City councilman's comments open old wounds for a generation of Hispanics in Abilene

Local citizens at the Abilene City Council meeting filled the room and addressed the council members with polarizing perspectives and disdain Thursday, Jan. 24.

The tension was sparked by comments made on social media by Abilene City Councilman Kyle McAlister. His comments on Mexican-Americans were deemed racist by many, and soon after, leaders within the Abilene community called for his resignation. There were others who felt like McAlister was being targeted, and that the concern was being driven by a political motive for his comments over the years.

“I think it is shameful that people in Abilene have worked to destroy a good man’s life,” one resident stated at the podium.

"These jokes that he posted -- were only jokes,” said an Abilene woman.

Many Abilenians, especially Mexican-Americans, felt offended by McAlister’s words, but they also felt like city council added further damage by failing to censure McAlister for his racial sentiments. Some mentioned that accepting jokes that they felt were demeaning opened up old wounds.

“Unknowingly you have opened some wounds in my community that are going to be very hard to heal,” said Abilene School Board member Bill Enriquez.

In October of 1969, during the civil rights movement in Abilene, Chicano students decided to walk out of their classrooms in protest for equal treatment.

Leticia Alvarado was a middle school student at the time. Her older brother, Johnny Sanchez, was considered a key figure and is featured at the forefront of the movement in images of the walkouts. He claimed that the boycott was about seeking change.

“After everybody voicing their experiences – and what was happening we were tired of it. We were just tired of it,” said Alvarado.

During the walkout, around 300 Mexican-American students from Abilene High School, Franklin Middle School, and Mann Middle School fought the prejudices and discrimination that they had endured for decades within the Abilene Independent School District. According to several participants, the boycott lasted about 11 days. The students gathered at the recreational center at Sears Park.

“They referred to Spanish as the monkey language. The teachers did. ‘Don’t talk that around here. It’s the monkey language.’ You're like, what?!,” Isaac Munoz, a protester during that walkouts stated.

While there was no policy that restricted bi-lingual Mexican-American students from speaking Spanish, the first-generation students claimed that they were repeatedly given corporal punishment for speaking their parent’s native tongue.

“I didn’t know very much English. She stuck me under her desk, several times under her desk,” said Isaac Munoz, regarding an elementary school teacher. “Other times she would just put me in a chair in the hallway for the whole day.”

According to those involved in the protest, many dropped out of school because of the treatment.

The walkouts were peaceful protests, and included parents and other community members. In pictures of the walkouts, Catholic nuns are seen participating and talking to the children.

Attorneys from Lubbock and the newly established Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, arrived to help the students present their grievances to the AISD school board.

Despite the school board not excusing their absences, participants of the walkout said attitudes toward them improved, and that teachers ceased to refer to Spanish as a "monkey language." Munoz mentioned that things improved for their parents in the workplace as well.

Now in 2019, Latinos in Abilene expressed their surprise at the reaction to McAlister's conduct. They claim that racial epithets are now tolerated by the Abilene City Council.

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