“George I. Sanchez – The Long Fight for Mexican American Integration” by Carlos Kevin Blanton (Yale University Press)

Review by David Steinberg

Mention the name of George I. Sanchez and the probable response would be “Who?”

In this new biography, author Carlos Kevin Blanton brings Sanchez out of obscurity and into the limelight where Sanchez deserves to be. It is an important book because Sanchez was a constant, progressive Hispanic voice in the fight for equal rights for Mexican Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

Blanton refers to Sanchez as an “activist scholar.” He was both. Sanchez applied his considerable intellect and ambition – and his cultural pride – to fight oppression and racial discrimination.

Sanchez was born to a poor family in Albuquerque’s Los Nuanes barrio in 1906. He was raised in Jerome, Ariz., where his father was a miner, and then back in the Duke City (Barelas).

Sanchez showed his smarts early on. He graduated from Albuquerque High School at the age of 16. He had a range of after-school and summer activities. He played cornet in a jazz orchestra, worked as a dance promoter, prospected, worked as a clerk and a janitor – all those jobs to help feed his hungry family, Blanton writes.

After graduation, the teenage Sanchez taught at two segregated all-Hispanic public schools in rural Bernalillo County. “Also of interest is how he taught,” Blanton writes. “Between 1925 and 1930 Sanchez was a teacher-principal at Los Padillas as well as a county supervisor ( in the school system). Sanchez introduced policies such as urging five-year-olds to informally (and freely) visit the school for pre-first grade instruction, what modern observers might generously call a loose, informal kind of kindergarten.”

While teaching, he also took college courses – extension classes, night and weekends classes, and a full load of summer classes. Sanchez graduated from the University of New Mexico “with distinction without ever having matriculated for a regular or term or taken a full-time course load,” according to the book.

During the Great Depression, Sanchez landed a grant-funded, autonomous position within the New Mexico State Department of Education that he used to challenge the application of IQ testing and to debunk “claims that Mexican-American children were mentally incapable of regular schooling. …”

Sanchez’s outspokenness and his activism in the 1930s – he wholeheartedly backed the New Deal as a benefit for Hispanics – embroiled him in New Mexico politics. That involvement eventually led to his leaving the state, doing educational consultant work in Latin America and accepting a full-time position at the University of Texas.

But before Sanchez left the state, his most important work got the financial support of the Carnegie Foundation: The support was for a book that Blanton said became Sanchez’s magnus opus – “Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans.” In “Forgotten People,” Sanchez insisted that Mexican Americans didn’t choose poverty and discrimination, “rather they were forced upon them by a brutal, exploitative colonial past in which Spanish, Mexican and then American rule constantly championed” the wealthy over the poor, the powerful over the powerless, Blanton writes.

Decades later, while still at the University of Texas, Sanchez tried to connect with younger Hispanic activists. He took part, for example, in the brainstorming that resulted in the establishment of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He worked to understand the Chicano movement.

Sanchez died in 1972. Blanton’s biography refers to an editorial on Sanchez’s passing in the Journal of Mexican American Studies. The editorial said Sanchez might be called “‘the father’ of Chicano studies.”

Blanton, an associated professor of history at Texas A&M, said his subject’s struggles defined his life: “Sanchez fought for justice for his people, for their integration into American life. He did so as if he had nothing to lose, though he often did.”   

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