Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Jonna Perrillo's "Educating the Enemy"

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is the author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.

Perrillo applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book contains the transition between a section on the treatment of Spanish-speaking students in 1940s El Paso schools and a section on how the children of Nazi scientists (who had just moved to El Paso as part of Operation Paperclip and attended schools there) were taught English. Within the same school system, Mexican American children were physically punished for speaking Spanish (even as they constituted a statistical majority of the city’s school population) while the German children were rewarded with ice cream and teachers’ praise as they learned English. It is a bit of an odd page because it marks the end of one thought and the beginning of another, with white space in between. But as a metaphor for the book’s story, it works. These two groups of students, one actually foreign and the other treated as foreigners, rarely met in the city’s highly segregated schools, and their education experiences were quite distinct, as well.

The book traces the story of the American education of 144 children of Nazi scientists in the border city of El Paso. Some readers may have heard of the military-sponsored operation that recruited 118 V-2 scientists to work for the U.S. in the closing days of World War II. Few consider the families that the scientists were invited to bring with them or how critical their children were to shaping American public opinion, most especially in the city where the scientists landed. The Army liaison assigned to the children noted that they were the best tool for “civilizing” their parents once they learned democratic practices and beliefs in American public schools.

To tell this story, I also had to account for a less eccentric one: the disenfranchisement of Mexican Americans in the same school system where the German children were welcomed and viewed as model Americans in the making. Even in this border city, Mexican American children were segregated in poorly resourced, overcrowded schools where their Anglo teachers rarely spoke Spanish and their classmates, in the elementary grades, rarely spoke fluent English. When the children used Spanish with each other, teachers, in addition to beating them, accused them of being antisocial and un-American. If fascism could be overcome, race was a more difficult obstacle in Cold War America.

Page 99 of the book captures how even as segregation kept these two groups of students apart, the significance of each group’s story is better understood by the contrasting treatment of the other and by keeping them on the same page.
Follow Jonna Perrillo on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue