A Textbook Case: Texas Educators Fight for K–12 Mexican American Studies
Kritika Agarwal, December 2016
For more than a decade, some students in the majority-Latino/a Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) learned the histories of colonialism in the Americas and structural equality in the United States. They read Ana Castillo’s So Far from God as an example of magical realism, recited Luis Valdez’s poem “My Other Me,” and discussed critical race theory. This was TUSD’s Mexican American studies course, which was banned in 2010 when Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed HB 2281 into law. While the measure didn’t single out a particular curricular subject, it prohibited schools from teaching courses “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” Tom Horne, then Arizona state schools superintendent, said the course was “harmful and dysfunctional” encouraging resentment of the United States. Under pressure of losing funding, TUSD—despite student-led protests—stopped offering the course and even banned some of the books it had included.
For educators across the Southwest, the events in Arizona prompted an unexpected question: “Why don’t we have Mexican American studies courses?” Speaking to The Atlantic, Tony Diaz, a professor at Houston’s Lone Star College–North Harris, noted, “The ban of Mexican American studies in Arizona opened our eyes. . . . We realized there was nothing to ban in Texas[.]” Since then, Texas educators have been working to bring Mexican American studies to K–12 classrooms, with support from students, activists, and evidence that ethnic studies classes improve graduation rates.
The movement caught national attention earlier this year, when the textbook Mexican American Heritage was submitted to the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) for approval. With no known expertise in Mexican American studies, the authors refer to Mexicans as “lazy” and describe Chicanos as people who “opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.” Educators took action. Using the AHA’s Guidelines for the Preparation, Evaluation, and Selection of History Textbooks (1997) and Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (updated 2011), an ad hoc committee of educators in the field—AHA members among them—reviewed the book and concluded that it was “a polemic attempting to masquerade as a textbook,” factually incorrect, and racist. The committee wrote that the book’s thesis was that “Mexican American history reveals major menacing or un-American trends in American history, society, and culture[.]” The AHA took action, too, sending a letter to the SBOE expressing concern about the book’s content shortly after the committee’s report. In the end, the textbook will not be adopted—in November, the SBOE voted to reject it—yet it symbolizes challenges facing those who want to bring Mexican American studies into K–12 classrooms.
Mexican American studies courses began appearing in Texas’s four-year colleges and universities in response to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Community colleges began offering programs in 2003. But the movement to bring such courses to K–12 classrooms is fairly recent. Heeding a call from state activists, in 2014 SBOE member Ruben Cortez added a course on Mexican American history to the board’s “wish list” of new social studies courses. The mostly conservative SBOE voted 11–3 in favor of a plan, known as Proclamation 2016, to ask publishers to submit textbooks on Mexican American studies (as well as Native American, African American, and Asian American studies) for possible adoption. The SBOE also voted to allow individual school districts to offer Mexican American and other ethnic studies courses as social studies electives.
The plan to issue a call for textbooks before creating a course was a compromise between the SBOE and activists, says Trinidad Gonzales, professor of history at South Texas College (STC) and the two-year institution representative for the AHA’s Teaching Division. From an activist standpoint, it was a victory, since school districts could offer ethnic studies courses independently. But it also put off the larger question of creating a state-approved Mexican American studies course with a corresponding textbook. With 1,219 public school districts serving over 5 million students, Texas wields outsize power in the world of textbook publishing: the texts the SBOE approves are sold in such high quantities that they influence the options of other state boards.
Texas educators seized the opportunity that the proclamation offered. Gonzales joined Victoria Rojas (Mission High School in Mission, Texas) and Juan Carmona (Donna High School in Donna, Texas) to develop a Mexican American studies curriculum that incorporated state standards and made it available to teachers online. Gonzales and Rojas also created a dual-enrollment course in Mission and STC that allows high school students to earn college credit. The six students who enrolled were the first in Texas to take such a course. Today, students in San Antonio, Houston, Beaumont, and other cities can take Mexican American studies. And earlier this year, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) held a Mexican American Studies Pre-K–12 summit in San Antonio to develop a “strategic plan for implementing Mexican American Studies in Texas schools.”
The demographic shift toward Latinos/as in Texas is having an impact on political attitudes and, it’s likely, educators’ desire to include ethnic studies in the curriculum. According to Juan Tejeda, professor of Mexican American studies at Palo Alto College and the chair of the NACCS summit, teaching such courses is a way for educators to push back against the anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, nativist rhetoric that’s been sweeping the country and that shaped the debate in Arizona. Courses in ethnic studies allow students to gain a “multicultural perspective” that acknowledges their community’s history and offers a counterpoint to prevailing negative stereotypes, says Tejeda. The courses do not teach “anti-Americanism,” as some legislators have alleged.
Gonzales also chalks up some of the momentum to a new cadre of young Latino/a teachers who took courses in Mexican American studies in college and believe they should be available even earlier—“the fruit that’s been borne out from the successes” of the Chicano movement, says Gonzales. Rojas, a graduate of the University of Texas–Pan American and a teacher in Mission’s dual-enrollment program, exemplifies this. She recalls that her father, whose family migrated from Mexico, suffered intense discrimination in the region because of his background and for speaking Spanish; her parents therefore deemphasized Spanish and Mexican-rooted traditions at home.
Looking back, Rojas believes that they were trying to “prove themselves to be American and patriotic.” When she got to college and took courses in Mexican American studies, she felt a new worldview opening up to her. “There is so much value to ethnic studies and ethnic history in the United States,” she says. “If students do not learn about it, they cannot appreciate it or see themselves as American or as part of US history. When I started teaching, I felt that world history was very Eurocentric, US history was very Anglocentric, and I wanted to bring in other aspects of history that were missing.” For Rojas, this means bringing in not just Mexican American perspectives, but also those of Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans.
As underscored by the textbook controversy, however, there are still challenges to teaching ethnic studies in Texas. As in Arizona, an opposition believes ethnic studies courses cause racial strife and hatred of the United States. Mexican American Heritage reflects this point of view. According to Gonzales, its very submission to the SBOE suggests that those opposed to ethnic studies in Texas “want to drive the narrative and tell our story for us, but from a very biased perspective.”
Another challenge is peeling through political and bureaucratic layers to actually get a course in Mexican American studies approved by the SBOE. One of the reasons that em>Mexican American Heritage was the only textbook submitted for approval, Tejeda explains, was that many academics are unfamiliar with the process. Activists were unaware of the call for textbooks and the deadline to submit books for approval. Furthermore, the SBOE, because of its political composition, has historically been unreceptive to calls for including diverse histories in the Texas curriculum. Gonzales points out that one of the reasons a state-approved textbook is so important is that it confirms the validity of the field. “The SBOE has the moral weight,” and its approval would signify a cultural shift toward affirming minority voices and representation in Texas classrooms.
With momentum in its favor, Mexican American studies appears to have a brighter future in Texas than in Arizona. And California governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation to develop a model ethnic studies curriculum for adoption in the state’s high schools. As Tejeda says, “We have a lot of work to do, but there are victories happening every day and every semester. . . . We need to begin working on integrating ethnic studies into our schools much like in California. We need that in Texas because it’s going to help our students succeed.”
The Texas State Board of Education voted unanimously against adopting Mexican American Heritage on November 16.
Kritika Agarwal is associate editor, publications, at the AHA. She tweets @kritikaldesi.
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