Hernández v. Texas was the brown Brown v. Board of Education. It was the first time that Mexican-American lawyers appeared before the United States Supreme Court, and their victory established a landmark in Mexican-American civil rights. Oral arguments were heard on January 28, 1954, a few days after NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall undermined the basis for segregated educational facilities for blacks and whites by explaining why separate is not equal. In each case, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the unanimous opinion in favor of the plaintiffs. However, although Brown is, like Dred Scott v. Sandford and Roe v. Wade, a judicial legend, Hernández v. Texas is famous only among legal scholars. A Class Apart, scheduled for broadcast at 8 p.m. Monday, February 23, as part of PBS’s American Experience series, sets out to rescue from undeserved obscurity a momentous episode in American jurisprudence.
Through resourceful use of archival footage and photos, filmmakers Peter Miller and Carlos Sandoval establish the context for the trial of Pete Hernández in 1950s Texas, where discrimination against Latinos was overt and rampant. Typical of Lone Star Jim Crow was a sign posted outside a business that read: “No dogs Negroes Mexicans.” A war hero, Felix Longoria, was denied a funeral in Three Rivers, Texas. When Gus García, a flamboyant San Antonio attorney, was asked to defend Pete Hernández, a migrant cotton picker, he thought he had the perfect vehicle for challenging the legacy of dispossession and oppression that was a consequence of the Mexican-American War 100 years earlier.
Hernández was unquestionably guilty, as charged, of shooting Joe Espinosa dead in a cantina in Edna, Texas, but the jury empaneled to try the case lacked any Mexican-Americans. In fact, no Mexican-American had served on a jury in Jackson County for more than 25 years. To García, this was a blatant denial of Hernández’s 14th Amendment right to be judged by a jury of his peers. At every stage of review, however, Texas courts ruled that since the jurors, like Hernández, were white, the trial was fair. The innovative argument that won over the nine justices of the Supreme Court was that, although Hispanics were legally white, they constituted a class apart and therefore required representation from that class in jury pools.
Narrated by Edward James Olmos, A Class Apart offers a gripping account of the stages of the legal battle. Interviews with relatives and associates of the principals as well as with scholars add depth to case law. García was an alcoholic who went on a bender hours before scheduled to argue before the Supreme Court. After co-counsel Carlos Cadena, who eventually became the first Latino to serve on a Texas Court of Appeals, threw him into a shower, García performed
A Class Apart had its first public screening on February 2 in San Antonio’s Museo Alameda. Present were many involved in the case or the film, including a niece of Pete Hernández. However, the plaintiff himself in the ground-breaking case of Hernández v. Texas remains a cipher throughout the film, an impersonal instrument for advancing civil rights. After the Supreme Court decision, Hernández was retried by a jury that included two Mexican Americans, found guilty, and sent to prison. Though it offers no insight into the accused, this cinematic study of Hernández v. Texas provides at least a valuable lesson about Texas. •