"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

Michael Gonzalez couldn't agree more. The former head of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Gonzalez says he and others have tried for years to turn some of the district's attention to their community. "Our concerns fell on deaf ears," he says. "Now it's our turn to be heard."

The Hispanics' muscle-flexing comes at a pivotal time for DISD. This summer, the district's lawyers will try to convince federal Judge Barefoot Sanders to dismiss the 26-year-old desegregation case against DISD and allow it to manage its own affairs. Black school board members and their supporters will fight to keep the court order in place. The possibility that the order might be dismissed has given a desperate edge to the racial clashes at recent school board meetings.

DISD activists on all sides are waking up to the reality that Hispanic activists could tip the scales against the desegregation order. They believe it has done little to address their concerns--and may have even hurt them. And now the district's Latino Advisory Council appears to be siding with Anglos in their efforts to get out from under federal court control.

DISD's battle lines have always been drawn in black and white. But now Hispanics and blacks find themselves competing for the district's resources. While Hispanic activists say they appreciate the fight African-Americans waged for equal rights in the schools, they believe recent black gains have come at Latinos' expense. "The oppressed have become the oppressor," Jesse Diaz says repeatedly--to anyone who will listen.

African-American activists see Hispanics as Johnny-come-latelys who let blacks do all the fighting and now want to share in the spoils. "I call them vultures," Dallas NAACP president Lee Alcorn said in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this year. (Alcorn would not respond to requests for an interview with the Dallas Observer.)

"This is about people fighting for the polluted pie--for a piece of it," trustee Yvonne Ewell says. "The district didn't provide what black people needed when we were the majority. I doubt it is going to do it now for Hispanics. I think each group should get what it deserves. But I'll be very disappointed if the African-American community starts losing resources."

Then--revealing some of the scrapping-for-crumbs mentality she'd just identified--Ewell adds that Hispanics "have had more money for bilingual education than we ever had. We didn't have anything for us until we started the Ebonics debate."

Some say that a squabble among minority groups is exactly what the district's Anglo power structure wants. "People in the administration building have always been good at playing African-Americans off of Hispanics," says Ed Cloutman, the Anglo lawyer who brought the class-action suit against the district that resulted in the desegregation order. "Historically, there has been a divide-and-conquer mentality. It is a way for the district to duck its responsibilities. Keep everyone fighting, and they'll ignore what you do."

In the summer of 1990, Jesse and Gloria Diaz were sitting in the kitchen of their Pleasant Grove house when they heard gunshots. Seconds later, a bullet shattered their kitchen window and grazed Gloria's shoulder.

Then and there, Jesse Diaz vowed to do something about the Latino gang problem plaguing his part of town.

A 45-year-old real estate agent, Diaz first set out to organize groups of concerned parents. He enlisted the help of his childhood friend, Alfred Carrizales, a 44-year-old building-supply company employee who grew up with him in the Little Mexico area of Dallas near Harry Hines Boulevard. Soon Latino neighbors were turning to Diaz and Carrizales with other community problems. The two men decided they needed the clout that a formal organization provides, so in 1992 they created a Pleasant Grove LULAC council--one of 28 in LULAC's North Texas District III. Today, Diaz serves as president and Carrizales as vice president. Armed with statistics, parent reports, bits of information gleaned from school board meetings, and a fax machine, Diaz and Carrizales' LULAC chapter has taken the lead on Hispanic education issues in Dallas.

The duo both have children in DISD: Carrizales' daughter is a junior at the Arts Magnet, and Diaz's son is a sophomore at Skyline High School. They say it was a natural progression to go from dealing with gang problems to asking whether the schools were failing their kids. No one else seemed to be leading the way for the community, so Diaz and Carrizales stepped into the breach.

"We're just a couple of blue-collar guys who for many years looked to the Latino leadership to do something about our needs," Carrizales says. "There would be a press conference, then the issue would die out. So we decided to do something ourselves. Now we're in over our heads."

The men seem to be unlikely firebrands. Diaz is a nattily dressed onetime youth-gang member who says he's been the top real estate salesman in southeast Dallas for the last five years. Neither is particularly flashy, but Carrizales, a hefty, bespectacled man who suffers from a bad heart, stands out even less than Diaz.

What these reluctant activists lack in charisma they make up for in rancor. They're particularly incensed at how blacks seem to control the district through the desegregation order. Carrizales points to a speech given last year at a school board meeting by Johnnie Jackson, a Kathlyn Gilliam protege who chairs the Black Coalition to Maximize Education, an intervenor in the desegregation lawsuit.

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