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.

Bahorich moving education board forward; no reason to change leadership

JULY 14, 2015 - State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
JULY 14, 2015 – State Board of Education chair, Donna Bahorich, Houston, asks a question from staff about GED practices during the State Board of Education meeting held in Austin, Texas, on July 14, 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to chairmanship in June 2015. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

You might say that Donna Bahorich took an old-school approach to proving herself worthy of chairing the State Board of Education, even among some of her critics: She earned it.

That is why her confirmation by the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday should not be in question. And why the full Senate should support Bahorich’ s reappointment as chair of the 15-member State Board of Education.

I’m not saying that state senators should not press the Houston Republican on issues, such as whether biology standards under review should be limited to the science of evolution or watered down with requirements that undermine the science.

And I’m not suggesting that senators ignore controversies the education board – that sets curriculum standards for Texas public schools and oversees the $37 billion Permanent School Fund – regularly wades into, such as its consideration of a textbook about Mexican-American history and culture. Aside from being racially-insensitive, the book contained 141 errors that scholars pointed out.

Consider this insulting passage from the book: “Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive…They were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property. In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of “mañana” or “tomorrow” when it came to high-gear production.”

With a deft hand, Bahorich steered the board through that and other such embarrassments, permitting the GOP social conservative bloc on the board to have its say – and at times throw tantrums. All while keeping her eye, and the board’s focus, on improving public schools and engaging more people in the process.

As we witnessed in the case of the textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” the board landed on the right decision by voting unanimously not to place the book on its preferred adoption list, akin to denying it a Good Housing seal. As such, it’s unlikely that school districts will order or buy the text. She was recognized with a leadership medal from the League of United Latin American Citizens for the way she handled the textbook.

On that front and others, Bahorich has made transparency a key component of the education board’s textbook and curriculum standards review process.

For the first time, instructional materials are available online for public review prior to coming before the board for adoption. That permitted educators, community leaders and parents to weigh in on the Mexican American textbook.

“People can sit in their living rooms in their pajamas and get instructional materials instead of going to a (regional) service center to get them,” Bahorich told me.

That is a big deal, considering that elected members of the board represent individual districts of about 1.6 million people, twice the size of a state senate district with about 800,000 people.

Under Bahorich’s leadership, curriculum standards, such as those for English, Spanish language and reading, also are online for public review before going to the board for final approval. And she has put together major public forums, one dealing with educating a digital generation and the other on educating children in poverty. Those are relevant to public schools, including charters, that educate 5.5 million schoolchildren growing up in a digital world.

First elected in 2012 and reelected in November, Bahorich, 61, is not the enemy of public schools critics predicted she would be, citing her lack of experience with public schools. It’s true she home-schooled her three sons then turned to private, religious schools to fill out their education and extracurricular activities.

She gets good marks from critics for being a more collaborative chair than her GOP predecessors in that post, fostering respectful dialogue, expanding board discussions to include opposing or critical viewpoints, among other things. But she also gets her share of criticism, such as for her position — or lack of one — on public school vouchers.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors and opposes right-wing agendas in education and other areas of government, said Bahorich voted against a resolution, which would have put the education board on the record opposing vouchers.

Bahorich says she has not come to a firm conclusion on vouchers or scholarships that permit parents to use public school money to pay for private school tuition. But, she added, “Nothing should be off the table.”

“We should at least talk about them and not immediately reject (vouchers),” she said. “Having no discussion is not serving children.”

Perhaps. But as I said to Bahorich, if the state is going to establish a program or pilot in which public dollars are steered to private schools through vouchers or scholarships, it must level the playing field by erecting comparable accountability standards for both, including requirements that prevent cherry-picking or dumping — pushing voucher students back to public schools after private schools have ejected them.

It’s should not be that those receiving public education money be exempt from state accountability.

There’s also a political reality for keeping Bahorich as chair. Republicans dominate the board, just as they do state government. Gov. Greg Abbott is not about to select a Democrat to chair the board and among the Republican SBOE members, Bahorich is best suited for the chairmanship.

With her, the board might not avoid controversies, but it won’t wander aimlessly in that swamp — as it did before Bahorich.