In front of the Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School, in the quiet town of Tolleson, Arizona, a small monument stands in red brick and tells a history of discrimination and school segregation.

That past involves Mexican students — sons and daughters of immigrant laborers — who in the 1950s were separated in schools from White children because of their language and skin color. 

What’s inscribed on the monument is a reminder of a Mexican teenager and Mexican parents who fought back and spoke up for an end to racism and educational inequity for Latino children.

Etched in white lettering against smooth, dark slate are four words: “A Legacy of Courage”

“In 1949, a young, defiant voice cried out against an unjust policy, sowing a seed of courage among many to stand as one against an unlawful act of discrimination. Their only grievance was to be treated equal under the law.”

That voice came from a high school student named Johnny Camacho, who joined three Latina women from the community, to take their demands to the Tolleson school board and superintendent.

A sign in front of the school now named Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School reads: “In 1950, parents filed suit against the Tolleson Elementary School Board of Trustees (Gonzales et al,. v. Sheely, et al.). On March 26, 1951, the United States District Court of Arizona ordered the Tolleson Elementary School District to desegregate. Our community is indebted to the individuals who fought heroically to ensure the principles of equality guaranteed under our constitution. This memorial is dedicated to all the brave individuals that fought with great courage and humility to bring an end to the segregation of the Tolleson Elementary Schools. They believed in the spirit of the United States Constitution, that all children will be afforded the right to a truly equal education. Their legacy is a firm reminder that the fight for social justice continues.” Credit: Beatriz Limón

They were told Mexican students who did not speak English had a “language handicap” and could not attend school with White students, as documented in an article on racism and segregation by education researchers Jeanne M. Powers and Lirio Patton. When their pleas for equality were ignored, more Mexican parents in Tolleson took a stance and the community wrote a letter appealing to Sen. Carl Hayden.

Then they took their desegregation demands to court.

In 1950, Profirio Gonzales and Faustino Curiel filed a class-action lawsuit against Tolleson Elementary School District’s board and superintendent. They sued on behalf of their own children, Gloria and Mary Ellen Gonzales and Faustino, Jr. and Dora Curiel, and “some 300 other persons of Mexican and Latin descent and extraction, all citizens of the United States of America, residing within said district,” according to court records.

In his 1951 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge David Ling laid out the findings of fact in black and white. School officials were systematically separating Mexican children from White children in Tolleson schools:

“That all children of persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction, though citizens of the United States of America, shall be, have been and now are excluded from attending, using, enjoying and receiving the benefits of the education, health and recreation facilities of certain schools within their district and system. That said children of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction are now and have been segregated and required to and must attend and use that certain school in said district and system, reserved for and attended solely and exclusively by children and persons of Mexican or Latin descent or extraction, while other schools are maintained, attended and used exclusively by and for the persons and children purportedly known as white or Anglo-Saxon children.”

Ling heard the Arizona case three years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

The experiences of Mexican children living and going to school in Tolleson in the 1950s doesn’t feel distant for Lupita Hightower. She remembers being a migrant girl from Nogales, Sonora, arriving in Arizona with her family in 1984. Lupita didn’t speak English and faced marginalization because she was Mexican.

Thirty-eight years later, on a scorching August day, Lupita is standing in front of the Tolleson district office. She’s dressed in a gray blazer and talking about the red brick monument for the Mexican high school student and the Latino parents who united for educational equality. And against an “illegal act of discrimination,” she says.

When she walks around campus teachers and students call her “Dr. Hightower.” At Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School, Lupita’s the superintendent leading Tolleson Elementary School District.

She thinks about the young immigrant girl with long black hair who arrived in the United States struggling to speak English and knowing: I want to be a teacher when I grow up.

“I arrived in Nogales, Arizona in seventh grade and it was very hard because all the classes were in English,” she says. “I felt dumb because of the language, even though I had very good grades in Mexico.”

Once, she heard a teacher call them, “lazy Mexican kids.”

Dr. Lupita Hightower leads the Tolleson Elementary School District. Credit: Beatriz Limon

Lupita didn’t just face learning a new language, a second language. She had to fight for her accent to be accepted. 

When she was studying for an education degree at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a teacher wrote a note in her evaluation sheet.

Those words stuck: “I doubt that you’ll ever step foot in a classroom because when you speak, you do so with an accent.”

Lupita had a 98% grade in the class. 

“When I read that note I felt very bad, I started crying. Can you imagine! It was the dream I had since I was a girl to be a teacher,” she says.

Lupita didn’t want anyone to stop her. She defended her accent. And she successfully finished her degree. But on her first job interview, she found the same rejection.

She went to the Deer Valley School District to apply for a teaching job opportunity.

Sitting in a large conference room, where teachers and staff had their eyes fixed on her, she says the principal said, “We don’t need people like you in this district.”

Lupita dried tears, and remembered the hard path she walked to be Dr. Hightower, superintendent of an Arizona school district that once segregated children who spoke like her, who looked like her. 

“A lot of courage is required and help from people who believe in you to keep moving forward,” she says. 

“Count on Us” campaign

In September, Lupita was one of the leaders featured in the “Count on Us” campaign, which UnidosUS (originally known as the National Council of La Raza) recently launched in Phoenix to raise awareness of the many Latino/a/x people who have bolstered the U.S. economy and culture for generations. 

Recognized locally and nationally, Lupita earned the 2019 Arizona School Superintendent of the Year Award. She was named National Latinx Superintendent of the Year by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. She’s also a Cox Communications Hispanic Heritage Awardee.

Janet Murguía, president and executive director of UnidosUS, said more must be done to combat inaccurate stereotypes that stoke racism and discrimination against Latinos in the United States.

Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS during the launch of the “Count on Us” campaign in Phoenix.

“We did surveys and we realized that not everyone in the state of Arizona and in the country recognizes the contributions of Latinos — they don’t know about the barriers we face,” Murguía said. “Sometimes we see false narratives that have been used to talk about our community and this has to change.”

A national study conducted by UnidosUs shows that the majority of residents in the U.S. are not aware of the “unjust” obstacles that immigrants and Latinos endure.

“We have contributed to the economy and the culture of this country,” Murguía said.

The purpose of the campaign is to “open eyes,” so more citizens and leaders support equality — leading to better access to jobs, education, homes and fair medical care. 

The campaign was launched to celebrate Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month and spotlight people making a difference.

Latino-owned businesses employ more than 1 million Arizonans, but many Latinos face barriers that impact their financial security, access to bank loans and financial assistance, as well as affordable homes, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration compiled by UnidosUs.

More than 70% of essential workers in healthcare, emergency services and other public health areas are Latino, but many still have no access to health insurance. 

Latino immigrants pay more than $2.4 billion annually in state taxes, according to data from the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But many schools don’t address the needs of Latino students, like dual-language learning options. 

Murguía said UnidosUS has prioritized education policy in Arizona to get more resources flowing to underserved Latino students, including working with organizations to advocate for policies serving children who are still learning English and programs that help schools measure every student’s progress

“We have to stop with this discrimination that turns into obstacles that we find in our community,” she said. “While we have been impacted by those barriers, we have to unite to know how to stand out and destroy the obstacles.”

Several community leaders spoke about equality and leadership for Latinos in Arizona. 

“The Count on Us campaign is a rallying cry to strengthen our economy by working together,” said Monica Villalobos, president and CEO of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

She also said education is a fundamental pillar to achieve access to better work opportunities and key positions for the new generation of Latino/a/x people in Arizona. 

“We have to invest in schools, we have to think about the new generations,” Villalobos said.

Brenda and Lina graduated with honors from University Tolleson High School, here they celebrate with their parents, Lourdes Arzate and Alfredo Peralta. Credit: Cortesia Lourdes Arzate

Through education, immigrants create change

Through educational opportunities, Jorge Alfredo Peralta and his familia overcame the challenges faced by Latinos who immigrate to the U.S. and face discrimination.

In a year, he will finish his electrical engineering degree at Arizona State University. He is currently the vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers

One of his sisters Brenda Peralta is a junior Business Language and Culture major at ASU. She is the president of the Hispanic Business Student Association.

Brenda’s twin sister, Lina Peralta, studies nursing with a minor in Spanish. Her high GPA in high school earned her a national Hispanic Scholar award and a full-ride tuition scholarship at ASU. 

Their parents, Lourdes Arzate and Alfredo Peralta, immigrated to Arizona in 2007 to work for a better future for their children. The three Peralta children faced racism and discrimination for being Mexican and not speaking English. They begged their parents for the life they had in Mexicali. 

“It was frustrating for the kids,” Lourdes says. “My son Jorge, who is now 21, one day threw the books across the room. Frustrated by the language he said, ‘Mom, I don’t see the point of us being here.'”

Latino students make up almost half of the 1.1 million K-12 students in Arizona. Of the 39,626 students who enter high school only 29,725 graduated, according to graduation rates among Latinx students in 2020.

Only 6,472 Latino students enroll in a university and of those, only 3,471 finish their professional studies, according to data from MAPA, The State Of Arizona Latinos Education, Power and Influence. That report advocated for more support for students who do not finish high school or college.

Lourdes and Alfredo’s children are among the 12% of Latino students from Arizona public high schools who complete a 4-year degree, compared with 29% of White students, according to the latest report from the Arizona Board of Regents.

Latino students continue to face inequalities in education. Schools with 90% or more students of color spend $733 less per pupil annually when compared with schools where 90% or more of its student body is White, according to U.S. Department of Education data compiled by UnidosUS

The Tolleson Elementary School District, where Lourdes and Alfredo’s children went to school, has 2,700 students, who are 82% Latino. Lupita says she recognizes the importance of having a diverse team of teachers who reflect the students they are teaching so children can see leaders who look like them.

Lourdes says that when they arrived in Phoenix, when Jorge was 7 and the twins, Brenda and Lina, 6, they needed help with homework. The instructions were in English. 

“At home we would try to figure out the homework with a dictionary at hand,” she says.

“In high school they were given the foundation to accomplish university work,” Lourdes says. “And thanks to the Obama Scholars award that Jorge and Brenda earned, and the national Hispanic Scholar scholarship that Lina won, on top of other private scholarships, they have been able to continue their studies.”

One change made the difference that many immigrants never experience.

The Peralta Arzate family had the opportunity to adjust their immigration status in the U.S. That made it easier for their children to attain their education, as students without legal immigration status do not qualify for in-state tuition nor federal loans

“Thanks to the scholarships and their education they can have careers,” Lourdes says. “Believe me, there’s no money that can equal the reward of having three children with university degrees.”

A fight for educational equity

Jorge Alfredo, Brenda and Lina all graduated from the Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School.

They know that long before they had the opportunity to learn in a school that stands for educational equity, a group of Mexican parents and students in Tolleson had to fight for desegregation.

In 2011, just when Lupita was about to start leading the Tolleson Elementary School District as superintendent, the community rallied to place the small monument honoring the Mexican civil rights advocates in front of the Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School.

Sitting in her district office, Lupita shares the story of the school with the legacy of courage and the teenager named Johnny Camacho, who demanded that Mexican kids in Tolleson learn alongside, and have the same opportunities and resources, as White kids. It’s a story she’s told before, and will keep telling, to remind her students and other school and state officials of the role Mexicans in Arizona played as leaders in the U.S. civil rights movement.

“In 1949, there was a student who went to the superintendent and said that it wasn’t fair that there was a separate school for Mexican children,” Lupita says. “The superintendent answered that they weren’t equal.”

Mexican parents found no support, she says, for school integration from members of the Tolleson district governing board chaired by Ross L. Sheely at the time. 

“Because of this rejection, Porfirio Gonzales signed a (legal) complaint, since Johnny was a minor. That’s why the school bears his name,” Lupita says.

In 1951, two years after Mexicans in Tolleson began their fight for educational equality, Ling, the federal judge, issued his ruling on segregation.

National educational scholars cite the Gonzales v. Sheely lawsuit in Arizona as a groundbreaking legal standing that reinforced the civil-rights fight in U.S. courts and moved the country closer to ending racist segregation of children of color in American public schools.

“The respondents’ conduct of segregating public school children of Mexican descent or extraction is discriminatory and is illegal and is in violation of petitioners’ rights and privileges as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. That petitioners are entitled to equal accommodations, advantages and privileges in the Public Schools in the State of Arizona and to equal rights and treatment with other persons as citizens of the United States in the use and enjoyment of the facilities of said Public Schools, and to equal protection of the laws in their use and enjoyment of said Public School rights and privileges as provided and afforded to other persons at all times when the same are open and used by them.”

More than seven decades have passed since that historic lawsuit, and Lupita is still fighting to achieve educational equity in Arizona for all students.

“No exceptions,” she says.

Tolleson elementary schools reflect their Latino students

A blue banner marks the entryway for an Arizona city with 7,295 people and welcomes students: “The City of Tolleson Wishes you a Great School Year.”

It’s a reminder of the importance of education for the city’s many Latinos in a town whose Mexican families fought for their children’s rights and future.

Today, Tolleson remains majority Latino, making up 77% of the population, according to Census data.  

A large blue sign at the entrance to a small Arizona town welcomes students “The City of Tolleson Wishes you a Great School Year.”

Tolleson is known for its Mexican restaurants, its mariachi and Latin jazz festivals, and its signature “Luces de Navidad” celebration, where Latinos share their traditions.

The city’s history was built by farmworkers and farmers. 

The school district Lupita leads, where 82% of students are Latino; 9% identify as Black; 4% as White; and 5% as Native American, now has Latino governing board members, unlike decades ago when Mexican families united against White district leaders who segregated children of color.

The district formed a committee of community stakeholders amid the Black Lives Matter movement “in acknowledgement of the need for social justice reforms in our nation, and to ensure that all children and staff attending our schools feel safe, cared for, and respected,” wrote Lupita in a letter to families.

She says that when the district’s teachers and leadership talk about supporting all students, “no exceptions,” it’s not just a saying. It means that we see “our kids at Hope, and never as at risk.” It means that Tolleson elementary schools have not expelled a student in nine years.

In Arizona, an estimated 46% of K-12 students are Latino. But far fewer teachers and school administrators are Latino. 

Just 16% of the more than 58,000 teachers in Arizona are Latino, according to Arizona Department of Education data analyzed by ALL In Education in a 2021-22 report.

Only 28% of local school board members are Latino. And 16% of school administrators are Latino, according to UnidosUs.

Research shows that testing scores and attendance improves when children have teachers who are of the same race and that teacher-student match can help narrow racial opportunity gaps in education.

Lupita says the Tolleson district’s schools — Arizona Desert, Sheely Farms, Porfirio H. Gonzales, Desert Oasis and a virtual learning program — tailor programs to foster students’ health and imagination. In a district with a student population that’s more than 80% Latino, Lupita says it matters that nearly half the staff is Latino.

Lupita says that achieving educational equity in Arizona schools is a long road. When she was a teacher in the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix years ago, she says there were only two Latino employees in all 32 schools.

Students need to see themselves represented among their teachers, Lupita says.

“The difference when there’s more Latinos is that there’s more passion and dedication to their community,” she says.

On the wall of the Tolleson School District lobby is a painting of a girl climbing a mountain. At the top the year 2034 and the visualization of its success. Credit: Beatriz Limon

‘I am a kid at hope’

A soft-colored painting hangs from the wall on the front office of Tolleson’s Elementary School District. It’s drawn by a student and shows a girl climbing a mountain. At the top is the year 2034 and a vision of success. 

The painting comes with a message in a child’s handwriting. It says:

I am a kid at hope. I am talented, smart and capable of success. I have dreams for the future and I will climb to reach those goals and dreams every day. All children are capable of success. No exceptions!

Lupita knows the power of an education in her own life and that of her students. That’s why it is important for schools to recognize every students’ potential from the moment they step foot in a classroom, she says.

Every morning, before the start of the school day, Tolleson students reflect on the “Kids at Hope” philosophy to reinforce their value and confidence.

Similarly, teachers reaffirm their commitment to their students with the “Treasure Hunter Pledge” which they recite daily: “I believe that all children are capable of success. No exceptions.”

For years Lupita has advocated for equality. In some cases, she’s had to explain at length the brilliant outcomes for Latino students when they receive the same opportunities as White kids. 

“Once I had to meet with a superintendent for two hours explaining that Latino students are the same and that we do care about education. Even though my blood was boiling, I detailed the enormous wisdom we bring to this country, even if we arrive with or without an education,” she says.

After getting an education degree at the University of Arizona, Lupita was a classroom teacher for five years until she became assistant principal at the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix and Glendale. Later, she earned her first principal job in Glendale. 

Then Lupita earned her doctorate in education from Arizona State University with a focus on leadership, innovation and policy administration. 

“And who was the graduation speaker? President Barack Obama,” she says, smiling at the memory. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Congratulations, Dr. Hightower.’ Can you imagine this honor.”

Now 51, Lupita has built a family with her husband Ken. Their two daughters are Kalen and Krista. She doesn’t forget that little girl with long black hair who struggled to speak English and dreamed of becoming like her teacher Dolores in a Nogales, Sonora school.

“Dolores was the teacher who inspired me to become an educator,” she says. “During the pandemic, I had the fortune of finding her phone number. I was able to thank her and tell that 87-year-old that because of her, I am now a teacher.”

Music teacher Efraín Casillas directs the mariachi “Los Tigres de Tolleson,” made up of students from the Tolleson Elementary School District. Credit: Cortesía Efraín Casillas

‘If we dream big, we can get to do big things’

He was born in Puerto Rico but Efraín Casillas proudly wears Mexican mariachi clothing.

The music teacher learned about the classic Mexican music genre to help connect Latino students with their culture. 

Casillas has taught music at the Tolleson Elementary School District since 2007, where he created a Latin jazz band, a banda and a mariachi group. His music programs have earned many awards and recognitions, and that’s because he puts the focus on his students’ needs.

“When I moved to Arizona I saw a need that parents and students had to communicate in their language,” Casillas says. “I played salsa, merengue, jazz, classical music. But I need to excite children with something that’s theirs.”

That’s when he started to study mariachi music on his own. Then, “Los Tigres de Tolleson” was born. The group has been repeatedly awarded at the International Mariachi Conference in Tucson.

“There were many Mexican children,” he says of the Tolleson school. “Every time I work somewhere different I try to look for something that my students can relate to their family and their cultural identity, like mariachi.”

The cultural connection that Casillas creates for his students is something he wishes he had when he studied music education at the Western Connecticut State University. 

“For me, it was very difficult when I was studying for a music degree because I was the only Latino. There weren’t even Black people, so I represented all minorities. The teachers made my life miserable,” he says.

He can’t forget a teacher who told him, “Get out of here. Go study to be a bilingual teacher.”

He wanted better for his students.

Casillas has been recognized by Chicanos Por La Causa with the Esperanza Latino Teacher award in 2018. In March 2020, he was a guest on The Kelly Clarkson Show to talk about his musical career. Casillas was also named Music Teacher of Excellence by the Country Music Awards Foundation. 

Casillas says he feels seen in the “Count on Us” campaign. He understands how hard it is for Latinos to make their own way and how little their achievements and contributions to this country are recognized.

He says his biggest achievement is in the lessons he plants through music in his students. For the Puerto Rican teacher, this is his biggest recognition. 

“My students are among the best when they audition,” he says. “Seven former students are studying to be music teachers. That is a tremendous pride.”

Casillas is thinking about retiring in five years, but first he wants to leave something for the next generation: A community music band for the city of Tolleson.

“So that all these children when they graduate have a place to continue playing,” he says. “That is my dream and I’m working to make it a reality.”

For Casillas, music is one way to help Latino students see themselves as leaders and see their culture as worth sharing with others.

“We, Latinos, shouldn’t dream small,” he says. “When students dream small they stay there. But if we dream big, we can get to do big things.”

Who knows, says the Tolleson teacher and musician from Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. 

Maybe some years from now …

… The U.S. president will be Latino. 

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Beatriz Limón es una periodista independiente que fue corresponsal en Arizona y Nuevo México de la Agencia Internacional de Noticias EFE. Licenciada en Ciencias de la Comunicación, fotógrafa profesional...