By Russell Contreras, Associated Press
The Fresno Bee (February 11, 2012)
SANTA FE, N.M. — The name George I. Sanchez has been celebrated for years among Mexican Americans in Texas and California.
A son of an Arizona miner, the Albuquerque-born Sanchez worked his way out of poverty as a rural public school teacher in New Mexico to become a pioneer scholar and education activist. His 1940 classic book “Forgotten People” brought attention to the plight of poor Mexican Americans in Taos.
His writings on racial segregation attracted the attention of Thurgood Marshall, the lead NAACP attorney in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
But while a dozen or so schools in Texas and California are named in honor of Sanchez – including the School of Education building at the University of Texas where he taught for many years – not a single school in New Mexico bears his name. Few New Mexico educators or activists know much about him, according to historians and educators. No plaque exists to show his birthplace or the school where Sanchez taught. He is not listed among the state’s notable figures in New Mexico Centennial guidebooks.
In a state obsessed with its Hispanic heritage, its most celebrated Latino civil rights leader and “dean of Mexican American studies,” ironically, is seldom mentioned. His political fallout with state lawmakers in the 1930s over education reform and a divorce with his first wife, Virginia Romero, who was from a politically connected New Mexican family, diminished his stature at the time. Forty years after his death, few memories of him remain.
“He’s a forgotten man for a forgotten people,” said his granddaughter Cindy Kennedy, 48, a Santa Fe teacher.
Sanchez developed his theories on school inequalities using New Mexico’s Hispanic and Navajo populations as examples. He argued that bilingual students were discriminated against by monolingual school systems and testified in landmark court cases about the negative effects of segregation and IQ testing on Hispanic, American Indian and black children.
That work seldom comes up in present-day discussions about education reform in the state.
“It does surprise me that New Mexico doesn’t honor Sanchez,” said Carlos Blanton, a history professor at Texas A&M University, who is writing a book about the educator. “Maybe it’s because he left, and you just don’t leave New Mexico.”
Born in Albuquerque in 1906, Sanchez became a public school teacher at a small rural school in Yrisarri, N.M. just outside of Albuquerque at the age of 16. Within six years, he became superintendent of the Bernalillo County school district while taking classes at the University of New Mexico. It was this teaching experience among the children of poor Hispanic ranchers that he would later say sparked his mission to reform the state’s educational system, particularly IQ testing of Hispanics and American Indians, which he viewed as racial bias.
Eventually, Sanchez became what would be equivalent to the state’s secretary of education thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation while he also finished his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, said Blanton.
But Sanchez clashed with the state’s governor for pushing a state equalization funding formula for schools and came under fire from some lawmakers for helping with a University of New Mexico professor’s survey on racial attitudes in schools, said Blanton. The highly publicized fights resulted in the state opting not to fund a Department of Education, ultimately leaving Sanchez without a job.