'Hardly anyone knows about it': The play 'Crystal City 1969' is based on an important but often overlooked event in Texas history
“Although this is, I would say, one of the highlights of educational history in the United States, hardly anyone knows about it,” says playwright and director David Lozano about the December 1969 student walkout in Crystal City, Texas. That historic but often overlooked protest is the basis of his play (co-written with Raul Treviño) Crystal City 1969. On March 5, as a part of their 50th anniversary celebration, UT’s Center for Mexican-American Studies will present a staged reading of the play at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
“Up to the mid-20th century, and really into the ‘60s… Latino students were punished for speaking Spanish on school campuses,” Lovano says. “In Crystal City, where there was only one high school… children were punished physically. They weren’t allowed to eat Mexican food in the cafeterias, and in high school there was a rule in which only one cheerleader could be a Mexican or a Mexican-American. Mexican and Mexican-American football players could not start on the varsity football team. It was an agricultural town and most of the students were working in the fields and also migrant farm workers, and students who wanted to attend college were often discouraged. So many of these Mexican and Mexican-American students would simply graduate high school, not go to college, and work in the fields. Until the walkout took place.
“Students decided to protest, and under the guidance of a former student of Crystal City High School, José Angel Gutiérrez – he had left Crystal City after graduating from high school, gone to college, and he studied a lot of the civil rights leaders and movements around the country… and he created a vision for mobilizing youth and Mexican and Mexican-Americans throughout the southwest United States, and the first was the Crystal City walkout,” Lozano says.
That student walkout resulted in changes not just to the local high school, but the entire Crystal City community. “They really stuck to their principles [and] negotiated what they wanted. But while they were negotiating for the walkout, they were also recruiting adults to run for political office, such as the positions on the school board,” Lovano says. “So over the course of the six months that the student walkout took place, the students were recruiting candidates, and… Mexican-Americans ran the table on the school board elections in Crystal City and they transformed the schools after that election.”
In an homage to El Teatro Campesino, who famously performed theater from flatbed trucks during farm labor strikes in the 1960s, March’s staged reading of Crystal City 1969 will be performed by some 20 actors using flatbed and other trucks as stages.
“We’re really excited that everyone gets to engage this particular story,” says Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, an associate dean in the College of Fine Arts and an affiliate with CMAS who is producing the March 5 performance. “And also think about how the arts are helping us to think about history and about forward movement and social change.”
“It’s an incredible experience to be a part of a production of this play because of how it resonates with people,” Lozano says. “There are just so many lessons we can take away from this play.”