The Soledad Children How a group of families in the Salinas Valley improved the educational system for all Mexican Americans in California and beyond

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

The road to quality public education for all children is paved with lawsuits.

Beginning with the famed Brown v. Board of Education (which decreed in 1954 that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal) until the recently filed Ella T. v. State of California (in which plaintiffs argue California is violating children’s constitutional right to literacy by failing to provide adequate instruction to all students), most educational gains for low-income, handicapped and minority students have been achieved through the courts.

One of said cases, the landmark Diana v. California Board of Education, was fought in our own backyard. While the Diana case is well known in special education circles throughout the country, what’s not as well known is that Diana and the other eight children who signed on for the fight were from Soledad. Their case, among many other Mexican-American landmark battles of the 1970s, was fought on their behalf by the fledgling California Rural Legal Assistance, just as the organization itself battled for its existence.

These intertwined stories are chronicled in “The Soledad Children: The Fight to End Discriminatory IQ Tests” (Arte Publico Press, 2019), a new book by Marty Glick and Maurice “Mo” Jourdane, two attorneys who worked for CRLA in the early days of the organization and led the Diana fight. (Disclosure: Arte Público Press also published Claudia Meléndez Salinas 2015 “A Fighting Chance.”)

In 1969, Glick and Jourdane took on the case on behalf of Arturo Velásquez, Diana, María, Manuel, Rachel, Ramón, Armando, Margarita and Ernesto, migrant children of diverse ages kept in the same classroom all day long, coloring, cutting out pictures and occupying themselves with other activities the children described as “baby stuff.” The children had complained to each other: “Why are we in this place instead of a real school?” Arturo asked Maria. “This is the room for kids they think are dummies. They never give us anything to do but baby stuff. I hate it,” she responded.

The children complained to their parents but their parents, Spanish-speaking migrant workers, didn’t know what to do. And none of them realized the children were among 13,000 Mexican American students wrongfully placed in California’s “Educable Mentally Retarded” classes after given an IQ test in English — a language they barely understood, not just linguistically, but culturally.

The book begins with the birth of California Rural Legal Assistance — a product of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and some of its major battles, most of them against major growers who opposed the unionization of the agricultural labor force. Glick and Jourdane also describe the history of IQ tests, a product of animated debates over whether intelligence is inherited or can be acquired. The description is brief, barely over four pages long, but it serves as a building block, a step in a staircase of well-documented steps and landings.

And then the book dives headlong into the Diana case, a tortuous, years-long process that was resisted by school districts throughout California and the state Department of Education itself. It was a battle that enlisted the help of the California Association of Chicano Psychologists, which was also challenging the indiscriminate misuse of IQ tests to place Mexican American students in special education classes.

It’s a quick, straightforward read of very important historic events that continue to resonate these days, particularly in the current environment. It’s a reminder that the social, economic and political gains of Mexican Americans, African Americans and every other hyphenated group in this country had to be wrested away from the claws of an established system unwilling to concede an inch of power.

The story will be particularly inspiring for Central Coast readers, as it’s always uplifting to get to know your own history. In the grand scheme of things, this is a recent, local triumph of far-reaching national implications in the educational arena. And there are many, many more like this that need to be documented, publicized and celebrated to remind us of how far we’ve come and inspire us for the road ahead.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.