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New biography details life of 'forgotten' Mexican-American scholar, civil rights leader

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — George I. Sanchez regularly is left out of books on the civil rights movement. His role is seldom mentioned in studies on desegregation cases. Even people in his birth-state hardly know his name, though his imprint on New Mexico's educational system still is felt today.

A new biography seeks to change that.

This month, Carlos Blanton released "George I. Sanchez: The Long Fight for Mexican American Integration." He's hoping the biography finally places the Latino scholar in his proper place among civil rights giants.

A project that took more than a decade, Blanton wrote the book after combing through previously unknown letters, writings and materials to reconstruct the life of a man who was at the center of some of most important civil rights moments in history.

"I started this book only thinking of him as a cultural scholar," said Blanton, a history professor at Texas A&M University. "Then, I found a civil rights activist."

Sanchez was born in Albuquerque in 1906. At 16, he worked as a public school teacher at a small rural school in Yrisarri, New Mexico. He became superintendent of the Bernalillo County school district six years later.

That experience sparked his mission to reform the state's educational system, particularly IQ testing of Latinos and American Indians, which he viewed as racially biased. Eventually, Sanchez became what would be equivalent to the state's deputy secretary of education.

His 1940 classic "Forgotten People" was one of the first studies to document how Hispanics were losing land and influence to poverty and white encroachment. The book drew attention from the University of Texas, which eventually offered Sanchez a job as an education professor.

There, Sanchez wrote other books, became a national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and corresponded with lead NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on desegregation strategy. He wrote presidents, challenged politicians and spoke out against discrimination of blacks and Latinos.

"He did not shy away," Blanton said. "He knew that he was sacrificing a lot but he kept at it because he knew it was important."

The biography is the first detailed account of Sanchez, who died in 1972. Often called the "dean of Mexican American studies," there are a dozen or so schools in Texas and California named in honor of Sanchez. However, there is none in his birth-state of New Mexico.

His granddaughter Cindy Kennedy, 51, a Santa Fe teacher, believes the book will introduce her grandfather to a new generation who unknowingly benefited from his work.

"He has been forgotten and I think it's about time he gets recognized," Kennedy said.

And maybe, she said, a school in New Mexico soon will be named in his honor.

The Sanchez book follows last year's release of a biopic on farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez. The books come at a time when some Latinos writers are calling for more biographies of Latino civil rights icons such as lawyer John J. Herrera or labor leader Emma Tenayuca.

"We are still, in a lot of ways, in an era of discovery," Blanton said. "There is so much more material for us to uncover."


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