Passing the “Brown Paper Bag Test” in Segregated Schools


For many Mexican-American students growing up under the Jim Crow laws of the American Southwest in the 1950s, the question of what public school they would attend had little to do with their Spanish surnames. The deciding factor was their skin tone. Rogelio Granados, 66, attended public schools in Crystal City, Texas—home of the 1969 Chicano student movement, which led to sweeping reforms in bilingual education. He recalls that as an elementary student, he attended Crystal City’s whites-only school, because of his fare skin and green eyes. “I passed the brown paper bag test,” he said.

Light complexion was an admission qualification for Mexican-American students to attend the whites-only public school in Crystal City, Texas and other cities in the Southwest. Granados explains that at the time of enrollment, students would line up and a teacher would hold a brown paper bag against each of their arms. If the student’s complexion was darker than the brown paper bag, they would be assigned to the segregated school for Mexican-Americans. If their complexion was lighter than the brown paper bag, they were assigned to the whites-only public school. For Granados, this meant being separated from his cousins, whose darker complexion forced them to attend the public school for Mexican-American students.

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