• Pete Gallego

When the students of Crystal City taught us about our rights

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

I remember people whispering about it. The talk was everywhere. Some people were proud, yet afraid. Can we do that here? Should we do that? What will happen? Others were just angry. Those people are socialists, communists and radicals, they said. They are crazy, racist people who don't know their place.

The year was 1969. On December 9th – 50 years ago today – Mexican American high school students walked out of Crystal City High School. Their actions reverberated around Texas and around the country – and they are still felt today. The actions of those young people spawned a new political party, La Raza Unida, pushed the civil rights movement forward, and eventually lead to the election and inclusion of Latinos across Texas' political spectrum.

While there was a long litany of grievances, who would have guessed that the trigger for this controversial but momentous event was the selection of cheerleaders? Two of four cheerleading positions at Crystal City High School were vacant. Though most students were Mexican American, they were told that neither vacancy could be filled by a Mexican American because only one Mexican American cheerleader was allowed – and the school already had one Mexican American cheerleader.

The demographics of the school were of no concern to the power structure. When the Mexican American students began to outnumber the Anglo students, the rules had been changed. No longer would cheerleaders be elected by popular vote of the student body. Instead, the cheerleaders would be named by a specially selected committee of teachers. This decision set the pot to boil – and it boiled over when the two cheerleading vacancies occurred.

The superintendent's attempt to negotiate a compromise of six cheerleaders with an even 3-3 split was negated by the local school board, and when the students and their parents appeared before the board, they were treated poorly. In fact, the board threatened expulsion for any student involved in further unrest and doubled down to make it even more difficult for Mexican Americans to become cheerleaders. A new requirement was added: no student could be a cheerleader unless at least one parent had graduated from high school.