How 1960s Chicana cheerleaders led the charge for civil rights in Texas

More than 50 years ago, Chicana teenager Diana Palacios wanted to be part of the high school cheerleading team in Crystal City, Texas. Despite the team’s support, Palacios was denied. The reason: the school board allowed only one Mexican-American girl on the cheerleading squad at a time, and that quota was already filled.

In their struggle to wave pom poms for Crystal City High School, Palacios and her peers ignited a little-known civil rights movement that saddened the school’s athletic department — and changed the state.

At the time, the discriminatory rule was quite new. In the past, at Crystal City High School, the cheerleading squad was chosen by the student body. But as the city’s demographics changed—87% became Mexican American—so did the rules. By the spring of 1969, when Palacios put her name up for consideration, a mostly white faculty committee had decided who could be a cheerleader and decided that only one Chicana could be on a team of four — even though the school was predominantly Latino. Furthermore, they found that each cheerleader must have at least one parent who graduated from the local high school to further exclude non-whites.

“Waving pom poms in battle at Crystal City High School, Palacios and his cohorts ignited a little-known civil rights movement that saddened the school’s athletic department and changed the country.”

The incident opened students’ eyes to other inequities at their school. For example, in an institution composed largely of Mexican-American youth, five of the seven school board members were white, 75% of the teachers were white, and there was no bilingual education for Spanish speakers.

Angered by the rules, which were clearly implemented to discriminate against Chicana students, fellow student Severita Lara began pushing back. He started by making a list of 13 requirements. Among the orders: hiring more Mexican-American teachers and counselors, creating bilingual and bicultural education, adding Mexican-American classes, improving testing programs, reducing class sizes and ensuring equal opportunity in student activities.

Fueled by injustice, he and other Chicano students at Crystal City High School, such as Mario Treviño and Diana Serna Aguilera, took their demands to the office of then-Superintendent John Billings in the spring of 1969. During the meeting, Billings ignored most of the students’ questions and instead offered three spots on the cheerleading squad for white students and three spots for Mexican-American students and explored the benefits of bicultural education. But even that was short-lived. By summer, parents of the school’s white students protested the changes, and in June the concessions were reversed.

“The incident opened students’ eyes to other inequities at their school.”

Adding insult to injury, the school board also decided that the homecoming queen must have at least one parent who graduated from a local high school. Lara knew this was another attempt to keep Chicanos away from a fulfilling student life, so she voiced her concerns. In response, the school suspended him.

After returning from her suspension, Lara had become even more fierce in combat. Under the guidance of Crystal City High School alumnus and Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) member José Ángel Gutiérrez, Treviño, Serna Aguilera and Lara worked to expand the list of demands to 18. It now included freedom of speech. protections and demanded Chicano representation on the school board.

By winter, the young crusaders had the support of their community. On December 8, 1969, more than 100 Mexican-American students and their parents took these orders to a school board meeting. When the meeting started, Lara handed out flyers for the students’ wishes. An outraged former school board president, Ed Mayer, made a motion to adjourn, after which the entire board walked out. Deciding to eavesdrop one way or another, Lara finally called out. According to Swarthmore College’s Global Nonviolent Action Database program, 500 students walked out that day and began a student boycott.

“The Young Crusaders had the support of their community.”

Five days after the expulsion, student leaders and MAYO organized a Chicano community demonstration. They called out the Texas Education Agency and policymakers in Washington. With more than 2,000 students in attendance, the federal government eventually took notice and invited Lara, Serna Aguilera and Treviño to meet with former Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough to talk about discrimination at Crystal City High. School. There, the students also met with then-Senators Edward Kennedy and George McGovern, who asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to lead the investigation.

Their efforts were successful. The boycott officially ended on January 6, 1970, when the Crystal City School Board agreed to the terms of most of the students. Although the activists failed to obtain an all-Chicano advisory board, the committee began to reflect the student body. That year, the board consisted of eight Chicano and two white members.

“Crystal City is a necessary reminder of the power of youth, and Latina youth in particular.”

And with bicultural and bilingual education by staff that reflects and encourages students, high school results also improved: 170 dropouts returned to school and more graduated than before.

At a time when K-12 education is regularly in the news for banning literature by black and Latinx authors and disciplining students of color more often and more harshly, Crystal City is a necessary reminder of the power of youth, and Latino youth in particular. In the five decades since the 1969 Crystal City Walkout, it’s been recognized as the catalyst for the Chicano civil rights movement in Texas — and it all started with cheerleaders.

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