Social justice advocates reconnect in Portales

Tony Parra: PNT Staff Writer

They fought for social justice. Decades later, they’re telling their stories so Portales won’t forget.

Longtime Portales resident Dolores Penrod, a member of the Democratic Women of Roosevelt County and Voices of Democracy, helped organize “The Struggle for Social Justice in Roosevelt County” last Sunday at the Memorial Building.

Some of those who attended volunteered and worked at Portales’ Community Services Center, which provides programing and assistance to those in poverty. October is the 40-year anniversary of the opening of the center. Penrod said she was the executive director for the CSC for 35 years.

More than 100 people reminisced about Portales history and spoke out Sunday against the treatment of some minority Portales residents during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“It was all of us working together that got the job done,” Penrod said. “We were called insurgents and rabble-rousers, names we should bear quite proudly. That’s what we were known as. We’re here to tell the story of the events that happened.”

Penrod recalled how one resident spoke out against the Portales public schools when she learned her son would be spanked for speaking Spanish on the junior high school playground.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Santa Fe stepped up to help Isabel Gonzales’ family, Penrod said.

The boy was suspended from school, but he was not spanked and eventually received attendance credit despite the suspension, Penrod said.

Bob Wood, a Portales school district board member during that early 1970s era, said a lot has changed in the community since those days of racial strife. He gave two examples: the Headstart program and bilingual education.
The federally funded Headstart program opened in Portales in 1965 with the help of the Portales school officials and has become an opportunity for low-income pre-kindergarten students to get a head start on their education, according to school officials.

In May of 1970, New Mexico’s attorney general said bilingual teaching was not required in public schools. That’s when parents of Judy Serna, and other Spanish-surnamed students, joined together in a lawsuit against the Portales Municipal Schools.

The plaintiffs charged that the school district failed to provide bilingual-bicultural education and failed to hire teachers of Mexican-American origin who could meet the needs of the non-English speaking students, according to the Yale education Web site:

The court agreed with the plaintiffs and found that Spanish-surnamed children were in fact being denied equal educational opportunity because they didn’t offer bilingual education.

The court, in deciding for Serna, directed Portales Municipal School District to implement bilingual education, according to the Yale Education Web site.

Frank Sanchez, a former Eastern New Mexico University student who stood up at Portales School Board meetings in the early 1970s to question the lack of bilingual education in the local schools, said administrators told him they couldn’t find any Hispanic teachers to teach Spanish prior to the Serna lawsuit.

“When courts ruled in favor of Serna, all of a sudden they found nine teachers who could teach Spanish,” Sanchez said.

Wood said the state was just starting to implement bilingual education when the lawsuit was filed.

Whatever the case, Portales schools superintendent Randy Fowler said the school district on Thursday went through an audit from Bilingual and Multicultural Education officials from the New Mexico Public Education Department and he was “very pleased with their comments.”

“They like Trina (Valdez’s) vision for our bilingual education program,” he said.

Valdez is director of federal programs for the Portales School District.

Fowler, in his first year as superintendent of Portales schools, said today’s educators have a different attitude about diversity than many did three and four decades ago.
The ability to speak Spanish is now seen as a strength. He said this is a reflection of society.

“There were some Hispanic families who didn’t want their children speaking Spanish (in the 1960s and 1970s) because they believed they would fall behind other students (in learning English),” Fowler said.

“People (today) value knowing the language. It’s not threatening to people. It’s more of a global view.”

Valdez said studies have shown that knowing more than one language improves critical thinking abilities.

Valdez was one of the first bilingual teachers in the Portales school district and started out as a second-grade teacher at Lindsey Elementary.