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The inspiration behind Jonna Perrillo’s latest book came when she discovered a black and white newspaper photograph in an El Paso history book of four girls on the Crockett Elementary School playground.
“Which girls are German and which are American? On the playground it made no difference,” the caption reads. The girls “are children of German specialists working on rocket research for the U.S.,” it notes.
Their fathers were top Nazi scientists the U.S. government brought from Germany to America after World War II — first to Fort Bliss and then to Huntsville, Alabama, to work for NASA — as part of a secret U.S. intelligence program dubbed Operation Paperclip.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Perrillo recalled. “I had heard of Operation Paperclip, but even though I am an education historian, I had never thought about the children involved.”
The children’s experience was absent from historical archives and Perrillo, an English education professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, has created an archive of her own in her forthcoming book “Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands.”
The book contrasts the German children’s warm welcome and integration into El Paso public schools with that of Mexican American children, who attended segregated schools where they were disciplined for speaking Spanish and seen as having limited career options.
El Paso Matters spoke to Perrillo about the book and what lessons she hopes contemporary readers draw from this part of El Paso’s history.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
El Paso Matters: What made you decide to compare the Paperclip children’s experience in El Paso schools to that of Mexican American students?
Perrillo: I thought it was going to be a book about anxiety, about these children of Nazi scientists entering El Paso schools a year after the war ended. The school most of them attended, Crockett Elementary, had just built this large stained glass window to commemorate the alumni who had died in the war. So that school had a particular connection in some ways to the military community here before Fort Bliss Elementary was built.
And that wasn’t the story at all. (The Paperclip children) were warmly embraced, quickly embraced and in fact, used, by the schools in many ways to show how schools were these sort of bastions of democracy — they could even democratize children of Nazis and make them into American citizens. As soon as I figured that out, I knew that it really had to be a story about why and what that meant for the majority of students in El Paso who are Mexican American who were not being treated with the same kind of warm embrace.
El Paso Matters: What are some key themes you would like readers, particularly El Pasoans, to take away from “Educating the Enemy?”
Perrillo: People who have read chapters or have asked me about the book tell me how their own parents or grandparents were physically disciplined for speaking Spanish in school. There are parts of this history that are very familiar to a lot of people who live here, but I don’t think the comparative aspect — just how different things were in the schools the Paperclip children attended — and the political agenda and patriotism that was being highlighted by schools writ large in El Paso is always so clear.
Another goal is showing the ways in which schools have been both segregationist and at the same time institutions that cultivate or foster a sense of white identity. There is a very clear patriotic curriculum here that I think resonates with a lot of what we’re hearing about in our contemporary culture that was very welcoming to the Paperclip children and was ready to see them as potential American citizens because they were white, seemingly well disciplined, seemingly smart, seemingly happy. This happiness is a theme in the book — the ways in which many Mexican American children were seen by many Anglos, educators and elsewise, as unhappy, as not wanting to speak English, as anti-social, reclusive and diffident.
(This history) resonates with everything we’re hearing now about critical race theory and Texas state law and other legislation that actually talks about how children are supposed to feel in school, specifically that nothing can be taught that can make children feel guilty or unhappy. This idea of happy white children is seen as a symbol of American democracy. That healthy democracies create happy white children is not a new idea. I didn’t realize how important it was going to be when I started the project (in 2014). But these are all things that I think can help us to understand where we are right now.
Texas schools have had a historical commitment to education segregation, to unequal education, to privileging white students — I think in some cases we can even call to white supremacy. And to helping its most privileged citizens maintain political power. All of that is here in the history of post-war El Paso.
El Paso Matters: What do you hope that administrators and teachers in El Paso take away particularly when it comes to the inequality still seen in the city’s public schools?
Perrillo: One thing that we see in the book, particularly in response to building conditions, is how active Mexican American parents were in protesting conditions like their students having to take classes in hallways because the schools were so overcrowded. … A lot of times those parental efforts are erased and not understood. I think there are still probably a lot of parents who are overlooked, who have really strong views about their children’s education and what they want for their children from El Paso schools, but it’s harder for them to get their message through.
I would hope that we could learn to listen a little bit better to community demands. This is such an illustrative moment if you look at the masking debates — that’s a minority of parents who are out there protesting (mask mandates). Who gets listened to and whose voices count is something we can think about from this story and be a little bit more conscious of it.
El Paso Matters: How do you talk to your own children, who attend public schools here, about what “Educating the Enemy” is about?
Perrillo: (This specific story) has to be part of a larger conversation about inequity, racism and the roles schools play in fostering and bolstering American racial systems. That’s something I tried to highlight a lot in the book — we think of schools as these products of policy that don’t have choices; that Texas state law or American federal law sets the course and schools are just following along. In a lot of moments in this story we see the ways in which schools had a lot of freedom in terms of what they did with students once they walked through those doors. Curriculum was created that empowered some students and disenfranchised others, and that was written by ordinary teachers. To see schools as separate from policy or separate from social beliefs is obviously erroneous.
When I talk about (my research) with young children, I try to talk about the ways in which it’s connected to things that I think are very visible to them, especially in El Paso. One of the reasons why I love living here is that my children’s schools are economically and racially diverse and they meet and learn from students who are not like them and have very different lives. We don’t talk about the minute details of the curriculum, but the lesson that some students get treated better than others just based on their families, where they come from and what people think they should do when they grow up is something that actually is not that hard for (children) to believe.
“Educating the Enemy” is available for pre-order at Literarity Book Shop and will be available in store by late January. Perrillo is giving a book talk March 3 in conjunction with El Paso Holocaust Museum and Temple Mount Sinai.
Cover photo: The Paperclip children primarily attended Crockett Elementary in Central El Paso.