Even the parts of Latin American and Latino history that are taught in American textbooks, Loewen told me, have gaping omissions. For example, he says that most textbooks include some explanation of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” foreign policy of non-intervention in Central and South America, but few mention what Loewen calls America’s “Bad Neighbor” policy—the legacy of “Manifest Destiny” and imperialism in Latin America. “In our history textbooks, that’s usually handled, if at all, in the passive voice, like ‘Troops were ordered into Haiti,’” Loewen says.
From the April 1905 issue: The right and wrong of the Monroe Doctrine
Mexican American studies wasn’t the only ethnic-studies program that Cal State LA established at the time; they also established a Pan-African studies department in 1969, the second-oldest in the country after the one at San Francisco State University. Since then, ethnic-studies departments across the country have grown to include Asian American, Native American and Indigenous, and comparative ethnic studies.
Ethnic-studies classes, then, can be a corrective to students’ previous Eurocentric education, revealing these concealed histories. Delgado Bernal has noticed that all of her students, Latino and non-Latino, have had “lightbulb moments” in the classes that she has taught, realizing that they had never before learned about seminal events like the East L.A. walkouts in school.
Courses like these can also give Latino and Latina students the tools to understand their present experiences. At many colleges, Latino students are navigating a predominantly white environment, but even at majority-Latino schools like Cal State LA, Delgado Bernal says that these courses can help these students better understand their own lives. In one of Delgado Bernal’s courses, she spends the first half of the semester teaching theory to give her students basic concepts about race relations, class differences, and gender roles in order to make sense of history as they’re learning it. Then, she has them write personal essays about their relationships to the theories they’ve learned.
“In story after story, students say, ‘[High school] counselors told me not to take that class because I probably wouldn’t go to college anyway,’ or ‘I’m the first in my family to go to school,’” she says. “And now they have tools to understand the microaggressions they’ve experienced or the economic struggles in this society, and that they’re not the only ones.”
Since 1968, Cal State LA’s Chicana(o) and Latina(o) studies department has grown from four classes to 150. It currently has 55 students majoring in Mexican American studies, a number that has grown by nearly 40 percent over the past year, she says. Research has shown that taking just one Latino or Chicano studies course can “significantly” improve Chicano students’ self-image, improve first-generation Latino students’ sense of feeling community on campus, or increase their academic engagement.