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University project resurrects 1949 images of South Texas’ Mexican Americans online

LatinaLista — Back in 1949, two sociologists from the University of Texas, George Sanchez and Lyle Saunders, wanted to study a little documented phenomenon — the expansion of the Spanish-speaking population in Texas. The two professors wanted to investigate the “social aspects of prejudice and discrimination.” What would be uncovered would help fill the gaps in the data, as well as, educate everyone from the general public to influential bureaucrats.
The research was titled the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas. The hope of the two professors was that the study would be a documentary record showing either the improvement or lack of improvement over a ten-year period.

San Angelo gallery: A mother with her babies during a brief rest stop on their way to Wyoming from Laredo, Texas. Twenty seven persons are going straight through with only short stops enroute.
(Source: Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas)

With such a broad topic, it left room for documenting every facet of Mexican-American’s lives, from how they lived to where they worked. But the major component of the study would be pictures:

Sanchez believed in the power of photographs to portray environmental conditions, social milieus, and cognitive states such as aptitude, language ability, and learning- and employment-readiness of children and adults. Sanchez shared the belief of many of his colleagues that photography was a powerful means by which to communicate important social and physical problems.

So Sanchez and Saunders hired a well known documentary photographer of the day, Russell Lee, to travel to 4 Texas cities: Corpus Christi, San Angelo, San Antonio and El Paso. Between April and July in 1949, Lee snapped hundreds of pictures of Mexican Americans capturing the “poignant, proud, exasperating, joyful, and intimate moments” of their lives.
In turn, Lee stopped time by freezing it into a visual record of over 900 images. But something odd happened — the pictures were never published in connection with the study.
Wanting to get these important images out to the public today, researchers at the University of Texas digitized all 923 photos that Russell Lee took 59 years ago and have put them up at a special site dedicated to the original study.
Each gallery of pictures is a fascinating glimpse into a past that is unfiltered or even colorized but profound simply because it is.

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