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Former students of the once-segregated Texas school describe receiving a 'whack of the paddle' for speaking Spanish

Blackwell School alumni work to put their story of segregation on a national platform.

MARFA, Texas — A bill that would designate the Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas as a National Historic Site has passed through the Senate and the House and now heads to the President's desk for his signature. 

Operating from 1909-1965, the once segregated school for Mexican-American students now housing the stories of its pupils. 

“I think we all have good memories and bad memories but that’s just the way it is,” former student of Blackwell School, Betty Aguirre Nunez said

Stepping inside the school house you get a glimpse into what school was like. Photos, old desks and memorabilia such as hand-me-down sports gear from the white school in town. 

“It was very enjoyable. We didn't feel the difference until high school,” former student of Blackwell School, Joe Cabazuela said.

One difference, a paddle named "Sputnik,"

“When you got caught speaking Spanish, I remember because I myself got caught, and all they did was give you one whack of the paddle," Cabazuela said.

Or the tiny symbolic coffin named "Mr. Spanish" much like the one a teacher had her students bury after writing, "I will never speak Spanish" on a tiny slip of paper.

“We just buried it. We didn’t understand the concept of it until much later that we understood what it meant," Aguirre Nunez said. 

Impact felt by generations to follow.

“Those were decades of not talking about it and sort of instilling in their children and grandchildren that they shouldn’t speak Spanish. The Blackwell Alliance, President, Gretel Enck said. "That they should be English speakers to get ahead, and as you know there is a whole generation of Texans who don’t speak Spanish for that reason.”

“A lot of people to this day resent that idea you know, but when I look back I can see the intention behind it,” former Blackwell School student, Mario Rivera said. 

Good intention with what today would be called bad execution. 

But the experience belonging to the alumni of the Blackwell School.

"When we went to basketball games or football games from Blackwell there’s little towns there that wouldn’t rent a motel room to us, we had to sleep in the gymnasium," Cabazuela said. "That’s what I want for people to understand when they go see the museum in Blackwell, that it happened and it’s there.”

Alumni who would not see their history buried by the Marfa Independent School District, which had plans to tear down the unused building in the early 2000.

“It was that spark, it took that action by the school district and a really, really dedicated group of alumni who came together to say you are not going to tear it down,” The Blackwell School Alliance, Daniel Hernandez said. 

For more than a decade now the Blackwell School Alliance continues to bring on other supporters of this sometimes overshadowed story in our nation's history. 

“It’s one of the very few schools that remain standing. In a way that allows it to be preserved as a museum and a site that can sort of represent all of that collective memory,” Hernandez said.

The alliance working with Texas Representatives to pass a bill through congress which would allow the Blackwell School to become a Historic National Park Site. 

A first of its kind site that would tell part of the history of the Latino experience in America.

“It really is huge. The National Parks Service I think is America’s greatest storyteller, but I think in many ways the system is not fully reflective of the real American history…. there were schools like this across the country that Latinos and Mexican American students attended," Hernandez said. “I think that at the end of the day, what it will provide is validation and also just a collective space where people can explore this history.

Validation that comes with a ticking clock. 

“There is a bit of urgency around trying to establish this site because very unfortunately we are losing those folks who can provide those first hand experiences at the Blackwell schools," Hernandez said.

Stories of discrimination, perseverance and joy that will not go untold. 

“It feels like in a way an ending for a long period of work for these former students to save this school, but it really is just beginning for the possibility for all the stories that can and should be told,” Enck said. 

For more on the Blackwell School visit their website. 

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