"It's our turn to be heard"

With Hispanics the majority among Dallas schoolchildren and a Latino superintendent in their corner, Jesse Diaz and other activists say

"My greatest fear is the expectations of the Hispanic community," she said. "But the problems are deep, fundamental, and pervasive. The system is deeply entrenched. There are attitudes and subcultures at work. I ask for you to work with me...You are beginning to see you have a voice. But I cannot do it alone."

To the contrary, she said, she needed even greater help to effect change. "How many of our Hispanics are registered to vote?" she implored them. "Are involved in the governance of their schools? In school board elections? I go to school board meetings, and we are invisible...We have so many numbers, but we haven't yet transformed that into power."

As she spoke and spoke--at one point embarking upon a deeply felt, tearful monologue about Hispanic dropout rates--the implications became rather clear. "I'm Latina. I'm superintendent of schools," she declared at one point. "Forty-five percent of my children are Hispanic. And I will represent them."

This prompted Jesse Diaz to interrupt the new superintendent in an attempt to fully explore her commitment to her people.

"We don't expect you to divert resources from the African-American community to the Hispanic community," he said.

Gonzalez looked straight at Diaz. She was unhesitant, unflinching in her response. "There is no way that can't happen."

With no fanfare, Latino children have become the majority of the school district's population. And that growth shows no signs of slowing down.

Right now, 45.5 percent of the district's students are Latinos. By contrast, the black student population has declined to 41.5 percent.

In just three years, Hispanic enrollment is expected to jump to 57 percent. And by the year 2010, Hispanic children will constitute 70 percent of DISD's students. If current trends prevail, more than half of these children will not be fluent in English when they walk through the doors of Dallas' public schools.

These numbers ultimately will transform the district--forcing changes administrators have only begun to understand. Past and present school board members admit the district has been slow in coming to grips with this enormous demographic shift. "The Dallas district was clearly late in recognizing the real needs of Hispanic youngsters," former school board president Sandy Kress says.

But Gonzalez says the district couldn't possibly have failed to notice this tidal change. "It wasn't all of a sudden, we're here," she told the Latino Advisory Council during their private meeting. "If you track the statistics in the district beginning in 1971-'72, [the Hispanic student population] was growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year. The numbers doubled in the last decade."

No one doubts that DISD principals, teachers, and administrators will have to struggle mightily to keep pace with these historic changes. But there's another potential upheaval: The Latino population wave is set to crash right up against the district's African-American leaders. For decades, they've fought--and gained, through extraordinary effort--educational rights for their children, as well as a major share of the power and jobs the huge district provides.

Yet this year's volatile demonstrations at school board meetings show that despite winning a desegregation order and key positions within the DISD administration, black activists are not satisfied with the progress they've made. Now, Dallas' Latinos, usually an ally in the fight for equal rights, are sweeping past them in sheer numbers.

Until recently, there's been no concerted effort among Hispanics to force DISD to attend to their needs--and even now, there's no political muscle to back them up. It wasn't until the 1990 redistricting that any district in the city had a clear Hispanic majority. Today, there are two--District 7 in Oak Cliff, represented by trustee Jose Plata, and District 8, an area that encompasses downtown and Love Field, which is represented by Kathleen Leos, an Anglo who is married to a Latino.

Hispanic activists claim that even when they've tried to express their concerns, their voices were drowned out by black Dallas' vociferous demands. They complain that the needs and rights of Hispanic schoolchildren have been overshadowed in the power struggle between blacks and Anglos. "There has only been one racial agenda in this town--a black agenda," says Adelfa Callejo, a lawyer and longtime Dallas Hispanic leader. "But that's about to change."

Leading that change is a group of impassioned, politically unschooled Hispanic activists who are trying to parlay increasing student numbers into real power. The Latino Advisory Council, heavily represented by members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)--a nonpartisan civil rights organization started in Corpus Christi 68 years ago--has been meeting regularly to pinpoint just where the school district has short-changed them. They are devising strategies, issuing position papers, and educating Latinos in an attempt to right the balance--and if their momentous meeting with Gonzalez last month is any indicator, they've got a rapt audience for their complaints.

No one disputes that inequities exist. "If it had been Hispanics protesting at our board meetings, I could understand it," says school board president Bill Keever. "There is no question that when you look at the numbers--of contracts, teachers, principals, administrators--Hispanics historically have been underrepresented in every respect. The district needs to spend a great deal of time focusing on the historical wrongs."

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