Colorado’s San Luis Valley is home to many people who can trace their roots back generations. State representative Matthew Martinez, a seventh-generation Coloradan, is one of them.
“We're descendants of the original Spanish colonial settlers in the area,” Martinez said.
The San Luis Valley is an area steeped in culture and history. But history can be forgotten, like it was in a case generating renewed interest more than 100 years later. In 1908, the Alamosa school board built what was known as the “Mexican school” for students of Spanish and Mexican descent in the area. Many of them spoke English, but in 1912, they were denied access to the English-speaking school.
Education historian Dr. Gonzalo Guzmán was working on his dissertation on the experience of Latinx students in Wyoming when he came across a newspaper article from 1914 about the school.
“There happened to be a random mention of Alamosa, Colorado, and I'm paraphrasing here but it said, 'Mexican citizens in Alamosa, Colorado are fighting for educational rights,'” Guzmán explained.
He then traveled to Alamosa to learn more about the school and the court case.
“In 1912, you have a change in policy regarding that school where the school board decides that regardless of English proficiency or any language proficiency, anyone that has been identified as being Mexican American or of Mexican descent has to go to that school,” Guzmán said.
In 1913, a group of families hired Denver lawyer Raymond Sullivan to file a lawsuit against the district. The main plaintiff was Francicso Maestas and his son Miguel.
Representative Matthew Martinez thought the Maestas family had a particularly compelling story.
“(Miguel) Maestas had to walk across this railroad tracks, which is extremely dangerous and it was seven blocks from his home, even though the Anglo school was a lot closer,” Martinez described.
In 1914, a district court judge ruled that families must be allowed to attend the school closest to them. The school board did not challenge the decision, although Guzmán said it’s hard to know what happened after that because documents have been lost.
Martinez, Guzman and others have sought to bring more light to the Maestas case and its significance in the history of school segregation. A memorial now stands at the Alamosa County courthouse, and another sculpture has traveled throughout the state. Miguel Maestas still has descendants living in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, who were only recently made aware of their ancestors' involvement in the case.
Representative Martinez thinks it’s important for families in the San Luis Valley and beyond to learn about the case.
“A poor Hispano family said enough is enough and that happened well over 100 years ago, so I think taking lessons from that and saying it can be done,” Martinez said.