Summit Highlights Momentum on Mexican American Studies

Spurred by frustration at a proposed Mexican American Studies textbook that has been called racist and inaccurate, over 200 educators, scholars and activists gathered for a statewide meeting on Mexican American Studies in public schools.

 Graphic by Todd Wiseman

Spurred in part by frustration at a proposed textbook that has been called racist and inaccurate, over 200 educators, scholars and activists gathered at San Antonio College on Saturday for the largest ever statewide meeting on Mexican American Studies in public schools. 

The Summit on Implementing Mexican American Studies in Texas Schools was the latest milestone in the years-long fight to offer those courses throughout the state, where over half of public school students are Hispanic. Two years ago, the State Board of Education called for textbooks that it could recommend to school districts offering the courses. Last month, the board released samples of the only textbook submission it had received, titled "Mexican American Heritage." Educators who had cheered the call for textbooks decried the text as politically slanted and inaccurate, and the textbook debate came up frequently in speeches and discussions at the summit.

"What we’re up against is an intentional changing of our history," said SBOE member Marisa Perez, D-San Antonio, in a speech at the beginning of the event. "We want to make sure that people know that we recognize that and we’re not going to stand for it."

Speakers at a press conference addressed plans to fight the adoption of the textbook, while attendees participated in working sessions on publicity, political and legislative strategy, curriculum development and collection of information about Mexican American Studies courses across Texas. Despite the controversy over "Mexican American Heritage," summit organizer Christopher Carmona, an instructor of English at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, said momentum is building in support of these courses across the state.

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Carmona, who is also the chair of the Committee on Mexican American Studies in Pre-K-12 at Tejas Foco, the state branch of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, said it’s difficult to know precisely how schools offer the courses for credit because teachers tend to design the classes individually. He believes there are fewer than ten districts where at least one school offers the course, including Houston ISD, Edinburg CISD, Mission CISD, Pasadena ISD, Donna ISD, and San Antonio's KIPP College Preparatory High School.  Other teachers in other districts could be incorporating Mexican American history and literature into core classes, like English and U.S. History. One of the goals of the summit was to collect more information about what individual Texas schools are doing — and then develop a plan to increase the number of programs.

“Especially with this election cycle, there’s been a lot of activism kicked up because [Donald] Trump and everything has really galvanized the xenophobia,” Carmona said. “All the activists have a fire lit under them now and there’s a lot more organization."

When planning for the summit began in February, Carmona expected 60 people would show up; instead, more than 200 came from Houston, Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio. 

The textbook controversy has its roots in an earlier push to establish a statewide curriculum for Mexican American Studies, which was sparked in part by opposition to Arizona’s 2010 ban on such classes in public schools. In 2014, SBOE member Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, proposed establishing a course on the subject and asking the TEA to write state standards.

As a compromise, the board ultimately voted 11-3 to ask publishers to submit textbooks on Mexican-American, Asian-American, African-American and Native American studies, so that districts could use the materials to develop their own courses under the umbrella of a preexisting elective called Special Topics in Social Studies. According to the TEA, about 12,000 students are enrolled in a course with that label. 

In an interview before the summit, Carmona, who is a member of a panel that will review "Mexican American Heritage" and make recommendations to the board, said that even if the book is approved, it won’t necessarily be widely used in classrooms, because districts are free to choose their own materials (and could choose to use "Mexican American Heritage" regardless of the board's decision). The larger problem is that teachers who want to establish Mexican American Studies courses find it difficult to do so because they generally have to build the curriculum from scratch. 

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Agustin Loredo, who teaches the course at South Houston High School in Pasadena ISD, said he wrote his own year-long, interdisciplinary curriculum when he first started the class 11 years ago. At the time, he said, some of his colleagues asked questioned the need for the course, given the existing requirement that high school students take U.S. history.

"My answer is, just show me at least five Mexican Americans and what they’ve contributed to this country in U.S. history books, and they’re not there," Loredo said.

As a member of the Goose Creek CISD Board of Trustees, he has also helped to implement a course at Goose Greek Memorial High School. Loredo said he saw the summit as an opportunity to share resources and experiences on a larger scale.

Working groups at the summit announced plans to launch a website to publicize Mexican American Studies developments in Texas schools, increase STEM-related resources that incorporate culturally specific content, and identify community partners who could work with students.  

Sarah Van Zant, who teaches freshmen at Harlandale ISD, came to the summit looking for those resources; she will teach the course for the first time next school year. She has been developing a curriculum based on materials she used in her college courses, and hadn't heard about the textbook controversy until the summit.

Summit organizers hope Van Zant is just one of many educators across the state who will start a program as that possibility becomes more visible. When the SBOE issued the call for textbooks in 2015, Cortez announced that he hoped 200 Texas schools would offer Mexican American Studies within 24 months. The turnout at the summit, Cortez said, is a sign of quiet but steady progress towards that goal. 

"I believe at some point in the very near future it’s just gonna snowball," Cortez said. 

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The SBOE will vote on the textbook in September.