Mexican Americans and Education

By: Guadalupe San Miguel

Type: Overview Entry

Published: December 1, 1995

Updated: April 8, 2020

The roots of contemporary Tejano education can be found in the Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo settlement of Texas. During the first 300 years of Spanish Texas, informal learning was the norm. Formal learning (schooling) for Tejanos did not emerge until the late nineteenth century to meet the needs of the Texas- Mexican population for literacy and socialization. From 1540 to 1836 the diverse population called Tejanos (indigenous groups, Spaniards, and mestizos and other racially mixed groups) acquired basic literacy skills, knowledge, and behavior patterns necessary for adult life in three Spanish frontier institutions-missions, towns, and presidios (forts). The primary purpose of these institutions was to settle, civilize, and control the Indian population. The missions, notes one historian, were "a school of civilization." At the first San Antonio mission, founded in 1718, missionaries taught Indian children and adults Catholic religious and moral values, Spanish custom and law, and the domestic arts. The Indians also learned the Spanish language, how to play musical instruments and sing, and dress with "decency." Missionaries also taught family living, stockraising, crop raising, church building and furniture making. In the settlements, and to a lesser degree in the presidios, Spaniards looked to the family and the community to teach non-Indian youth sex roles, social values, and economic skills. People also learned from textbooks, folklore, oral history, drama, and traveling puppet shows. Learning in formal settings was rare. For a formal education, the Spanish elite sent their children to schools in Mexico or Spain. By the 1790s Spanish central and provincial governments made moves toward formal instruction. Declining church influence and pressure from settlers encouraged the trend. In 1793 the king of Spain mandated that public schools be established in the colonies, partly to improve literacy among presidial soldiers. But nothing was done in Texas. In 1802 Texas governor Juan Bautista Elguezabal ordered compulsory school attendance for children to age twelve, but the order could not be enforced. At the end of Spanish rule, there was no educational system in Texas.

In Mexican Texas, 1821–36, the government prodded local authorities to start public schools and offered financial assistance. In 1827, for instance, the state of Coahuila and Texas approved a constitution that required all municipalities to open primary schools. Between 1828 and 1833 state officials issued decrees to encourage local authorities (the ayuntamiento) to set up schools. These officials, however, faced the obstacles of individual and municipal poverty, lack of teachers, and little interest in educating "ordinary" folks. In 1833, Coahuila-Texas even tendered land grants to support schools, but political unrest in central Mexico ended these efforts. In Texas religious leaders and private individuals also were interested in schools. Early Anglo settlers established some private schools, but most of the population did not consider formal education a priority.

From 1836 to 1900 private individuals, the Catholic Church, Protestant groups, and public officials all regarded schools as critical to preserving the social order. They saw them not only as ways to increase literacy, but also as vehicles to perpetuate existing class, sex, and ethnic roles. During the late nineteenth century, public officials organized the first regular school systems. Unlike religious groups or private individuals, they sought to reach and enroll all school-age children. However, as these schools were started, Tejanos encountered racial discrimination, ideological differences, and political tensions based on conflicts of heterogeneous values and differential power relations. By the end of the century two distinct school patterns had emerged. During early statehood, Mexican children had no access to public schools. However, by the 1880s they increasingly had access to rural schools, and in the 1890s Mexican working-class children in urban areas were admitted to city schools. In both cases access was limited to segregated classes in the elementary grades. No secondary or postsecondary facilities were available to them. Only the children of wealthy families attended colleges and universities. The decision to segregate elementary schools in Texas was due to racial prejudice, residential location, and lack of a Mexican-American voice in school affairs. Public education in Texas, as elsewhere in the nation, increasingly promoted the Anglo heritage over the Mexican heritage. This policy reflected pan-Protestantism, values, and core British values. Assimilationist policy included English-only laws, efforts to eliminate "sectarianism" in the schools, and a standardized curriculum. These policies excluded Mexican culture, community, Catholicism, and the Spanish language from the schools. Texas Mexicans responded in various ways. Some ignored these discriminatory policies; others adapted. Some demanded more inclusive and sensitive schools. During the first half of the twentieth century, Tejanos attended parochial, Protestant, and private secular schools, but a majority went to public schools. Both industry and the Tejano community insisted that public schools be the dominant form of education. During these years there were changes in the social, economic, and political life in America, but schools continued to perpetuate many of the inequalities in society. Unlike the nineteenth century, when they functioned primarily as cultural institutions, schools now became instruments of both economic and cultural reproduction.

In the twentieth century, the first problem that Tejanos faced concerned school access. In 1900 fewer than 18 percent of Mexican-American children between five and seventeen were enrolled in the public schools. By 1930 the number had increased to nearly 50 percent. Between 1942 and 1960 the enrollment of Mexican school-age children soared from 53 percent to 79 percent. By 1980 the number reached 91 percent. The percentage of Mexican-American children in school, however, generally trailed that of Anglos. In 1900 Mexican enrollment was 17.3 percent, while Anglo enrollment was 38.9 percent. In 1928 the figures were 49.0 percent and 83.0 percent. By 1942 Texas Mexican enrollment was 53 percent, while Anglo enrollment was 86.4 percent. During the 1960s Mexican-American children finally reached parity. Many Mexican students did not attend school because of poverty, rural employment patterns, and policy discrimination. Four groups, in particular, failed to enjoy full access to public education: agricultural migrants, secondary school students, postsecondary school students, and undocumented children. Some undocumented and postsecondary students found access to institutions of higher learning difficult in the 1990s.

Separate and unequal schools in Texas posed a problem. Segregation had originated earlier, but it expanded greatly between 1890 and 1980. In fact, by the 1940s more than 122 school districts in fifty-nine widely distributed counties had segregated schools for Mexican-American children. At first, segregation was confined to the elementary grades, because of the high withdrawal rates of Mexican children. When these children sought secondary schooling, officials established segregated facilities in these grades. Tejanos found Texas schools not only segregated, but also unequal. The buildings generally were older and dilapidated, recreation space was minimal and substandard, and school equipment was inadequate. Expenditures per pupil in the Hispanic schools were extremely low. The teaching staff lacked training, credentials, and experience. New teachers often were sent to Mexican schools to begin their careers. Another problem in Tejano education involved administration. Local administrators developed discriminatory measures, as reflected in assessment and placement practices and in the interaction among Mexican-American students, their peers, and the teaching staff. School officials consistently channeled Tejano children into low-track classes with similar working-class, immigrant, and racially different children. Some based their assessments of mental, emotional, and language abilities on biased tests and classified Tejanos as intellectually inferior, culturally backward, and linguistically deprived. The children were systematically placed in "developmentally appropriate" instructional groups or curricular tracks. At the elementary level, they were assigned to slow-learning or nonacademic classes. At the secondary level, they were put in vocational or general-education courses. These policies set the Tejano students apart and deprived them of opportunities to succeed.

Still another problem pertained to curriculum. Tejano children originally studied the three Rs and social skills, but sometime between 1880 and 1930 the school curriculum for Tejano children increasingly emphasized nonacademic concerns. At the elementary level, the curriculum shifted to the three Cs (common cultural norms, civics instruction, and command of English). At the secondary grades, the shift was to vocational and general education. Tejanos complained that their curriculum not only was academically imbalanced, but assimilationist. They pronounced it culturally partial towards Anglos, and cited their assigned textbooks, most of which omitted or distorted the Tejano cultural heritage. Linguistic intolerance was reflected in English-only policies. Inferior schooling and unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances caused lower test scores, higher withdrawal rates, and lower median number of school years than the general population received.

Nevertheless, a number of Tejanos made high achievement-test scores, graduated from high school, and undertook postsecondary education. The group included those who completed secondary school between 1917 and 1940 and those who completed postsecondary education during the 1960s and 1970s. This achievement occurred in spite of the fact that prior to the 1950s a majority of Tejano students dropped out between the third and sixth grades. The emergence of a professional and intellectual group has encouraged others. As the twentieth century draws to a close, Tejanos can view with pride the increasing number of Tejano college and university graduates and their expanded involvement in professional and public life. (see EDUCATION, CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT, BILINGUAL EDUCATION.)

Thomas P. Carter and Roberto D. Segura, Mexican Americans in School: A Decade of Change (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1979). Arnoldo De León, The Tejano Community, 1836–1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982). Frederick Eby, The Development of Education in Texas (New York: Macmillan, 1925). Gilbert G. Gonzalez, The Education of Mexican Children in the Era of de Jure Segregation (Philadelphia: Balch Institute Press, 1991). Herschel T. Manuel, The Education of Mexican and Spanish-Speaking Children in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1930). Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., "Let All of Them Take Heed": Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Sister Mary Stanislaus Van Well, The Educational Aspects of the Missions in the Southwest (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1942). Jose E. Vega, Education, Politics, and Bilingualism in Texas (Washington: University Press of America, 1983).

  • Education
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Guadalupe San Miguel, “Mexican Americans and Education,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995
April 8, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: