Composite / Courtesy
By now, educators, activists, and politicians across the country have taken their shots at Mexican American Heritage, a Mexican-American studies (MAS) textbook currently being vetted by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). The book has been criticized for being racist as well as intellectually sloppy and dull.
The textbook is winning consideration by conservative state education officials at the same time Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, continues to be met by protestors at every campaign stop who say he is a racist, pointing to his incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants. Hispanic population growth continues to outpace other groups, and appears to be the target of Trump’s nationalistic message.
State Sen. José Menéndez is among those actively speaking out against the MAS textbook and the state treating it as a serious work of history. Students, Menéndez points out, would be forced to read passages that would be insulting to Hispanics and potentially inflame anti-Hispanic sentiment. Here is one such excerpt on page 415:
“Chicanos, on the other hand, adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.”
St. Mary’s University Associate Professor of History and current O’Connor Chair for the History of Hispanic Texas and the Southwest Teresa Van Hoy said such statements are disturbing for their historical inaccuracy and blatant bias.
“I don’t think ‘racist’ goes far enough if we want to understand what’s problematic, but also what gave rise to the text,” Van Hoy said.
The deeper rhetoric of the book paints Hispanics not as nefarious individuals or even by their more ubiquitous social stereotypes. The book subtly and not-so-subtly builds a rhetorical basis for Mexican Americans as “an endemic and systemic threat to life as we know it,” according to Van Hoy.
This, says Van Hoy, is the framework for racial subjugation and, in extreme cases throughout the world, genocide.
“The controversial book is an exercise in political rhetoric,” said Michael Soto, associate professor of English at Trinity University and a former state school board member.
Menéndez said the textbook feeds into a radical nationalism increasingly evident in American politics.
“The timing of it all makes me even more angry,” Menéndez said.
Much of the current anxiety has to do with preserving power structures already in place. Van Hoy poses a rhetorical question, the same one she poses to students in her classes when teaching them to interpret cultural artifacts from billboards to textbooks: “Who gets the money and the power if I believe X?”
Multiculturalism is a grave concern to many conservatives, especially when it comes to what is taught in the classroom.
“What happens with history, especially in the elementary schools, is that it gets used as an instrument of identity building,” Van Hoy said.
In Texas, 52% of all public school students are of Hispanic origin, and most are Mexican-American. When they read their Texas history textbooks in 4th and 7th grade, they are far more likely to read about Austin, Houston, Travis, and even Hogg than Navarro and Seguín, let alone a name like Macario Garcia. In U.S. History, the lack of Hispanic representation is even more glaring.
In what critics say is a long overdue attempt to give the state’s student majority a more complete picture of their own place in Texas history, the state school board approved the inclusion of ethnic studies in the “special topics in social studies” curriculum, in 2014. It issued an RFP for textbooks pertaining to these topics, which include African-American, Mexican-American, and other underrepresented histories.
Submitted textbooks must be considered by the SBOE if they meet the standards of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) requirements in subject matter. The textbook in question was submitted by Momentum Instruction, which reportedly has ties to right-wing activist and former SBOE member Cynthia Noland Dunbar.
The problem, of course, for those who would like to keep American identity closely aligned with Anglo heritage, is that it’s a false narrative, Van Hoy said.
In Texas, Anglo and Mexican histories are so deeply intertwined that Anglos have lost chunks of their own history as education ignores Mexican-American voices. She points to the prominent Anglo families of the past and present, from Patrick Henry to Red McCombs, who have married into Hispanic families.
Menéndez sits at this intersection personally. Married to an Anglo woman, his children have a blended heritage, and he desires to see them embrace both equally.
“I think we can do a better job without segregating ourselves,” Menéndez said.
Indeed, most educators would agree that Anglo children benefit from understanding the heritage and history of their non-Anglo peers. In San Antonio, the benefits should be even more obvious.
“We all lose if our children don’t learn (about diverse cultures),” Van Hoy said.
Mainstreaming MAS and other histories could have other benefits as well. The populations currently underrepresented in history textbooks happen to be the same populations on the wrong side of the achievement gap. While pointing at the multitude of reasons that Hispanic and African-American students statistically have lower educational outcomes, it rarely comes up that students who do not see themselves in the state’s past might not see themselves in the state’s future.
Such inclusion is the norm on the college level, Soto and Van Hoy said, where diversity and critical analysis are embedded in all courses of study. For many Hispanic and African-American students, however, that is too late. Too many fall out of the system before they reach college.
There is limited research to back the theory that racial inclusion would strengthen student outcomes, but Soto feels that it’s worth trying.
“I think it’s worth exploring the role that including Latino Studies into the curriculum could play in outcomes in Texas,” Soto said.
Of course, that curriculum would need to be something entirely different from what is promoted in Mexican American Heritage, according to its many critics.
Soto points to Houston Independent School District, which has developed its own MAS curriculum based on the work of leading scholars. It is nuanced and contextual, and a good reminder that, even if the textbook is approved, ISDs do not have to adopt it. With the rich presence of Mexican-American culture and scholarship in Texas, districts do have alternative resources to tap. Soto doubts any of the more than 1,000 ISDs in Texas would adopt the controversial textbook.
“Examples like Houston give me hope that when it really matters on the ISD level, Texas teachers and administers are going to get this right,” Soto said.
Top image: The proposed textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” was produced by Momentum Instruction. Composite/courtesy images.