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The beauty in the struggle
Nico Tellez, VI Form

I have spent the past three years working on a project to document the civil rights movement from the Hispanic perspective. Being a person of Hispanic descent and having grandparents who were highly involved in the fight, I wanted not only to reaffirm the black commitment for civil rights, but shed light on the millions of Hispanic men and women who dedicated their lives in the making of the America we see today.

I accomplished my goal by documenting the history of one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, the American GI Forum. I traveled around the country researching at university archives, collecting primary artifacts, and interviewing members of the American GI Forum. In 2018, my project will be on display in the National Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. 

I traveled around the country researching at university archives, collecting primary artifacts, and interviewing members of the American GI Forum. In 2018, my project will be on display in the National Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. 

The American GI Forum was founded in  1948 by 700 returning Hispanic WWII  veterans, most notably Dr. Hector P.  Garcia and my grandparents – Luis P.  Tellez and Isabelle O. Tellez. The organization has been in the forefront in civil rights struggles by advocating for Hispanic veterans’ benefits, desegregation of schools, voter registration, fair judicial proceedings, and combating media stereotyping and distortions.

How did this project come up? 

When I was in Lower and Middle School, my grandparents suffused my mind with poignant tales of the discrimination they faced firsthand: they were forced to study in segregated schools and were refused service by restaurants and businesses who posted signs in the front of their shops that read, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” 

When I entered Upper School, I asked myself more and more: where were my grandparents and all the other Hispanic civil rights activists in the history books? I looked for their history in my courses, but found little or none. In junior year we read W.E.B. Dubois’ Souls of Black Folk, in which he examines the idea of this double consciousness and the struggle of the African-American to find an identity. I found hundreds of young Hispanics who were in the same predicament. They all had a sense of not belonging and lack of identity in their own country. They didn’t have Hispanic heroes to look up to or history to be proud of – well, at least none that they had learned about in school. 

Along with research work, I found myself connecting to the broader community – largely due to the fact that my grandmother offered my help, guidance, and support to middle schools with high concentrations of Hispanics. I also visited reservations and reached out to family friends. On these occasions, I asked kids to tell their stories, encouraged them to fulfill their true potential, and challenged them to wear their history and identity with pride. I hope in turn they see the many possibilities of the world. 

I asked kids to tell their stories, encouraged them to fulfill their true potential, and challenged them to wear their history and identity with pride. I hope in turn they see the many possibilities of the world. 

I remember going with my 94-year-old grandmother to a local Hispanic event in Old Town, New Mexico. It was near the location of my family’s faltering farm, which at its peak in the late-1800s through the mid-1900s, extended miles along the Rio Grande, but what is today only a few acres of dust, plants, and animals. At the event, there was a prominent national leader speaking in front of several hundred people. In the middle of a man’s address, my grandmother stood up with a microphone that had been lying on the table in the back of the space. She talked about the struggles of the past and the successes of the Chicano movement, but she focused on the present and the many things left to be done. She mentioned the high dropout rate of Hispanic students, that they live in the highest concentrations of poverty, and that they attend the lowest-achieving schools. I was in awe that she had the boldness to stand up in front of all those people. It was then that I realized that movements are strongest at the grassroots level; it's about the awakening of ordinary people to take dangerous steps, and the first step is always the hardest.

... Nobody would have thought that he would go on to hold the most prominent position in the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations the world has ever seen and personally meet every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to George Bush. He always told me that we all have thoughts and goals, but the people who actually achieve them are those who make the decision to act.

My grandfather, sadly, will never see my finished project. He was a poor boy born in Mentmore, New Mexico. A man of humble beginnings, he got a high school education and then it was off to WWII. His father worked in the coal mines and his mother was a strong Native woman who raised 12 kids. Nobody would have thought that he would go on to hold the most prominent position in the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations the world has ever seen and personally meet every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to George Bush. He always told me that we all have thoughts and goals, but the people who actually achieve them are those who make the decision to act. He also told me, “Never be complacent.” You have to go beyond here and now and imagine what you want the future to look like. His life shows that all you need to change the world is a small group of dedicated men and women.

After delivering my Reflection to the Upper School, my classmates gave me a genuine standing ovation and I received emails from dozens of students and teachers. One faculty member wrote to me and said, “It was a transformative moment for Haverford as we all were spellbound, drawn into your family's story and your own journey of identity and discovery. It was moving and inspiring, and honestly Nico, one of those moments when I am glad I chose to make my professional life at Haverford.” My day ended with a full heart and watered eyes. I am proud to tell people that I attend The Haverford School, where the most promising and diverse minds have gathered to change the world. I am thankful to all the people who have fought to give me such an amazing opportunity.