David Lozano and Raul Trevino wrote Crystal City 1969 in 2009, a production which The Dallas Morning News called the “Best New Play” of 2009. Residents from Crystal City learned of its success by word of mouth, but individuals who contributed to the school walkouts that permanently transformed the social and political structure in Crystal City found Dallas too far to travel to enjoy the play. That changed when the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas Austin provided a grant to Cara Mia Theatre of Dallas and San Antonio Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center to bring the play to San Antonio’s Westside.
David Lozano, the Executive Artistic Director of Cara Mia, teamed with Raul Trevino to write and co-direct the play in Dallas fourteen years ago. The opportunity to bring the play to San Antonio may be the best decision of their young careers. The Guadalupe Theatre sold out all five performances within days. I attended a 10am Friday matinee that had standing room only. Lozano, a hard working and energetic director, could be found near the entrance welcoming ticket holders, answering questions about the production and historical interpretation, and pitching T-Shirt sales.
In attendance that morning were individuals who had led or joined the Crystal City walkout of 1969. One of the Crystal City cheerleaders who was denied a spot on the cheerleading squad because her parents had not graduated from Crystal City High School sat behind me. Mario Compean, one of the Mexican American Youth Organization [MAYO] who helped to organize the walkouts, sat not far from us. On our same row a gentleman and his wife who had participated in the school strike had left Houston at 4:30 in the morning to attend the matinee. Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Director of the UT Austin Center for Mexican American Studies [CMAS], attended all five performances, as did Cristina Balli, Executive Director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
Lozano told me that the play Crystal City 1969 is based on the true story of young Mexican-American students in the South Texas town Crystal City who walked out of their high school because they were fed up with discriminatory treatment. The play brings to the forefront the irrational actions, misguided policies, and the neglect of the teachers and administrators assigned to provide South Texas children an education. Before 1969, the
Latino parents, who helped pay the salaries of the teachers and principals, felt powerless to question the education system. The walkouts changed that.
The play begins with a scene familiar to many children and parents of that generation: a child being spanked for speaking Spanish in school. I am from that generation, and because I entered school with little knowledge of English, I knew that the punishment was real. In Crystal City the girls who were spanked by the teacher or principal had to raise their skirts for the spanking.
Crystal City students struggled to succeed academically because many left midway through the spring semester to join their families on the migrant trail. The school made no efforts to adjust academic programs
to accommodate migrant students. After the play, Lozano asked those attending to share memories and give comments about the production. One of the Crystal City attendees reminded the audience of the many states that migrant families visited picking the crops in order to earn money. Scenes in the play show children as they joined their parents in the fields working all day, often on their knees.
The play takes us back to a time when Mexican Americans in South Texas were rare members of local school boards and rarely held local political offices. Mexican Americans constituted 87 percent of the Crystal City student body in 1968, but only two of the seven members of the school board were Latinos. Former San Antonio Express News writer Carlos Guerra, recalled in a 1975 essay that in South Texas “voting for school board members required a poll tax, but many Latino classmates were too poor to afford lunch or a change of clothes.” Guerra reported that he found “constant reminders of racial inequality in junior high and high school and endured social ridicule.” In the play, a young Latina dreams of becoming a doctor but is discouraged by a school counselor from even thinking of pursuing higher education.
When Crystal City student leaders went before the school board in December 1969 to voice their grievances, they were given little opportunity to speak. The students decided at that point to walk out. Within days, the aggrieved Crystal City High School student leaders met with Latino college students from San Antonio who were members of the newly formed MAYO led by Jose Angel
Gutierrez, a graduate of Crystal City High School, and Mario Compean, a classmate of Gutierrez at St. Mary’s University. In the week following the failed board meeting and the arrival of MAYO leaders, the student participation in the boycott reached 2,000. David Lozano found a very talented actor, Eddie Zertuche, to play Gutierrez.
In a moving scene in the play three students from Crystal City are invited to Washington, D.C. by United States Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas to discuss their grievances and issues at their schools. While there, students met with Senators Edward Kennedy and George McGovern who notified the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare [HEW] of the seriousness of the Crystal City situation. Lozano also included a scene in the play showing the volunteer teachers who went to Crystal City to tutor the striking students.
The play resonated with many in the audience who had attended Mexican American schools in the 1960s when high school girls were told to learn typing and home-making and boys were encouraged to enroll in shop classes. Herlinda Sifuentes attended the Friday matinee performance, and I spoke with her after the play. She was one of the leaders of the Edgewood High School walk out in May of 1968, a year before students walked out of the Crystal City schools.
In 2019 Suzanne Gamboa, a national reporter for NBC News, interviewed some of the Edgewood students who participated in the student walkout of 1968. She wrote, “The student council had begun demanding better supplies such as electric typewriters, building repairs, an overhaul of the curriculum to include Mexican American culture and history, and other changes.”
Edgewood School officials reluctantly met with students on three occasions, but negotiations failed. Gamboa wrote that after a failure to negotiate, “ the students staged their walkout on the morning of May 16,
1968, with about 3,000 students leaving classes and hundreds marching to the school district’s offices.”
The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center should be commended for collaborating with the UT Austin Center for Mexican American Studies to bring the play Crystal
City 1969 to San Antonio. The Guadalupe Theater is located three blocks from Lanier High School, home of the proud Volks. I grew up a few blocks from Lanier, and I know the neighborhood well. Lanier students threatened a walk out in 1968. The school boycott was avoided only through the efforts of Westside community leaders and Texas Senator Joe Bernal. Senator Bernal, a graduate of Lanier High School, successfully led the passage of the Texas Bilingual Education and Training Act in 1973 which offered bilingual education to students learning English.
The Crystal City walkout was a catalyst for social and political change in many South Texas towns. MAYO and newly created voter registration organizations, such as the Southwest Voter Registration Project led by former MAYO co-founder Willie Velazquez, helped South Texas residents elect Latino school board members, city council delegates, and mayors. The Crystal City 1969 play reminds us that the struggle for justice, dignity, and fairness for underrepresented students and their families requires people-power, well-thought-out strategies, and strong leadership. The process for political and social change isseldom easy, but success can lead to a more democratic community.