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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1974: Serna v. Portales

John, Jr. Collier, photographer. Ojo Sarco, New Mexico. One-room school in an isolated mountainous Spanish-American community, which has eight grades and two teachers. The teachers have little equipment with which to work and the ABCs, penmanship, and grammar are taught on the blackboard. 1943. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Serna v. Portales Municipal Schools (1974) was a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of Mexican-American families against New Mexico’s Portales school system for discriminatory practices that denied equal educational opportunities to Spanish-surnamed students.

Judy Serna was the lead plaintiff of Serna v. Portales (1974) and a student at Lindsey Elementary School, where a majority of students with Spanish surnames were enrolled during the 1972-1973 academic year. According to the plaintiffs, the Portales school district deprived ESL (English as a second language) students of a meaningful bilingual and multicultural education, violating their statutory and constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

The plaintiffs demonstrated evidence that Lindsey school students were 1.3 years behind the national average level and that Spanish-surnamed students had higher dropout rates than their Anglo counterparts. Psychologists also testified on the harmful learning consequences Spanish language students may have after stepping into an unfamiliar English language setting.

In 1972, the U.S. Court for the District of New Mexico ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding evidence of inadequate bilingual school curriculum, educational disparities among Spanish-surnamed students, and violations of the 14th Amendment and Title VI by the Portales school system.

The court instructed the Portales school system to implement a meaningful education to all, including the recruitment of bilingual teachers and a curriculum that featured daily bilingual instruction to all Portales School District students. Following the court’s decision, the defendants unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.


1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including Title VI which states that “No person shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal Financial assistance”.
1971 The United States Congress enacts the Bilingual Instruction Act, which recognizes the educational need of students with limited English proficiency and provides federal funds to schools to establish bilingual programs.
1972 The U.S. District Court of New Mexico rules in favor of Judy Serna, finds evidence of inadequate bilingual educational curriculum within the Portales School District, and instructs the public school system to implement a series of reforms. The Portales school system appeals to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
1974 In Lau v. Nichols (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court case rules on behalf of non-English speaking Chinese students, who had been deprived from a meaningful bilingual education in violation with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Following the Supreme Court ruling of Lau v. Nichols (1974), the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the U.S. District Court of New Mexico's ruling on Serna v. Portales (1974).


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