The Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas series consists of more than 900 images taken by Russell Lee between April and July 1949 in Corpus Christi, San Angelo, San Antonio, and El Paso. The photographs include images of the many poignant, proud, exasperating, joyful, and intimate moments in the lives of people in these Mexican-American communities at a very specific point in time. The images represent a unique visual record for that period, and are unparalleled in their variety, scope, and quality. Among the many subject areas are families, children, schools, churches, housing, migrant workers, professions, trades and vocations, businesses, community organization, health and homecare, politics, and leisure activities.
The photographs were commissioned in 1948 by University of Texas professor George I. Sanchez to illustrate the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People of Texas. Directed by sociologist Lyle Saunders, the multi-year, socioeconomic study aimed to fill substantial gaps in the data then available about the expanding Spanish-speaking population of Texas. Sanchez and Saunders hoped to educate public officials, bureaucrats, and other powerful and influential Texans, as well as the general public.
Sanchez wanted to investigate social aspects of prejudice and discrimination. He chose Saunders to direct the study, assured by his colleague's credentials, previous success in the field, and knowledge of the specific areas to be surveyed. The work of experts in health, housing, education, and labor was to be coordinated and woven into a thorough analysis consisting of many points of view. Sanchez believed that this broad-ranging survey approach would leave no significant aspect of social or economic conditions among the Spanish-speaking people unexamined.
Photographs as Social Documentation
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. In a revealing letter to Russell Lee, Lyle Saunders expressed his own conviction that "a good set of pictures would do far more than any number of words in conveying the realities of the social and economic situation of Spanish-speaking Texans."1
Sanchez made repeated use of photographs in his publications to illustrate and to complement his arguments. His careful and effective selection of images is evident in such publications as Forgotten People: A Study of New Mexicans (1940), and in the 1947 publication "The People": A Study of the Navajo. For "The People", Sanchez borrowed photographs from Milton Snow, a photographer with the Division of Roads of the Navajo Service, and from the U.S. Air Force. For earlier publications, Sanchez had provided his own camera work. These photographs included portraits, panoramic landscapes, as well as still life, architectural, and industrial compositions. In a scrapbook he mounted in 1934, Sanchez displayed photographs he had taken to record the conditions of schools in New Mexico, where he taught for several years before continuing studies for advanced degrees in education.
While serving as consultant for the Inter-American Educational Foundation of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Sanchez also relied on visual images to demonstrate to public officials the effects of segregation on Mexican-American children in the New Mexico school systems. His work with several committees of the federal agency served as the springboard for the Study of the Spanish-Speaking People. In the grant proposal to the General Board of Education which provided the funding, Sanchez said the aim of his study was "to change the pictures of the Spanish-speaking people of Texas that now exist in the minds of...people." 2
1. Saunders to Lee, letter dated December 8, 1948, in the Russell Lee Photographic Collection, Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
2. A Socio-economic Survey of the Spanish-speaking People of Texas, n.d., in the Russell Lee Photographic Collection, Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
Cover Photo: School Children, San Angelo, TX. Identifier: e_rl_14233r3_0016. The Russell Lee Photographic Collection, Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.