Learning Loss for Generations: Segregated Mexican Schools and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Learning Loss for Generations: Segregated Mexican Schools and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

By Irene M. Sanchez

If there is one thing that pandemics have shown us in education is that historically excluded students have undergone a learning loss for generations. On Friday March 13, 2020, I was told to gather what I needed and that I would not return to the three schools I teach Chicano/Latino Studies at in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County, CA. During the time when we were ordered home and I waited to find out when and how I would teach again, numerous documents and articles started to appear with researchers concerned about school closures and “learning loss” for students. Knowing the history of unequal education for Chicanos/Latinos in the U.S. this made me wonder, which students? It was during this time of questioning that I began to look at local newspaper archives of articles to find out what happened to Latino/Mexican students during the flu pandemic of 1918.

Teaching Chicano/Latino studies, I don’t forget past events and how they are connected to the present day. This is something I strive to teach my students to remember as well. The deliberate segregation of Mexican students wasn’t that long ago and is tied to the fact that Latino students in California schools remain highly segregated today. 

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Mendez, et al. v. Westminster decision that stated separate schools for Mexicans were unlawful in the state of California, marking an end to the period of Mexican schools in 1947. The Mendez case established a precedent for upholding the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment which would later be used to win the U.S. supreme court case of Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that overruled the “separate, but equal” idea established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The Mendez, et al. v. Westminster and Brown v. Board cases had people in common as well, Thurgood Marshall had worked on the Mendez case before leading the arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. In addition, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren who wrote the decision in Brown v. Board was the former governor in California who signed the law ending segregation after the Mendez, et al. v. Westminster case.

School segregation of students in the U.S. has a long history and needs to be recognized for what it represents, a learning loss for generations for those that have had their opportunities limited and those communities who continue to experience it to this day. During the 1918 pandemic when schools closed in Azusa, the city where I now teach, local newspaper archives document the development of a Mexican school, but they also document what happened when the pandemic impacted the city and schools closed and later reopened before the new school was completed. 

In the article “Azusa Schools Will Open Next Monday Morning” dated November 8, 1918 published by The Pomotropic a writer states that while Azusa schools were set to open, Mexican students would not be allowed to return to school until they underwent additional examination by doctors. While this exclusion may make it seem as if it is for health reasons that certain students were excluded, the article provides proof that this is not the only reason, “It is probable the grammar schools will open next Monday as planned last week, although the large number of Mexican children in the lower grades constitute a menace.” Furthermore, the article states evidence that many researchers have proven that Mexican students were seen as inferior in intelligence and how that could be used as further reasoning to exclude them from school, “With so many Mexicans in the grammar schools this would greatly interfere with class work, as the excluded students, who are always the slowest in the classes, would fall still farther behind, making the present task of completing a year’s work before next summer nearly impossible”. This denial of education for Mexican students during the 1918 flu pandemic, which was the same “logic” that established separate Mexican schools, was rooted in white supremacy and racism in the ideas that Mexican students were dirty, unclean, inferior in intelligence, and likely wouldn’t catch up with school work anyway.

History has proven to us that education is not always the great equalizer for some, instead it has outlined roles for what certain groups are expected to do and positions they are to work in this society. Gilbert G. Garcia documented this history of Mexican/Chicano education well in his book Chicano Education in the Era of Segregation where he highlights the segregation Mexican students faced was due to white supremacy and how they called Mexican children unintelligent and dirty and would try to say segregation was necessary for language reasons although many Mexican students in segregated schools at this time spoke English and were born in the U.S.

In my own research I found that another reason for Mexicans not returning to school was the start of the Citrus harvest season in the San Gabriel Valley in which Mexican students were expected to go work while white students were expected to return to class. Upon sharing these local articles with my students and reading how my students respond to them for assignments during the pandemic both in distance learning and when we returned to in person learning, we can observe that although these events seem to have happened a long time ago, they haven’t and the impact of these roles and expectations placed upon Mexican/Latino students through segregated schools and policies have reverberated throughout the generations. This type of learning loss has prevented many in historically excluded communities, in this case Latino students, from accessing the opportunities that would uplift their families and communities and provide opportunities for a different future. As we see in this current pandemic Latino students and communities continue to be negatively and disproportionately impacted. As we move forward still in this pandemic, we need decision makers to keep this history in mind so that this learning loss for Latino students doesn’t continue for the generations to come.

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