the walkout grew from about 20 students to 500 people. It lasted six weeks and became one of the longest school walkouts in U.S. history.

Senator Walter F. Mondale, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity, went to Uvalde on July 30, 1970, and criticized city officials in an interview published in the Uvalde Leader News.

As late as November 23, 1973, a federal administrative judge ruled that Uvalde County schools remained segregated. By 1975, only six Mexican-Americans had held public office in the county and none in positions of responsibility. 

Since then, several Mexican-Americans have held county commissioner and other local and county offices.

However, the Uvalde school walkout was echoed in other parts of Texas to demand an end to discrimination.

In fact, Alfredo R. Santos, one of the participants in the Uvalde walkout, later became a labor organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and then a journalist.

Thus, a district once condemned to oblivion is, in fact, witness to an intersection of pivotal episodes in American history.