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With Marfa’s Blackwell School poised to become a national historic site, a look at what segregated education was like in West Texas

A new book called “Educating the Enemy” compares the treatment of Mexican American students in El Paso to that of the children of Nazis brought there after World War II. As Congress considers a bill to officially recognize Blackwell, Marfa Public Radio talks with the book’s author, UTEP professor Jonna Perrillo, about what segregated education looked like in this region.

Last week, a bill to make Marfa’s Blackwell School a National Historic Site passed the U.S. Senate. If it passes the House, the bill will make the school one of the first national park sites devoted to Latino history –– and the first national historic site to memorialize the segregated education of Mexican-American students.

The history of that segregated education system in West Texas is the topic of a new book called “Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands.” Recently, the book's author, University of Texas at El Paso professor Jonna Perrillo, spoke with Marfa Public Radio's Annie Rosenthal about how Blackwell fits into the broader landscape of West Texas history.

Highlights from the conversation

On what segregated education looked like for Mexican American students in West Texas

Few of the schoolhouses where Mexican American students were educated during segregation are still standing. The Blackwell School is an exception, however, thanks largely to the work of alumni and community activists who’ve worked to preserve the building and its history.

But schools like it were common across the Southwest, Perrillo explains. Segregation for Mexican American students wasn’t legally formalized as it was for African American students, but it was enforced by school policy: Until the mid-1900s, Anglo students went to “American schools,” while their Latino neighbors went to “Mexican schools.”

“Mexican schools were often overcrowded, under-resourced, were run by mostly Anglo women, many of whom spoke little to no Spanish,” Perrillo says. “Most Mexican American students, right after World War II, came to school speaking almost no English because their entire lives were segregated.” But students across the region –– including at Blackwell ––  were often punished for speaking Spanish.

“The idea was that students needed to learn English and speak English to be American,” Perrilo says. “Whether they were born American-born citizens or not, they were considered un-American if they spoke Spanish.”

On the unusual historical moment when the children of Nazis were enrolled in El Paso public schools

Perrillo’s book focuses on a particularly stark example of educational segregation: how the treatment of Mexican-American children in El Paso schools compared to that of the children of a group of Nazi scientists brought to the U.S. after World War II to help build missiles.

“The War Department and U.S. federal government really saw that the only way to both keep them but also make this whole operation palatable to the American public was for them to have families, and their children became ambassadors for the work that their fathers were doing for the military,” she explains. As Anglos, the children of Nazis were assigned to “American” schools, and received much better treatment than their Mexican-American neighbors. As part of the assimilation process, they were taught cowboy and Indian stories –– which Perrillo says was “a way of putting forth particular notions of Americanness that were available to white people.”

On a different model of education for Mexican American students

Perrillo says it’s important to understand that segregated schools like Blackwell “weren't just a reflection of social hierarchies, but in fact, were used to maintain them.”

Still, she says, though Mexican schools and their sub-par treatment were the norm, they weren’t the only model. “There were also schools called ‘escuelitas’ that were for Mexican American children and run by Mexican American teachers, women,” she explains. “These schools focused on a knowledge of Mexican history and Mexican American cultural pride.” According to Perrillo, there was once an escuelita in Valentine.

“As important as it is to know the predominant story in West Texas, it's also important to know that options existed,” she says.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.