Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage

People rally in front of the State Board of Education building last week before a preliminary vote on whether to create a statewide Mexican American studies course. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more.

“Discrimination!” Marisa Perez-Diaz, a member of the board, said in a blistering statement that captured the outrage of critics.

Perez-Diaz, a Democrat from Converse who is Mexican-American, was angry that the course will not be called Mexican-American Studies, as scholars and activists had advocated. Instead, after the objections of one member, the Republican-dominated board voted to strip the name and call the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

The board member who proposed the new name, Beaumont Republican David Bradley, offered this explanation: “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

To understand why some Texans consider that statement and the name change a slap in the face is to understand the history of Texas and how it has treated Mexican-Americans as something less than American – not as equals. It is a painful and shameful history that includes loss of rightful lands after the Mexican-American War, Jim Crow laws and systematic discrimination, separate and unequal schools, lynchings, deportations of Mexican-American citizens without due process, bigotry and signs at restaurants, parks, swimming pools and public places that told Mexican Americans they most certainly were not welcome there.

“No dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans,” the signs of Jim Crow-era segregation said.

Even in death, Mexican-Americans were not equals. In some Texas towns they were buried in separate cemeteries, as were African Americans.

But you won’t read much of that sordid history in high school classrooms in Texas, if at all. The historical Mexican-American experience is whitewashed and airbrushed out of textbooks and out of young Texans’ minds.

“To say that one does not believe in hyphenated Americans is one of the reasons we need this course,” Richard Flores, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Because this entire Mexican-American community was not accepted into the American way of life.”

Flores wrote the book, “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol,” which tells a history of the famous battle that is different from the conventional narrative taught in Texas classrooms – that brave Anglos defeated savage Mexicans there. But as Flores’ book conveys, they were not alone — Tejanos, or Mexican-Americans, fought alongside those Anglos.

Throughout history, Mexican-Americans have been called all kinds of hateful epithets. Wetbacks, greasers, beaners, cockroaches, spics – these are some. The word “Mexican” also has historically been used as a slur — President Trump did in 2016 against a U.S. district judge.

To some, stripping the Mexican-American name from the high school course is another attempt to put Mexican-Americans in their place and to dictate their identity, a throwback – setback — to the 1940s and 1950s in Texas.

Angela Valenzuela, another Mexican-American studies scholar at UT who championed the new curriculum, said she would not want her name associated with it under its new name. Her mother would never forgive her, she said, because it harkens back to Jim Crow and the scars it left.

“My mother told us (an American of Mexican descent) is what I was,” she told me. “That was all we were allowed to be then because it was Americanization full throttle.”

Noting that Latinos make up 52 percent of school-age children in Texas – the vast majority Mexican American — Valenzuela said the education board sees Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a threat.

We don’t need a Mexican-American studies course only for its value in setting the historical record straight. We need it because it can highlight Mexican-American historical contributions too and affirm Mexican-Americans’ place as valued contributors to society.

“Without our stories, the message to young people is ‘We weren’t here, we weren’t important and we are not important,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Voces Oral History Project at UT, which highlights the WWII contributions of Mexican-Americans who served their country, despite facing rampant discrimination at home.

Bradley, meanwhile, was not in a conciliatory mood. He reportedly said Perez-Diaz was taking the name change personally and that opponents were “antagonizing the board,” actions that could have repercussions on the viability of the course.

Given Texas’ history, it’s easy to see how some might view that as threatening.

“We’re all Americans,” Bradley told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a melting pot and most of the board agreed with that.”

The irony of Bradley’s statement is that in the land that was Mexico long before Texas became a state, in the face of historical bigotry and discrimination, Mexican-Americans have wanted nothing more than to stake their full and rightful claim as Americans. As equals. Though we might not see it reflected in our textbooks, history teaches us this.