How 1960s Chicana Cheerleaders Led the Charge for Civil Rights In Texas

Photo: Getty Images.
More than 50 years ago, Chicana teenager Diana Palacios wanted to be part of the cheerleading team at her high school in Crystal City, Texas. Despite having the support of the squad, Palacios was denied. The reason: The school board only allowed one Mexican-American girl on the cheerleading team at a time, and that quota had already been met. 
In her fight to wave pom poms for Crystal City High School, Palacios and her comrades ended up igniting a little-known civil rights movement that melanated the school’s athletic department — and changed the state.
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At the time, the discriminatory rule was fairly new. Previously at Crystal City High School, the cheerleading squad was elected by the student body. However, when the city’s demographic changed — becoming 87% Mexican American — the rules shifted, too. By the spring of 1969, when Palacios put her name up for consideration, a mostly-white faculty committee decided who could be a cheerleader, and they determined that there could only be one Chicana on the four-member team — even though the school was overwhelmingly Latine. Even more, they constituted that every cheerleader needed to have at least one parent who graduated from a local high school as a way to further exclude non-whites.  

"In her fight to wave pom poms for Crystal City High School, Palacios and her comrades ended up igniting a little-known civil rights movement that melanated the school’s athletic department — and changed the state."

 Natalie Arroyo Camacho
The incident opened the students’ eyes to other inequalities within their school. For instance, at an institution that was largely made up of Mexican-American youth, five of the seven school board members were white, 75% of the teachers were white, and there wasn’t bilingual education available for Spanish-speakers. 
Angered by the rules that were clearly implemented to discriminate against Chicana students, fellow student Severita Lara began to push back. She started by making a list of 13 demands. Among the commands: hiring more Mexican-American teachers and counselors, instituting bilingual and bicultural education, adding Mexican-American studies classes, improving testing programs, reducing the size of classes, and ensuring equal opportunity in student activities.
Fueled by the injustice, she and fellow Chicano students at Crystal City High School, like Mario Treviño and Diana Serna Aguilera, took the demands to the office of then-superintendent John Billings in the spring of 1969. During the meeting, Billings ignored most of the students’ asks and, instead, offered to make three slots on the cheerleading squad available to white students and three slots for Mexican-American students as well as look into the benefits of bicultural education. But even this was short-lived. By summer, parents of the school’s white students protested the changes, and the concessions were overturned that June. 
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"The incident opened the students’ eyes to other inequalities within their school."

 NATALIE ARROYO CAMACHO
Adding insult to injury, the school board also decreed that the homecoming queen must have at least one parent who graduated from a local high school. Lara knew this was another attempt at keeping Chicanos from a rewarding student life, so she voiced her concern. In response, the school suspended her.
Upon her return from suspension, Lara had become even fiercer in her fight. With the mentorship of José Ángel Gutiérrez, an alumnus of Crystal City High School and a member of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), Treviño, Serna Aguilera, and Lara worked to expand the list of demands to 18. It now included free speech protections and called for 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 those orders to a school board meeting. When the meeting began, Lara handed out flyers outlining the students’ requests. Vexed, former school board president Ed Mayer motioned for adjournment, at which point the entire board walked out. Determined to be heard one way or another, Lara finished by calling for a walkout. According to the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a program by Swarthmore College, 500 students walked out that day and began a student boycott.

"The young crusaders had the support of their community."

 NATALIE ARROYO CAMACHO
Five days after the walkout, student leaders and MAYO hosted a rally for the Chicano community. They called out the Texas Education Agency and policymakers in Washington D.C. With more than 2,000 student participants, the federal government finally 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 Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to head an investigation.
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Their efforts were a success. The boycott officially ended on January 6, 1970 when the Crystal City school board accepted most of the students’ terms. While the activists weren’t able to get an all-Chicano advisory board, the comittee did begin to reflect the student body. That year, the board was made up of eight Chicanos and two white members. 

"Crystal City is a necessary reminder of the power of young people and especially Latina youth."

 NATALIE ARROYO CAMACHO
And with bicultural and bilingual education from staff that reflected the students and encouraged them, performance at the high school improved as well: 170 students who had dropped out returned to school and more students were graduating than before. 
At a time when K-12 education is regularly in the news for banning literature by Black and Latine authors and disciplining students of color more often and more harshly, Crystal City is a necessary reminder of the power of young people and especially Latina youth. Five decades since the Crystal City Walkout of 1969, it is recognized as a catalyst for the Chicano civil rights movement in Texas — and it all started with cheerleaders. 

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