Jovita Idár was a Mexican American born in Laredo, Texas in 1885, four decades after the Mexican American war. She grew up in a family that valued education, and after graduating school she became a teacher at a segregated school. In a profile of Idár’s life as an activist, Marilyn La Jeunesse writes,
According to Dr. Gabriela González, the author of Redeeming La Raza: Transborder Modernity, Race, Respectability, and Rights, there were two major events that shaped Jovita Idár’s activism in her early 20s. First, there was the segregation and impoverished nature of schools for Mexican-American students that Idár had witnessed firsthand as a former teacher. Idár believed education was the foundation for a better future, Dr. González tells Teen Vogue. The young activist had been teaching since she was 18, and, after seeing the deplorable state of education provided to Mexican-American students, committed herself to ending segregation and increasing educational opportunities for Mexican-American students however she could.
In an obituary of Jovita Idár published as part of the New York Times series Overlooked, Jennifer Medina begins with this dramatic confrontation.
When the Texas Rangers showed up outside the office of the newspaper El Progreso in 1914 with the intent of shutting it down, Jovita Idár, a writer and editor, was waiting at the front door to block them from entering. And she was not about to back down.
The officers, who by then had gained a reputation for their violence against Mexicans, were furious over an editorial that criticized President Woodrow Wilson’s order to send military troops to the Texas-Mexico border amid the Mexican Revolution. Idár argued that silencing the newspaper would violate its constitutional right to freedom of the press under the First Amendment.
The Rangers eventually turned back. But the next day, when Idár was gone, they returned to ransack the office, smashing and destroying the printing presses.
Their actions would not stop Idár from writing about her view of justice, one that she had formulated from childhood.
Laws of the Jim Crow era enforcing racial segregation also limited the rights of Mexican-Americans in South Texas (they are often referred to by scholars today as “Juan Crow” laws). Signs saying “No Negroes, Mexicans or dogs allowed” were common in restaurants and stores. Law enforcement officers frequently intimidated or abused Mexican-American residents, and the schools they were sent to were underfunded and often inadequate. Speaking Spanish in public was discouraged.
As a daughter of relative privilege, Idár had access to the kind of education she dreamed of for others. Educated in Methodist schools, she received a teaching certificate from the Laredo Seminary and went on to teach young children in Los Ojuelos, a town in southeast Texas. She quickly became appalled by school conditions, including run-down buildings and a dearth of books.
She decided she could have more impact by focusing on activism and writing, joining her brothers and father at La Crónica. And after she learned of lynchings of Mexican-American men, her commitment to the civil rights struggle only deepened.
Learn more about Idár in this short film from PBS’s American Masters series.
Reflection Questions and Teaching Suggestions
You might begin by focusing on Idár’s identity. What do you know about her? What do you know about her family? What about the community that she lived in? We suggest using the graphic from Ecology of Identity as a model to begin to consider the relationship between her identity, the world Idár lived in, and the choices she made.
Idár was a teacher, a journalist, and an activist. What do you think these professional identities have in common. What is similar about them? What differences feel worth pointing out?
What do you learn from Idár’s story about democratic taking action?
How do you explain why her story has not been better known until very recently? Why do you think people have begun to focus on her story?
Use the Three Why’s Thinking Routine to reflect on the significance of Idár’s story?
- Why does it matter to you?
- What does it matter to your community?
- Why does it matter to the world?
Note:Idár’s identities as a teacher, journalist, and activist remind us of Ida B. Wells, an African American woman from the same time period who is known for her work to expose the horrors of lynching. Wells was profiled in the NY Times Overlooked obituary series. You might research her story and use the same-different-gain thinking routine to compare their experiences and contributions.