League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)

Responding to a long history in which their people have been at best ignored and at worst suffered discrimination, Mexican American citizens have formed numerous civil rights organizations, typically in cities, to work to improve the conditions facing them. Perhaps the most notable of these civil rights organizations is the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), with approximately 115,000 members in over 700 councils in the United States and Puerto Rico. Since its founding in 1929, LULAC has been an active advocacy organization dedicated to defending and protecting the rights of Hispanics, including their right to education.

Background

American history textbooks rarely recount the lives of the people who lived in Texas and California before and after these areas were incorporated into the United States during the early and mid-19th century. Typical history texts fail to mention that Mexican American citizens had to endure numerous forms of discrimination. In many places, they were barred from voting because they did not know English and were also deprived of English language instruction. Further, if they were allowed to vote, they had to pay a “poll tax.”

Similarly, Mexican Americans were not allowed to serve on juries. If their children were able to attend a school, they attended segregated “Mexican schools,” which had poorly prepared teachers and deplorable physical facilities. Finally, many private businesses posted signs stating “No Mexicans Allowed.”

Emerging out of such conditions was League of United Latin American Citizens, created in Corpus Christi, Texas, on February 17, 1929, when the local chapter of the Order of the Sons of America, the Knights of America of San Antonio, and the League of Latin American Citizens of South Texas united into one organization. The convention adopted as the organization’s motto “All for One and One for All,” as a constant reminder of the trials of unification and as basis for all LULAC’s future activities. According to LULAC’s mission statement, its goal is to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health, and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States.

Civil Rights Litigation

LULAC has been involved in a number of cases at the state and federal levels that led to changes in laws affecting Mexican Americans. In the earliest case, Mendez v. Westminster (1947), an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit held that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students into separate “Mexican schools” was unconstitutional.

Seven years later, League of United Latin American Citizens spearheaded a successful effort in Hernandez v. Texas (1954), a dispute that involved a Mexican American who was tried and convicted for murder by an all-Anglo jury. Insofar as Mexican Americans had not served on a jury in Texas for 25 years, the plaintiff claimed that they had been discriminated against as a class. In writing the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren explained as follows:

When the existence of a distinct class is demonstrated, and it is shown that the laws, as written or as applied, single out that class for different treatment not based on some reasonable classification, the guarantees of the Constitution have been violated. (Hernandez v. Texas, p. 478)

Two civil rights laws, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) of 1974, and the Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols (1974) afforded LULAC additional legal bases and precedents for bringing suits to protect Mexican American interests. Subsequently, in Castaneda v. Pickard (1981), parents of Mexican American students in Texas alleged that the instructional practices of the schools that their children attended violated their rights.

The Fifth Circuit established a three-pronged test in evaluating the claim: first, boards must use research-based programs viewed as sound by experts; second, boards must make adequate resources to implement programs; and, third, boards must evaluate programs and modify them if they fail to produce acceptable results. The Office for Civil Rights adopted this prong test for English Language Learning Classes, and League of United Latin American Citizens has used the precedent to bring other suits involving the education of Mexican American students.

Two cases from Texas reached dissimilar results for Mexican Americans. In the first, Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that a law denying a free public education to children whose parents were undocumented violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Conversely, a year later, in Martinez v. Bynum (1983), the Court upheld a residency law that did not permit a minor to live apart from his parents in order to attend a public school tuition free, because the sister with whom he lived refused to become his legal guardian.

LULAC initiated a suit against the Florida State Department of Education concerning the education provided to Hispanic students (LULAC v. Florida Board of Education, 1990), leading to a consent decree between the parties. Pursuant to this consent decree, Florida agreed to comply with the federal and state laws and judicial order addressing the education of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. The consent decree provided for specific actions by the state in educating the students and preparing the teachers who would instruct the LEP children. Even so, on January 13, 2003, League of United Latin American Citizens alleged that the state violated Section IV of the agreement. The Florida State Board of Education approved a mediation agreement on August 19, 2003, that required school administrators and guidance counselors to earn 60 hours of in-service in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL); teachers who passed the ESOL test also had to complete 120 hours within a 3-year period.

League of United Latin American Citizens was also involved in a political gerrymandering case from Texas that alleged that Hispanics would not be fairly represented because of the way the district was redrawn after the 2000 census. In League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006), the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to remedy the situation by redrawing district lines.

Robert J. Safransky

See also Civil Rights Movement; Lau v. Nichols; Martinez v. Bynum; Plyler v. Doe

Legal Citations

  • Castaneda v. Pickard, 648 F.2d 989 (5th Cir. 1981). 
  • Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1703(f). 
  • Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954). 
  • Lau v. Nichols, 483 F.2d 791 (9th Cir. 1973); 414 U.S. 563 (1974). 
  • League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006). 
  • LULAC v. Florida Board of Education, C.A. # 90–1913-M (S.D. Fla. 1990). 
  • Martinez v. Bynum, 461 U.S. 321 (1983). 
  • Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County, 64 F. Supp. 544 (D.C. Cal. 1946), aff’d, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947). 
  • Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982). 
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.