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.

 

 

 

Lack of offensive content can’t be the only measure for newly proposed Mexican-American textbook

In 2016, Texas State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr. speaks out against the error-prone Mexican-American Heritage textbook voted down.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After rejecting a proposed Mexican American studies textbook that critics blasted as a racist portrayal of Latinos, members of the Texas State Board of Education have two months to review another book. If adopted in November, the new book will be added to a list of recommended textbooks available for use by Texas students next school year.

On Wednesday, the board was presented with the latest proposal, “The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” written by Tony Diaz, a Mexican-American studies professor at Lone Star College and a Houston-area activist.

Diaz’s book, which was written in less than a year, is the second Mexican American studies textbook the board has considered since last September. Board members should proceed carefully with their review given how quickly the project was produced. Most academic textbooks take more than a year to write — sometimes longer — experts say. Last November, board members rejected another textbook that critics said was an error-riddled racist portrayal of Mexican Americans.

Last year, about 100 people filled the Texas State Board of Education meeting room to protest “Mexican American Heritage,” which referred to Mexicans as “lazy” and contained about 140 factual errors, according to Mexican American history experts.

“The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” focuses on identity, race, culture and political issues facing Mexican Americans today.

In its preface, Diaz writes:

“Most media outlets can provide short answers to deep questions but there are not enough places where we can engage in deep discussion about identity, race, culture and other issues that not only influence one group of Americans but all of us. … This book is part of the answer.”

Diaz also writes that the book is intended to “dispel the illusion that Mexican American history and culture is foreign.”

Board Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and Vice Chairman Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said they are optimistic they can adopt Diaz’s book in November, but the board still needs to ensure that the contents are error free and meet state requirements, the American-Statesman reported.

That’s encouraging. But the board should also ensure that the book shines a light on how the inspiring achievements of Mexican Americans are woven into the fabric of American history. That’s what experts and the Mexican American community expect. Board members should give serious consideration to feedback from those who have reviewed the book. When Diaz presented the book last week, he was the only person to comment on the book before the Texas School Board of Education.

A Mexican-American studies professor, Diaz has credentials to create a worthy book for Texas students.

“I haven’t seen anything or heard from anybody that leads me to think there is an area of concern. That’s good news,” board secretary Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, said Wednesday. Cortez was among many who were critical of the first proposed textbook.

That Diaz’s book has not produced any serious reasons for objection may be a good sign.

Texas students deserve an honest and complete representation of the role Mexican Americans have had in shaping our state and nation. Here’s hoping Diaz has delivered on what his book promises.

Cinco de Mayo’s American roots

Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman A-List photos from La Condesa's Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.
Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman
A-List photos from La Condesa’s Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

This week sombreros, colorful embroidered dresses, Mexican beer ads, as well as green, red and white streamers, will have been prominent in preparation for today: Cinco de Mayo. It’s one of several days of the year that many Americans use as an excuse to eat, drink and celebrate.

What some Americans may not know is that Cinco de Mayo, or 5th of May, not only has its roots in Mexican history, but also very much so in Texas history — and by osmosis, its roots in Texas history makes Cinco de Mayo American, too.

To clarify: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That highly celebrated holiday would be 16 de Septiembre. (Yep. Mexico’s equivalent of the Fourth of July is Sept. 16.) What then, you ask, is celebrated on May 5th? This day commemorates an outnumbered — 2,000 to 6,000 — Mexican army’s 1862 victory over French soldiers at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. However, this one successful battle did not end the French intervention in Mexico. Mexican victory over the French would not come until  1866. (Which explains why Cinco de Mayo doesn’t make it onto Mexico’s list of national holidays.)

Where are the American ties in this? Let us count the ways:

  1. Though Texas was once a territory of Mexico, it wasn’t at the time of the Battle of Puebla. By then, the United States had already purchased Louisiana from France in an agreement that also included handing over Texas. Yes, technically, Texas — like other cotton-growing and slave-holding states—had seceded in early 1861 from the Union to join the Confederate States of America at the time of French intervention in Mexico, but it’s still important to note because …
  1. The man credited with leading the Mexican troops to victory at the battle of Puebla was from Texas. As University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora writes, “The celebration of the battle of Puebla also acknowledges the heroic role of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a 32-year officer from Goliad, Texas. Soon after the surrender of Veracruz, Juárez had appointed him minister of war and navy, and assigned him to lead the Army of the East and the defense of Puebla.” So, yeah. A Texan won the battle.
  2. The American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s role in the Franco-American war. Yes, the Americans helped Mexico defeat the French. A year after the battle of Puebla and after victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg here at home, President Lincoln turned his attention to the Rio Grande borderlands. In a letter to the Union commander in New Orleans, Nathaniel Banks, Lincoln wrote: “Recent events in Mexico,” he said, “render early action in Texas more important than ever.” Troops were sent and, eventually, the French were forced out of Mexico.
  3.  Cinco de Mayo celebrations have taken place in the U.S.since after both the Franco-Mexico and American Civil Wars. In the beginning, Latinos in California and the other parts of the U.S. celebrated Cinco de Mayo with parades where people dressed in Civil War uniforms and give speeches on the Battle of Puebla.
  4. Today, more than 150 years later, the celebrations continue as cities organize official Cinco de Mayo festivities and American schoolchildren perform Mexican folkloric dances and recite Cinco de Mayo-inspired poems and plays to celebrate the occasion.