Liz Alarcón: It’s August 1951, in a little town called Edna, Texas, and a crime is about to take place.
Maribel Quezada Smith: A young Mexican American farmhand named Pete Hernandez walks into Chinco Sanchez’s Tavern with a rifle. He points it at a man named Joe Espinoza, who’d been bullying him earlier that day, and fires a single bullet into his chest. Joe dies on the spot, Pete is arrested and put on trial for murder.
Liz Alarcón: The case seems cut and dry, but when the all white jury refuses to give Pete a fair trial, a bold team of Latino lawyers decide it’s time to fight back, and their fight will alter the history of civil rights, forever changing what it means to be Latino in the US.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Welcome to The Pulso Podcast, where we tell the untold stories and unheard voices that make up our history, our culture, nuestra gente. I’m Maribel.
Liz Alarcón: and I’m Liz.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Todays episode, is a story about a team of ambitious Latino lawyers who decided it was time to change the system, from the inside.
Liz Alarcón: You’ve heard us say this before, being a Mexican American in Texas during the 1950’s was not easy.
Ignacio Garcia: Mexicans were segregated in schools. They were segregated in the theaters. They were even segregated in the cemeteries. So you had a section for Mexicans and a section for others.
Liz Alarcón: This is Dr Ignacio Garcia, Professor at Brigham Young University and author of “White But Not Equal”. When it comes to the story we’re about to tell, he’s literally the guy who wrote the book.
Maribel Quezada Smith: At this time, people of Mexican American descent were badly discriminated against, many lived in desperate circumstances, had very little rights and often faced violence or death if they spoke out.
Ignacio Garcia: It was very particularly difficult in the rural communities of Texas to have a voice. Texas Rangers very much regulated and controlled these communities.
Maribel Quezada Smith: and this is the backdrop where the catalyst of our story, Pete Hernandez came into the picture.
Ignacio Garcia: Pete Hernandez was a young farm worker. He was a Mexican American, one of these young men in these rural communities without much future. He was no one’s hero.
Liz Alarcón: He was no one’s hero. Pete had a rough hand dealt to him. He was poor, he was physically disabled, and he spent grueling days working in the fields
Ignacio Garcia: He was small, he was brown. And so people loved to picked on him.
Maribel Quezada Smith: And in a little town like Edna, TX there wasn’t much else to do other than work or drink. Naturally, Pete and a friend end up at the local spot, Chinco Sanchez’s Tavern Bar. After a few drinks, Pete starts to get loud and make a bit of a scene.And in the bar that day was a man named Joe Epinosa, another Mexican American. But Joe was a field boss, he was the guy in charge of workers like Pete and one of the few Mexicans Americans who was respected within the white community.
Ignacio Garcia: So he came up to, to Pete and you know, told him to shut up. And they got into words.
Liz Alarcón: An argument begins.
Ignacio Garcia: Joe and another farm worker from the community grabbed Pete and they dragged him out and threw him out.
Maribel Quezada Smith: This was not the first altercation between them. Joe bullied Pete regularly, but this time Pete was embarrassed, angry, and wanted to get back at Joe.
Ignacio Garcia: He walked home, got a 22 and walked back he goes into the bar and he fires and he kills him.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Pete shoots Joe Espinoza in the chest killing him on the spot. The police are called, Pete is arrested, taken to jail, and tried for murder.
Ignacio Garcia: This is a very tight case. he murdered somebody, you have witnesses, you know, there’s nothing to litigate. He would’ve easily gone to jail and they would’ve thrown away the key and nobody would’ve remembered him.
Liz Alarcón: But that’s not what happened . Because Pete’s mother refused to give up on him, she went to San Antonio, looked up lawyers and found Gus Garcia.
Maribel Quezada Smith: And this is where our story takes a significant turn. Gus Garcia was a young successful Mexican American Lawyer from San Antonio. By this point he had already been involved in the founding of the United Nations, worked as advisor to the American G.I forum, and helped desegregate schools in Texas.
Liz Alarcón: And Gus had a personality. He was charming, he was charismatic and energetic. He was the guy that everyone would turn to when he walked in the room. And Gus wasn’t alone,. He was working alongside 2 brilliant Mexican American Lawyers named Carlos Cadena & John J Herrera. This was an all star team.
Ignacio Garcia: When Peter Hernandez’s mom came over, she said, I don’t have any money, but my son is going to be put to death if he doesn’t have good representation. Gus Garcia argued that he had a weakness for crying mothers.
Maribel Quezada Smith: So they decide to take the case.
Liz Alarcón: But, this was not only out of a weakness for crying mothers. They had a goal in mind. The criminal justice system in Texas was incredibly unjust towards Mexican Americans, and one major problem was that the state would never allow them to sit on a jury, which meant they could never be guaranteed a fair trial. Gus and the team of lawyers had been looking for a case that might be able to change this, and thought that maybe this could be it.
Maribel Quezada Smith: So they poured through the records of jury selections in Jackson County where the crime took place, an area with a large Hispanic population, and found that not one of the 6,000 jurors selected over the past 25 years had a Hispanic last name. And when they arrive in court to defend Pete, sure enough, they walk in to find an all white jury, not a single Latino on the bench.
Ignacio Garcia: That jury, you know, in a very short time decides that Peter’s guilty and should go to jail.
Maribel Quezada Smith: 99 Years in prison.
Liz Alarcón: So the next step was to appeal the decision. They went back to court again in Edna, TX for the appeals trial. But for a team of hispanic lawyers, arguing a case in Edna, was complicated. During the trial they weren’t even allowed to use the court bathroom. They had to go to the basement to the bathroom labeled: colored & hombres aquí… and this wasn’t even the worst they had to face.
Ignacio Garcia: They didn’t wanna stay in Edna. It was dangerous because Mexicans were pretty much marginalized. And some Mexican American with a suit and a nice car, they weren’t seen very highly. Gus decided to stay in Aetna in a motel, supposedly puts a table out front in the parking lot in a chair and gets in a bottle of liquor, and sits there and screams out here I am, come and get me.
Maribel Quezada Smith: His patience for the overt racism they faced was getting thinner every day. But this wasn’t enough to make a difference yet.
Ignacio Garcia: The appeals court comes back and says, no, you have no grounds because your people are considered white. And so a group of 12 white guys is a jury of your peers.
Liz Alarcón: And this was the core question they were grappling with. At the time there was no legal room to be something other than white or black. In this Jim Crow era, segregation against Black Americans was legal and was used to discriminate against them in all kinds of ways. But because there was no legal definition of Mexican American or Hispanic at the time, and they weren’t Black, then they could only be white. And while this theoretically gave them the same rights as white people, in reality, they were discriminated against just like other marginalized communities.
Ignacio Garcia: They kept being thrown back to them. They said, well you can’t proclaim discrimination if you have a jury of all white people because you’re white, right. And so they had to head back and say, well, maybe I am white in terms of the legal sense, but I’m not white in the way you treat me or the way the law treats me. Yes, you’re white, but you’re not equal.
Liz Alarcón: Mexican Americans were living in a gray zone where they were discriminated against, but everytime they spoke up about it, the white community would say, but you’re white. How can you complain about having an all white jury? That’s not discrimination… so there was no legal protection for anything.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Now, you might already be thinking it , but we can’t help but point out an obvious issue with this logic. It upholds a racist system, here’s Lisa Ramos a historian and professor at San Antonio College.
Lisa Ramos: It’s not challenging white supremacy, it’s upholding it. That argument is saying the problem here is that we’re whites, but Texas won’t accept it.
Liz Alarcón: So in making this argument the lawyers are not fighting the worst injustice
but we have to understand that this was one strategy to chip away at all the issues one piece at a time and that they were doing the best they could here. They didn’t feel like it was possible to dismantle a whole system, but they could at least get fair trials and a recognition of Mexican American identity.
Maribel Quezada Smith: So after losing the case in the appeals court, they took the next step – sending it up to the supreme court.
Liz Alarcón: understand how risky this is, if they failed then they would have solidified the legal discrimination for years to come. But if they succeeded this could be the start of a new era for mexican americans, a turning point.
Maribel Quezada Smith: But there was a problem, money. Sending a case to the supreme court meant paying for months of work, legal fees and sending the whole team to DC. Luckily word started to spread among the Mexican American community and all throughout texas people started giving whatever money they could to support the cause. People held fundraisers and concerts. Poor farm hands would even give their crumpled up dollar bills.
Ignacio Garcia: There’s a couple instances where prisoners, Mexican prisoners would send a dollar 50 cents, uh, you know, in support of the Hernandez case.
Maribel Quezada Smith: And with donations like these, the team packed up and went to the nation’s capital.
Liz Alarcón: They arrive in Washington DC, ready to be the first Mexican American lawyers to set foot inside the supreme court. But all is not well.
Ignacio Garcia: Gus you know, Gus was an alcoholic. He suffered from alcohol abuse and the stress got to him.
Maribel Quezada Smith: The night before they are scheduled to be in court, Gus is nowhere to be found, until around 4 in the morning when he stumbles into the hotel, so drunk he can barely walk. They throw him in a cold shower desperately trying to sober him up and save the fate of the case.
Liz Alarcón: Early in the morning, Gus, and the rest of the lawyers walk through the giant stone columns of the supreme court, and into the chamber where just a week earlier Thurgood Marshall had been arguing the landmark case, Brown vs Board of Education. First, Carlos Cadena goes up to the stand.
Ignacio Garcia: Carlos Cadena presented his brief. And Carlos was not a very flashy kind of speaker, but his brief was really good. But when the judges started asking him certain questions about, you know, things on the ground…
Maribel Quezada Smith: This is where he starts to stumble. Cadena is a brilliant legal scholar, but he’s struggling to get across to the court just how bad things were in Texas. And it’s clear that the justices have no idea because they’ve never been addressed by Mexican Americans, or even thought about the issue of Mexican American rights. From their seats in Washington, they have no idea what is going on down in Texas. They ask dozens of questions.
Liz Alarcón: “What is a Mexican American”?
Maribel Quezada Smith: “Can they speak english?”
Liz Alarcón: “Are they Mexicans”
Maribel Quezada Smith: “They call them greasers down there, don’t they?”
Ignacio Garcia: And so Gus Garcia then takes over.
Liz Alarcón: Gus gets up to the podium and begins speaking. He starts with a history lesson and says, “my people were in texas 100 years before Sam Houston, that wetback from TN”. Yes, he refers to Sam Houston, the former president of the republic of Texas, as a wetback, because when Sam arrived, Mexican people were already there!
Maribel Quezada Smith: He describes the descrimination happening in Texas, the violence, he captivates the entire room with his eloquent and passionate speech, and then, a small red light on the podium clicks on, meaning that his time is up.
Ignacio Garcia: When you’re speaking to the Supreme court to the justices and the light goes on, you stop. Even if you’re in the middle of a word, you stop and you sit down. It’s over. And so of course, Gus stops.
Liz Alarcón: But The Chief Justice, Earl Warren, leans forward and says “continue Mr Garcia” and Gus continues his speech for another 16 minutes. When the case is over, they head back to San Antonio, and all over town, Spanish language radio stations air updates to the many people who contributed their hard earned money towards the case.
Announcement: Señoras y señores, quiero rendir un breve informe respecto al caso de Pete Hernandez en contra del estado de Texas…
Liz Alarcón: And then they wait. 4 whole months of silence, until May 2nd 1954 when the news comes in. The court had made its decision.
Maribel Quezada Smith: They unanimously ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to all racial and ethnic groups facing discrimination. And in excluding Hispanics from jury duty, Texas had unreasonably singled out a class of people for different treatment and deprived them of the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution. They had beaten Texas’ racist and unjust system. They had beaten the odds and became the first Latino lawyers to argue and win a case in the Supreme Court. Broadening civil rights laws to include Hispanics and all other non-whites for the first time.
Liz Alarcón: In the end, Pete Hernandez was able to get a new trial, this time with a jury that included several Mexican Americans. He ended up serving 20 years in prison instead of a life sentence. Carlos Cadena and John J Herrera went on to have successful careers.
Maribel Quezada Smith: But for Gus it didn’t go so well. He struggled deeply with his alcoholism for years, until eventually he was abandoned by his friends and colleagues who could no longer stand to see him destroy himself. He died in 1964, but he is always remembered as someone who fought for the Latino community, and thanks to him and the others, a precedent was set that led to successful challenges of employment and housing discrimination, school segregation, and voting rights barriers against Mexican Americans – things that helped improve the lives of millions of Latinos nationwide.