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Examining Mexican-American Studies, 'A History That Was Denied'

Norma Martinez

In 2010, public schools in Arizona were forbidden from teaching Mexican American studies to their students.  A group of Republican state lawmakers there argued that the classes created resentments towards other races, and even in some cases, promoted the overthrow of the U.S. government.  A U.S. District Court judge is expected to rule on the ban’s constitutionality in the coming days.

Educators in Texas are looking past the Arizona controversy and are working to teach public school students about Hispanics’ often-overlooked role in shaping American history. 

Texas Public Radio’s Norma Martinez sat down with Marco Cervantes, director of the Mexican American Studies Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Lilliana Saldaña, Associate Professor in Bicultural-Bilingual Studies at the UTSA College of Education and Human Development.

In Texas there was a push some years ago to get Mexican American Studies implemented in public schools, but I believe it was in 2014 that the legislature said that schools can allow Mexican American studies on a voluntary basis. It was more of an elective. So what can you tell us if there was any similar type of pushback in the legislature that happened before in Arizona?

LILLIANA:  Yeah, some of the state board of education members felt that ethnic studies in general was still very anti-American. You have state board members who were very much against the idea of multi-cultural education, you had members who didn’t believe in the idea of ethnic studies, that students should just be learning “American History,” which to us is a version of history that excludes the experiences of people of color in this country.  So there was a lot of pushback for a high school requirement for ethnic studies.

Well it also could be easily argued that here in Texas, the history of Texas could not be possible without the participation of what was going on south of the border, the Tejanos, and everybody who was participating in the history of Texas. So when Texas history is taught in schools, is it considered an elective course? And if not, is the story of the Tejanos and of the Mexicans who were part of the history of Texas included in the studies?

LILLIANA: If you grew up in Texas, you had to take a Texas history course. And from my own experience, I only learned the Anglo side of history. And so it was a version that often omitted Mexicans or vilified Mexicans as the enemy, as the foreigner. And so a Mexican American studies perspective in Texas history would allow for various perspectives, for a more amplified examination of ethnic race relations in the making of Texas. And so we believe that Mexican American Studies provides a venue for examining multiple perspectives, for honoring the voices that have been omitted, for ensuring that history is more inclusive of the Tejano experience. Because even today it’s very, very marginalized in the current textbooks.

MARCO:  I have the same history - I grew up in Houston - so taking Texas history in 7th & 8th grade, I got a very, very narrow view of what Texas history was about.  Very Eurocentric, very celebratory of hero figures like Davy Crockett, Travis, and such. So, yes, I think that I needed it, I think that affected me, it affected how I viewed myself, my confidence. And when I did start really becoming engaged in African American, Mexican American literature at the university level, that’s when I really started to figure out, wow, this was a history that was denied from me.  Yet, as you said, it’s such a big part of Texas history. Like, why wasn’t it there?  And I see that this continues with our students.  We teach entry-level, freshmen-level courses.  And we have conversations with our students at the beginning of the semester usually to find out what they’re bringing to class. But also what kinds of education they got in terms of Mexican American studies, and it’s usually very limited to, like, Cesar Chavez. Like, one name. That’s it. Not the contributions of the many Chicanas & Chicanos of the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the civil rights cases, WWII vets, the richness of the Chicano movement.  A lot of students think ‘Chicano’ is a bad word.  I think we have a lot of work to do if our youth are scared of the word ‘Chicano,’ rather than seeing it as a word of empowerment.  So many of our ancestors and elders that came before us worked hard to push towards including us in this society.  So I think that education is a really big, important part of this.

But the source of the education has also come into question, because I know that last year, in the legislature, there was only 1 book submitted as a textbook for high schools, and I think it was called “Mexican American Heritage.” And it was published by non-Hispanic publishers, and I know that there were a lot stereotypes that were very controversial, like introducing the concept of the ‘lazy Mexicans,’ and that Mexicans were not reared to work a full day’s work and that’s why the industrialists were so successful.

LILLIANA: The book was very, very problematic.  There were things in that book that were just straight up not factual.  And there were also omissions, there were also historical distortions.  And so it was not just a matter of being incorrect, it was a pretty racist textbook.  And when you look at some of the ideas that were presented in the book about indigenous people not being advanced or being as civilized as Europeans, Mexican immigrants being a threat to the United States and being criminals. And of course the 20th century workers who are of Mexican origin who were lazy compared to their white counterparts.  This is not the kind of literature that we want students to be reading, Mexican or non-Mexican.  It’s just not the kind of book that we need in the classroom. 

We’ve talked about some of the pushback in the legislature, but in the schools, in the administration, have you had any conflicts with them as far as proposing bringing Mexican American studies to the schools? 

LILLIANA:  Not necessarily a direct conflict.  It’s been challenging to get school districts and superintendents and principals to jump into the whole ‘Mexican American studies’ because there isn’t a lot of knowledge on the benefits of Mexican American studies in the community.  In academia, we’ve seen the benefits of Mexican American studies working with our students at the university.  We know that from the case in Arizona that there are tremendous benefits to ethnic studies, specifically Mexican American studies.  We do have community support.  But we need to create stronger partnerships with schools, with our teachers, our principals, our curriculum specialists, our curriculum developmental specialists, and everyone who works in the school district.  The superintendents.  What we see is, for example in San Antonio, we have 16 school districts. And out of the 16 school districts and the many schools that are part of those districts, we only have 2 schools that are offering Mexican American studies.  Stephens High School -  we have Andres Lopez who teaches a course in Mexican American literature – and we also have Kipp Academy, and they’re teaching a dual credit course with Palo Alto College.  They’re teaching the Mexican American fine arts & appreciation class.  It’s an exciting time because we are really building from the ground up.  This is really a vision that comes from the 1960s.  The idea of Chicano and Chicano studies.  The idea of being able to teach our history and our culture.  And to teach about the Mexican American experience from an interdisciplinary perspective and the perspective of the people in our community has been a vision that is long overdue in terms of implementing it in our community and in our schools. 

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1