Larry Ortega Lozano died in the county jail here on Jan. 22. The sheriff said Lozano committed suicide by banging his head against a cell door. A pathologist said it was homicide after finding 92 injuries to the body, some "in places where he would have had to be contorted" to inflict injuries on himself. Six to eight lawmen were in the cell with Lozano for 45 minutes before his death.
Juan Veloz Zuniga died in a hospital in west Texas on May 19. He had been beaten by the Hudspeth County sheriff with a sawed-off pool cue during what the sheriff said was an outburst by Zuniga in the county jail. Fellow inmates said the beating was unprovoked. A grand juror was heard, two days before taking testimony, to assure that no action would be taken against the sheriff. He was right.
Andres Ramirez died on the way to the hospital in Albuquerque on Nov. 10. He had been beaten on the head repeatedly with a flashlight by a policeman trying to restrain him. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, the policeman was acquitted by an all-Anglo jury, which felt testimony was inconclusive on whether the blows from the five-cell flashlight caused the death of Ramirez.
Robert Fernandez died at the home of his estranged wife in Pueblo, Colo., on Aug. 26. He had been struck repeatedly on the head with nightsticks by two city policemen called to remove him from the house. Last Wednesday, they were acquitted of a minor homicide charge.
In the past year alone, nine southwestern lawmen have been tried or are scheduled to stand trial on charges stemming from the deaths of Mexican-Americans. Others have been exonerated despite a seeming use of excessive force. The death toll in the Southwest exceeds 15 in just the past few years.
Claiming an "epidemic" of "official police violence" against Americans of Mexican ancestry, leaders in the nation's increasingly restive Mexican-American community have pleaded to an as-yet-unresponsive U.S. JUstice Department for a widespread federal civil rights drive against police violence. This alleged brutality, they say, is routinely exacted with virtual impunity at the local level.
But claims of police violence are only the most dramatic pattern on a broad fabric of discrimination against Americans of Mexican ancestry in the Southwest, where they are by far the largest minority, and thus show the face of the future for the United States.
Like the blacks of the South, Mexican-Americans -- this country's second minority and with other Hispanics expected soon to be its biggest -- are poorer, less educated and more apt to be closed out of political power than other Americans who, in many places in the Southwest, by hook or by crook still govern disproportionately to their numbers.
"The prediction of the Kerner Commission [on violence] is coming true," says Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.). "But with three societies separate and unequal -- black, white and Hispanic."
Of the nation's estimated 11.3 million Hispanic population, more than half are Mexican-Americans concentrated largely in five states: California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Their language, culture and sheer numbers give the region the flavor of one new nation that could be called MexAmerica.
But the two peoples who make up MexAmerica do not live as equals. For in all five states, according to state advisory committees to the U.S. COmmission on Civil Rights, discrimination against Americans of Mexican ancestry pervades education, housing, voting, jobs and law enforcement.
Today, however, Mexican-American civil rights groups are waging a fight for equality on a broad front across the Southwest, much the same as black civil rights groups did two decades ago in the South.
"The issues are the same," says Vilma Martinez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The denial of an equal education opportunity, the denial of jobs, the denial of effective participation in the voting process and police brutality.
"We are very much an oppressed, discriminated-against group in this country . . . and Texas is our Mississippi."
For it is here in Texas that more than half of the Mexican-American pupils attend virtually segregated, predominantly Hispanic schools; it is here that McAllen, the nation's lowest-income metropolitan area and overwhelmingly Mexican-American, is located; it is here that counties with large or majority Mexican-American populations have no Hispanic elected officials and it is here in Texas alone that at least seven Mexican-Americans have met death while in the custody of lawmen in recent years.
But the plight of the Mexican-American is not uniquely Texan. For example, in California, which has never suffered its minorities gladly, investigators found classes for retarded children comprised solely of Mexican-American children whose only problems were language and reading ability.
And at one time, East Los Angeles, with 600,000 Mexican-Americans, was scattered among an array of state legislative and U.S. COngressional districts so that Hispanic voting power was no more than 35 percent in any one district.
"The same month that the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education [outlawing public school segregation in 1954], it ruled in Hernandez vs. Texas that Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) could not be excluded from juries," says Peter Roos, also of the Mexican-American legal defense fund.
"Black civil rights took off. Nothing much happened with Chicanos."
"We're just now emerging," Martinez adds. "We are very much an emerging people."
What these Americans are trying to emerge from is more than a century of oppression that once took such open form as being regularly abused by Texas Rangers or being codified in a California law as "greasers." That state also once distributed its school funds on the number of white students, and did not count Mexican-Americans.
And while an estimated 50 per cent of Mexican-American first graders do not speak English as well as their Anglo classmates, Texas, for 51 years until 1969, prohibited school instruction in any language but English. Corporal punishment followed for children caught speaking Spanish on school grounds.
Although rooted in history, discrimination against Mexican-Americans is not a thing of the past.
Today, it can be petty. El Paso attorney and state Rep. Paul Moreno recalls the time he and his brother sat silently in the city airport waiting for the midnight flight to Los Angeles. Next to them was a group of Orientals talking in their native language. An immigration officer approached. He asked the Morenos, not the Vietnamese, about their citizenship.
Or the discrimination can be devastating. "So massive a failure" has occured in education for Mexican-Americans, said the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, that for every 10 who start school only six will graduate. One of every four Mexican-Americans has less than five years' schooling. The commission pronounced southwestern school systems educationally bankrupt and cited in part school officials who blame "failure on (Mexican-American) children rather than on the inadequacies of the school program."
The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare found that from 1970 to 1975, Hispanic school children increasingly attended schools that were predominately minority groups, even as segregation of blacks was decreasing.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated that half of the nation's Spanish-surnamed population over 18 has less than an 11th grade education (50 percent of blacks are high school graduates, as are 70 percent of whites). And census figures show that Mexican-Americans tend to have lower educational levels than other Hispanic families. Thus, of the nation's 15 largest metropolitan areas, it is Houston that has the lowest educational level for Spanish-surnamed people -- half of them have less than 10 years of school.
Not surprisingly then, a larger share of Mexican-Americans lives in poverty and holds down menial jobs -- clean-up work in the city, farm labor in the country. They can be seen from the road, dozens bent in half under a blistering sun picking fruits and vegetables by day; returning to shanties at night; piling into buses and trucks and cars for the harvest pilgrimages north.
Of every 13 Mexican-American men over 16, one makes his living like that.
Twenty-two of every 100 Mexican-American families live below the poverty line, compared with nine out of 100 for others.
The result is that some of this nation's poorest communities are concentrated in heavily Mexican-American areas, particularly along the Texas-Mexico border.
The McAllen metropolitan area of Hidalgo County has the lowest average per person income in the United States -- $2,220 a year, or $42.69 a week for every man, woman and child.
Neighboring Starr County is the poorest county in the United States; San Antonio, Texas' second largest city, and El Paso have the lowest family income among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas. Brownsville and Laredo join McAllen as the three lowest family-incomes of all metropolitan areas.
What progress there has been toward improving the life of Mexixan-Americanshhas been largely the result of action by federal courts, federal agencies and Congress. School desegregation has been ordered, election practices scrutinized and school programs required.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1970 declared that failure of schools to provide instruction in a child's native language, if he couldn't speak English, was discriminatory and thus could lead to a loss of federal funds.
In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that offering education in English only was a violation of the rights of children who cannot speak it. The same year, Congress enacted legislation providing for bilingual and bicultural school programs.
The result today is that El Paso, for example, some $5.5 million in state, federal and local money is being spent to provide varying degrees of bilingual education to 23,361 pupils, some of them being taught in Spanish, some Anglos learning Spanish.
In 1975, Congress extended the Voting Rights Act to protect Hispanics and certain other language minorities from seamy voting practices. That and the Supreme Court's one-man, one-vote ruling are being used by the Mexican-American legal defense fund and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to redraw electoral districts right down to the county commissioner level.
But change comes slowly. "We've won all the redistricting cases. But it's so damn time consuming," says William Velasquez of the voter registration project.
As they have gained help at the federal level in the past, Mexican-Americans are now also turning to Washington for massive civil rights protection against what they see as unwarranted use of force, and outright abuse, by lawmen in the Southwest.
What the Justice Department has offered so far has been a plodding, case-by-case review of several Mexican-American deaths, investigations carried out virtually at the whim of FBI offices and U.S. attorneys in the Southwest.
Martinez, in a plea to Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, cited 30 well-publicized cases of possible police misconduct -- some of which the Justice Department says it never heard of. Said Drew S. Days III, assistant attorney general for civil rights: "On some of these cases we have no record, we have never received any kind of complaint, we never got the FBI report, nothing from U.S. attorneys.
"I don't want to try to allocate blame. The fact is that some of these matters come to us slowly."
If ever. The FBI initially refused to investigate Lozano's mysterious death in the second-floor jail of the county courthouse here in Odessa, deferring to the Texas Rangers. Only after someone complained to Tony Canales, the U.S. attorney 450 miles away in Houston, did a federal investigation start.
Here, the investigation into Lozano's death awaits an inquest by Justice of the Peace Virgil Lumpee, who on Jan. 22 hastily ruled the death a suicide. Lumpee is now waiting for a third medical examiner's report before convening the inquest, in which jurors will rule on whether the death was suicide, homicide, natural or accidental.
The local prosecutor, John Green, says that if the verdict is homicide, prosecution will follow, but he has his mind made up: the Mexican-American groups alleging that Lozano was beaten, he said, "will eat their words."
"There is not anything unusual that happened."
And that is exactly what has concerned Mexican Americans.