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.

 

 

 

Retired bishop John McCarthy is still fighting the good fight

 

Austin Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy may be retired, but he can hardly be considered “retiring” at the fine age of 86.

Preparing this week to celebrate his 60th anniversary of being ordained to the priesthood, McCarthy remains a beloved figure in Austin. He can frequently be found at parishes conducting masses as a guest priest, speaking at new church dedication, and just a few years ago was promoting his book “Off the Cuff & Over the Collar: Common Sense Catholicism.” Always gregarious with a wicked sense of humor, even if slowed some by age, McCarthy retains his lack of shyness about sharing his thoughts on developments in the Roman Catholic Church.

His 50th anniversary was celebrated in Houston, but this anniversary mass on Thursday is at my home parish, St. Theresa Catholic Church. (He was first ordained as a bishop at St. Theresa’s in Houston, a parish where he served as pastor.) I spoke to McCarthy a few days ago. Though his voice may not be as strong as it once was, he was quick to assert that he is feeling quite fine and he continues to be excited by the developments in the church under the leadership of Pope Francis.

Being a retired bishop is not easy. McCarthy has long been considered more liberal than his successors, Bishop Gregory Aymond (2001 to 2009) and now Bishop Joe Vasquez. Both men studiously gave McCarthy space and generally avoiding direct criticism of McCarthy’s views  years since his retirement.

While bishop, McCarthy took heat from the Vatican for allowing Brackenridge Hospital, the city-owned hospital run by Seton, to perform tubal ligations, which conflicts with church law on birth control and was eventually discontinued at the behest of the Vatican. He also asked Rome to defrock an abusive priest in 1987.

McCarthy has also taken heat on the issue of priestly celibacy, writing  letters to the Vatican and to his fellow U.S. and Texas bishops, urging them to confront what he saw as a looming crisis and to consider a possible solution: optional celibacy. McCarthy fought the death penalty and racial injustice during his posts in Houston and in Austin, well before it was fashionable to do so.

In 2013, during an interview with American-Statesman’s Joe Gross about his book, he talked a bit more about how he sees the crisis of the priesthood.

“In the Catholic Church, the priesthood is the organizing tool, McCarthy says. “He makes possible the sacraments and they make Jesus Christ present in the material world. Since we are dependent on the sacraments, we are dependent on the priesthood. So to build new, smaller communities, you need more priests. And that might mean married priests. It might mean woman priests.”

So, for McCarthy,  news that Pope Francis is open to female deacons is welcome indeed, as is the pope’s overriding message of mercy. In observance of his anniversary he submitted his own retrospective for publication. You can find the essay in its entirety here, but very telling is this small excerpt.

The Catholic Church today has approximately 3,500 laws, mostly insignificant policies or directives, but their legalism has hurt people by the millions. I see Pope Francis as gradually, painfully trying to change that, which is joyful for me. I think the Holy Father and I share a belief in the utter simplicity and centrality of love in our Catholic faith.

Personally, I count the bishop as one of the instruments in my path to the Catholic faith. Raised a Southern Baptist my interactions with Catholics were few and far between. The bishop would host Christmas parties for journalists and others at his residence and I was struck by his openness to questioning on matters of faith and commitment to social justice.

There would be many years and other men and women of faith that would guide me, before I decided to join the church in 2007, but Bishop McCarthy was among the first.

Peace be with with you, Bishop McCarthy.