To understand the tale of trailblazing Mexican American educator Raymond Silva, one must first get to know the Wyoming of nearly a century ago: a place of segregation, Juan Crow policies and child labor.
One must also remember, that the southwestern corner of Wyoming was Mexican territory as recently as 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, ceded the area to the U.S. The international border shifted hundreds of miles to the south with the stroke of a pen. Much of the history of the Mexican communities that remained has been lost to time.
Efforts like the “La Cultura” oral history project have tried to document a more inclusive and accurate version of Wyoming history. Another source of Mexican American history, though limited, is the state’s education records from the 20th century.
From those documents emerge the story of Silva. The son of sugar beet laborers, Silva became one of Wyoming’s first Mexican American educators.
When asked if anyone aside from his family had been interested in his life and contributions to teaching in the state, Silva replied, “no one.”
The 94 year old’s story is a testament to his perseverance in the face of segregation and one more tile brought to light in the mosaic of Wyoming’s history.
Silva was born in Torrington in 1928 to Serafin Silva and Beatrice Trujillo, both Mexican. In 1925 his family moved from neighboring Nebraska to the area to work the sugar beet harvest.
They lived in the southern half of Torrington where most of the Mexican community resided, amid what historians have coined Juan Crow policies.
“We Mexicans in Torrington were considered second-class citizens. There was segregation,” Silva said.
Housing covenants forbade non-whites from living in the city limits. Mexican farmworkers, like Silva’s family, were placed in labor-specific housing known as the “Mexican colony.”
That segregation bled into education too, and most of Silva’s peers were required to attend the “Mexican School.” Silva said he was one of the few Mexican American students who attended the white schools in town, but he doesn’t recall how he was granted admission other than his mother being a strong advocate for her family’s access to quality education.
“My [older] sister Celia took me to Torrington Elementary when school started in September,” Silva said. “The year was 1935. I was 6 years old and started the first grade. The school accepted me as I showed up the first day. They did not turn me away.”
That quality education came at a cost, in that Silva did not experience full inclusion.
“When I first started school, I did not speak any English. I missed a lot of school due to farm work. In the fall, my siblings and I worked in the sugar beet fields, but I always managed to catch up after missing many months of school,” Silva said. “They had what they called 1A, 1B and 1C classes. The top students were in 1A. When I started school, I was in 1C.”
It was thought that these limiting circumstances would keep Silva in the sugar beet fields like his parents. Yet, in school he surmounted the language and attendance barriers to graduate from Torrington High School in 1947.
His tough path through the segregated education system and his bilingual abilities sparked his interest in teaching.
“What truly got me into teaching was when I was in high school, and my high school Spanish teacher would ask me how to say things in Spanish and help her in class,” Silva said. “I figured if I knew I could do what she was doing and I knew more than the teacher, I would do pretty well being a Spanish teacher.”
Silva did just that, becoming a teacher at all levels in elementary, middle, and high schools. Available records suggest he was one of the earliest Mexican American teachers in the state.
A public servant
He started on this career path at Torrington’s Junior College in 1948, where Silva said he was the only Latino in a class of roughly 15 students. His educational pursuits were put on hold in 1950 when he was drafted to fight in the Korean War.
Safely returning to Torrington in 1951, his plans to continue his own studies were interrupted by an offer to teach at the Mexican School, renamed the Columbia School in the 1940s.
“I enjoyed teaching at the Columbia School as I had more one-on-one time with each student,” Silva said. “All my students were very eager to learn, and they primarily showed up every day. It was very fulfilling to see them learn and grow and master the English language.”
His career at the school began, however, near the end of the institution’s history. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education which desegregated schools in the American South, also resulted in the closure of the Columbia School.
After that, Silva continued his career teaching Spanish at Rock Springs High School. He later returned to Torrington to teach at the middle school.
Teacher and student
Also unprecedented like his accomplishments as a Mexican American teacher was his continuing pursuit of higher education. He graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1957 with a bachelor’s in education with minors in Spanish and English and then achieved a master’s degree in teaching in 1962.
“Being at the university was a completely different environment for me,” Silva said. “There were not many Latino students at the time.”
In the summer of 1959, his teaching abilities were noticed by the Anaheim School District in California, which recruited him to teach Spanish. In California, he taught at Orangeview Middle School and Kennedy High School, finishing his career as a high school counselor at Magnolia High School. In 1968, Silva returned to Wyoming when his father passed away and taught at the Torrington High School, before returning to California. Silva retired from the education profession in 1990.
“I found that my non-English speaking students studied harder and were more eager and dedicated to learn,” Silva said, reflecting on his time in the classroom.
This echoes the type of student Silva was himself, accomplishing a notable career that spanned a half-century including almost every aspect of K-12 education — one marked by the integration of public schools.