Review Essay – The Arc of Triumph and the Agony of Defeat: Mexican Americans and the Law

Journal of Legal Education, Forthcoming

U of Houston Law Center No. 2010-A-18

14 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2010

Date Written: August 13, 2010


This review essay examines four recent full length books: Richard R. Valencia, Chicano Students and the Courts: The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality (New York: New York: NYU Press, 2008); Philippa Strum, Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (Lawrence: Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010); Ignacio M. Garcia, White But Not Equal: Mexican Americans, Jury Discrimination, and the Supreme Court (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008); and Cynthia E. Orozco, No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

The small numbers but persistent growth of Mexican American researchers, combined with improved access to important archival materials and increased collaborative projects, and the rich territory yet-to-be-explored have led to these and other important books about an understudied and fascinating topic: the litigation for Mexican American educational and civil rights following WWI and WWII. Indeed, some of the work has reached back even farther, discovering obscure cases and small case studies, all of which give lie to the suggestion that persons of Mexican origin are fatalistic, unambitious, and docile. One of many examples included the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. But more recent works, including these four under review and others, should definitively put to rest the allegation that persons in Mexico afuera – Mexican origin persons in the United States – have simply accepted their fate. Although each of these texts examines different corners of the larger tapestry and uses different yarn to stitch, they reveal a stunning portrait of resistance and opposition, particularly in the areas of education, criminal justice, and civil rights. While the work of Valencia, Garcia, Orozco, and Strum draw upon different historical sources and examine different domains, they share an overarching theme: although not well-known or documented in the larger literatures, Mexican Americans following WWI and especially after WWII were better organized and, occasionally, more successful in resisting social marginalization and racial oppression than is generally appreciated. In addition, this history is not featured in the general scholarly discourse of our nation, forming an eerily-evident parallel with the present, when nativism and restrictionist discourse have reached dangerous levels of anti-Mexican sentiment. Given the clearly-documented and lamentable educational achievement of Mexican Americans in 2010, and the longstanding roots of this phenomenon, this long history of resistance will likely come as a surprise to many readers.

Keywords: Mexican Americans, civil rights, legal history, immigration, education, desegregation

Suggested Citation

Olivas, Michael A., Review Essay – The Arc of Triumph and the Agony of Defeat: Mexican Americans and the Law (August 13, 2010). Journal of Legal Education, Forthcoming, U of Houston Law Center No. 2010-A-18, Available at SSRN:

Michael A. Olivas (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

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