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'We'd get in trouble for speaking Spanish': Former students of a segregated Texas school recall the racism they faced and the good times they shared

Former students of Blackwell Elementary are trying to make it a National Historical site to educate the public about what happened.

MARFA, Texas — Marfa, Texas is a tourist destination now. But for many years, the small West Texas town was segregated. 

Mexican-American children went to a separate school, and now they are trying to save the building the learned at as a symbol of a history they don’t want to repeat.

The three-room school house was built in 1909. It’s named after it’s longtime principal, Jesse Blackwell. And while there were no laws specifically separating children of Mexican descent, Blackwell Elementary was segregated and only attended by Mexican-American children.

WFAA interviewed some of the former students who recalled their childhood, the games they played, the fun and difficult times there.

“It’s been done," Lio Salgado, a former student, said, pointing out that segregation was not new. "It was done, and we lived through it. That’s the way it was."

Mario Rivera and his wife Alice both attended Blackwell in the 1950’s.

"When I came to Blackwell, I didn’t know we were segregated," Mario explained. "Nobody told me. We didn’t know what the word meant."

It was the way of life for Mexican-Americans back then.

"In society, you learned at a young age to stay far away where you are not wanted,” Rivera said.

Jessi Silva said racism was everywhere.

"That’s where I learned about racism, right here in Marfa,” Silva said.

He recalled the day they had a "funeral" for the Spanish language. The students had to write on a piece of paper, "I will never speak Spanish again," and put it in a little coffin.

"They got that little box, they put it in the earth and they covered it up, so it was a mock funeral," Silva described. "From then on, anyone speaking Spanish would get punished."

She said that same day, a student got paddled for speaking Spanish.

"Discipline started immediately,” Silva said.

Gretel Enck is the President of the Blackwell Elementary Alliance, a group working to save the school. She said one of the teachers wanted students to become fluent in English, so she held a funeral to ban the language.

"So many kids only spoke Spanish at home, so they felt they were being denied their heritage,” Enck explained.

At a reunion decades later, the former students unearthed "Mr. Spanish," the coffin that was used. They did it to reclaim their voice. Lio Salgado was among them.

"It’s the way it was back then, and I don’t care how you look at it, it’s still history, because that’s the way people thought was the best way to do it,” Salgado said.

He was among the first former students to begin restoring the old school, which shut down in 1965. He even donated some of his personal items, including one of his report cards.

"That thing existed back then, and we want them to know it existed and never forget it,” Salgado said. 

The former Blackwell students are pushing Congress to make the school a landmark. There are bills in the U.S. House and Senate this session to make Blackwell Elementary a National Historical site.

"It not only tells the story of segregated education, but it’s also a door into all the ways Hispanic, Latino people in America - specifically Mexican-Americans here in Texas - had been discriminated against, had been segregated for as long as this has been America,” Enck said.

The hope is Marfa will continue to thrive, embracing the future - but not ever forgetting or repeating its past.