Hernandez Vs. Texas

Neither mundane nor pointless, but nothing to debate, either.

Learned about this case today (Wikipedia link) and frankly I was shocked that it isn’t taught in schools. I had never heard of it and I was with some pretty intelligent and well-read people who had never heard of it, either.

The story goes something like,

A Mexican-American (Jose “Joe” Espinosa) makes fun of another Mexican-American (Pedro “Pete” Hernandez) for being crippled. Pete goes home, gets a rifle, and comes back and shoots poor old Joe in the heart. When the trial comes, Pete’s lawyers don’t seem too interested in getting him off (he was clearly guilty), but they want to get him a trial by his peers, and a Mexican hadn’t served on a jury in that district in over 25 years. There were over 70 Texas counties at the time that had never had a hispanic person on a jury. This is where it gets tricky.

I don’t pretend to know the intimate details, but basically, Mexicans who lived in the areas that became part of America after the Mexican/American war were given US citizenship and declared “white” under the law at the same time, for some reason. While this would seem to be a benefit, it turned out to be a double-edged sword. Texas could legally argue that 12 white men were a jury of a chicano’s peers, but when that chicano went to take a piss during recess, he had to go to the outhouse, instead of the indoor “No Mexicans or Negroes” restroom.

Two lawyers named Gus Garcia and Carlos Cadena unsuccessfully argued the unconstitutionality of this in Texas, but were successful in getting the Supreme Court of the United States to hear their case. When they approached the nine and started talking about Mexican-Americans, one of the justices stopped them and asked what a Mexican-American was, if they spoke English, and if they were citizens. Mr. Garcia boldly replied, “my people were in Texas a hundred years before Sam Houston, that wetback from Tennessee.” When the red light came on that meant he must stop talking, Garcia immediately stopped himself in mid sentence. Chief Justice Earl Warren then told him to continue, and he did - for 16 minutes. This was unprecedented.

Garcia and Cadena won their case in a unanimous decision, and Pete Hernandez was later re-tried (and convicted) by a jury of his peers.

The case was decided two weeks before Brown Vs. the Board of Education.

Ahh…somebody else was watching PBS last night too. It was the first time that I had ever heard about it. I thought that it was interesting to know about a movement in civil rights parallel to the one commonly brought to mind.

I don’t get it. Brown gets its own movie starring Sidney Portier, is taught in every public school in the country, and has anniversary celebrations, but this case can’t even get 2 replies on the SDMB. It seems like it was just as important, to me.

I saw the show too. I liked the bit about the wetback from Tennessee. Hispanics were in my home state of New Mexico before even the wetbacks on the Mayflower came over.

I have lived in Texas my whole life and have never heard this story until just now. Amazing.

Oo, interesting double-edged sword there. And thanks for the reminder to check out PBS again, too.

Interesting case. I’d never heard of it. I just pulled it up and read the decision, and I do have a couple of theories as to why it isn’t famous or commonly taught.

First, the decision is based on equal protection grounds, and, as you note, it was decided before Brown. Brown completely turned equal protection jurisprudence on its head, and rendered most prior law in the area obsolete. Hernandez was limited to the holding that “Mexican-American” counts as a protected class.

Second, the fact that non-blacks could be a protected racial class was much older than Hernandez. See Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886) (finding that Chinese-Americans fell into a protected class). See also Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880) (noting that laws directed at “all naturalized Celtic Irishmen” would fall within “the spirit of the [Fourteenth] amendment”) (dictum).

Third, the opinion itself is relatively short, and not terribly quotable. It’s about eight pages in the reporter. Of course, this by itself shouldn’t keep it from being famous (Brown was the same length), but it doesn’t help.

Interesting, Randy. And probably largely correct. I would like to point out that there aren’t 28 million Chinese-Americans living with us, and we don’t share a border with China. You’d think this case would at least be well-know in the southwest, or Texas even, but it’s not.

Why wasn’t Hernandez won just by citing Yick Wo v. Hopkins and/or Strauder v. WV?

shrug We learned about this in one of my political science classes in college.

Have you read about Mendez v Westminster? Also a very interesting case.

Prior law had held that non-blacks could fall into a protected class on the basis of race. To my knowledge, no prior case had held that Mexican-Americans did. Also, the decision in this case is pretty narrow. Chief Justice Warren basically says it only applies to jury selection. Here’s the last paragraph: