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A Class Apart to Premiere Feb. 23 on PBS
In 1951 in the town of Edna, Texas, a field hand named Pedro Hernez murdered his employer after exchanging words at a gritty cantina. From this seemingly unremarkable small-town murder emerged a landmark civil rights case that would forever change the lives and legal standing of tens of millions of Americans. A team of unknown Mexican-American lawyers took the case, Hernez v. Texas, all the way to the Supreme Court, where they successfully challenged Jim Crow-style discrimination against Mexican Americans.
A Class Apart, from PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, dramatically interweaves the story of its central characters activists and lawyers, returning veterans and ordinary citizens, murderer and victim within the broader story of a civil rights movement that is still very much alive today. The film, by award-winning producers Carlos Sandoval and Peter Miller, airs Monday, February 23, 2009, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS.
A Class Apart begins with the little-known history of Mexican Americans in the United States. In 1848, the Mexican-American War came to an end. For the United States, the victory meant ownership of large swaths of Mexican territory. The tens of thousands of residents living on the newly annexed land were offered American citizenship as part of the treaty to end the war, but it soon became apparent that legal citizenship for Mexican Americans was one thing, equal treatment would be quite another.
Life in the 1950s was very difficult for Hispanics, Wanda Garcia, a native of Corpus Christi, explains in the program. We were considered second-rate; we were not considered intelligent. We were considered invisible.
In the first 100 years after gaining U.S. citizenship, many Mexican Americans in Texas lost their land to unfamiliar American laws or to swindlers. With the loss of their land came a loss of status; within just two generations, many wealthy ranch owners had become farm workers. After the Civil War, increasing numbers of southern whites moved to south Texas, bringing with them the rigid racial social code of the Deep South, which they began to apply not just to blacks, but to Mexican Americans as well.
Widespread discrimination followed Latinos from schoolhouses and restaurants to courthouses and even to funeral parlors, many of which refused to prepare Mexican American bodies for burial. During World War II, more than 300,000 Mexican Americans served their country, expecting to return home with the full citizenship rights they deserved. Instead, the returning veterans, many of them decorated war heroes, came back to face the same injustices they had experienced all their lives.
Latino lawyers and activists were making progress at state levels, but they knew that real change could only be achieved if Mexican Americans were recognized by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution something that could only be accomplished by bringing a case to the Supreme Court.
In his law office in San Antonio, a well-known attorney named Gus Garc listened to the desperate pleas of Pedro Hernez mother, who traveled more than 150 miles to ask him to defend her son. Garcquickly realized that there was more to this case than murder; the real concern was not Hernez guilt, but whether he could receive a fair trial with an all-Anglo jury deciding his fate.
Garcassembled a team of courageous attorneys who argued on behalf of Hernez from his first trial at the Jackson County Courthouse in Texas all the way to Washington, DC. It would be the first time a Mexican American appeared before the Supreme Court.
The Hernez lawyers decided on a daring but risky legal strategy, arguing that Mexican Americans were a class apart and did not neatly fit into a legal structure that recognized only black and white Americans. As legal skirmishes unfolded, the lawyers emerged as brilliant, dedicated, humorous and, at times, terribly flawed men.
They took a gamble, says University of California-Berkeley professor of law Ian Haney-L in A Class Apart. They knew, on the up side, that they could win national recognition for the equality of Mexican Americans, but they knew, on the down side, that if they lost, they would establish at a national level the proposition that Mexican Americans could be treated as second class citizens.
The Hernez case struck a chord with Latinos across the country. When funds to try the case ran out, the Mexican-American community donated to the cause in any way they could, despite limited resources.
They would come up to me and they would give you crumpled-up dollar bills and theyd give you coins. These were people who couldnt afford it, but couldnt afford not to, recalled attorney Carlos Cadena, Gus Garcs partner in the case.
On January 11, 1954, Garcand Cadena faced the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Cadena opened the argument. Can Mexican Americans speak English? one justice asked. Are they citizens? asked another. The lack of knowledge stunned Gus Garc who stood up and delivered the argument of his life. Chief Justice Earl Warren allowed him to continue a full 16 minutes past the allotted time, a concession a witness to the argument noted that had not been afforded to any other civil rights lawyer before Garcia, including the renowned NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall.
On May 3, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in the case of Hernez v. Texas. Pedro Hernez would receive a new trial and would be judged by a true jury of his peers. The courts legal reasoning: Mexican Americans, as a group, were protected under the 14th Amendment, in keeping with the theory that they were indeed a class apart.
The Hernez v. Texas story is a powerful reminder of one of many unknown yet hard-fought moments in the Civil Rights Movement, says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. Its easy to forget how far the country has come in just 50 years, reshaping our democracy to include all Americans.
NALIPster's film The Story of Juan Bago released on DVD
NALIP member Michael Diaz's film The Story of Juan Bago has been picked up for distribution in North America by Phoenix Entertainment. The tale of a young man and his quest to grab the attention of his objectifying infatuation is out on DVD now. The film is produced by Heights Entertainment, a Manhattan based entertainment production company.
The Story of Juan Bago theatrically premiered at the 2006 NY International Latino Film Festival on July 28th, 2006. The film became a box office phenomenon. It has broken countless records and sold out the entire office box within the first day of ticket sales. The film is a slapstick tale of a twenty-something underachiever who lives with his parents. His dispiriting life is suddenly sparked with new life when one day he thinks he sees the woman of his dreams. Life changes dramatically from that point on and in the following days Juan will begin his transformation. Embarking to become a new man; life as Juan knows it, will be no more.
“I am extremely excited that after such an effortful path to finally have the film distributed. This is a film that people of various ages will enjoy and bring laughter to many homes", said Michael Diaz, writer of the film. The film was produced by Michael Diaz, Chris Delgado and Rudy Diaz in 2005.
The Story of Juan Bago will be available on a single disc DVD with deleted scenes, bloopers and the making of the movie. The DVD can be purchased at Target, JR.com, Amazon and NetFlix.