Updated on September 9 at 2:30 p.m. ET
For years teachers and activists in Texas had tried to get Mexican American studies on the curriculum. More than half of the state’s school system is Latino, and Mexicans make up the majority of that number, so some Texans wanted the state to offer an optional course that taught history through a different lens.
Two years ago, the Texas State Board of Education called for publishers to submit a Mexican American Studies textbook for a special-topics social-studies course, which would make the class available to schools that wished to teach it. In May the Texas Education Agency released a sample of the course textbook it’s considering, and it has prompted anger and derision.
The latest development in this Mexican American Studies (MAS) struggle came Tuesday. A group of historians and educators released a 54-page report that outlines what they say are factual errors and important omissions in the textbook. But most of all, the informal committee says, the textbook is thematically flawed: It talks of Mexicans as lazy, and Mexican Americans as cultural separatists, stubbornly resisting assimilation.
“This may seem like this is about books,” Tony Diaz, an author, professor, radio host, and Houston activist, told me. But it’s not.
The rise of MAS throughout the Southwest, particularly in Texas, was born out of an Arizona law. House Bill 2281 focused on a single MAS class taught in the Tucson Unified School District. The law forbade a course that, among other things, promoted overthrowing the government or racial solidarity. It came in 2010, the same year Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070, which gave local law enforcement the power to ask a person’s immigration status
. I mention these laws because, as with the textbook controversy in Texas, they are part of a framework of laws with a not-so-hidden subtext, and they come as the Southwest is profoundly changing.
New Mexico has been majority Latino for some time. California just became so last year. In Arizona and Texas, the K-12 systems recently changed to majority Latino, meaning the states are on their way. Beyond their legal language, both SB 1070 and HB 2281 had the impact of subverting Latinos and their culture—one by allowing police to racially profile residents, and the other by washing schools of any Chicano cultural emphasis. Diaz gave me another example of this, one that did not make national news. He calls it the Piñata war of 2012.
Harris County, Texas, had outlawed piñatas at its public parks. They posted big blue signs that said so. The county argued piñatas were messy. But to Diaz, to the activists, and to families, it was as if the county had banned birthdays at the parks specifically for Mexican children. Unlike Arizona’s more blatant approach to banning Latino culture, Diaz said, “Texas is so subtle we have to argue if it’s discrimination or not.”
Among Diaz’s many titles is libro-traficante. That title also came from Arizona’s law against MAS, which included a ban on seven Mexican American books used in the class. Diaz and other activists bought those books and took donations and smuggled the outlawed texts into Tucson, so he anointed himself a book smuggler. This is how the Texas fight for MAS began. When Diaz returned to Houston, he realized his school district didn’t even have a MAS course the state could ban if it wanted. Diaz and other activists, including Ruben Cortez Jr., an education board member, fought to put MAS in the Texas school system. It took four years, but when the board voted to allow MAS as a special topic in social studies, it felt like a victory. Then they saw the book.
The Mexican American Heritage textbook, published by Momentum Instruction, a little-known company, pictures an Aztec dancer on the cover wearing a garishly feathered headdress. Critics of the book point out the Aztec dancer, while indicative of 14th century Mexico, has nothing to do with Mexican Americans. Inside the book, the informal review committee’s report found 68 factual errors, 42 interpretive errors, and 31 omission errors. So far, only one error has been corrected. That was a passage insinuating the official language of the U.S. is English. There is, in fact, no official U.S. language. But outside of factual errors, the report’s authors point out the many, many thematic issues with the book.
One passage titled “Ethnic Hostility” describes how in the late 1800s, when foreigners came to “develop” Mexico, the country’s citizens grew angry. This was, the book explains, because industrialists often brought their own workers, cutting out local Mexicans. The foreign companies did this because Mexicans couldn’t understand how to work jobs that required “more technological know-how” like in the mining and oil industry. But it was also because “stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers.” The passage, as you can see above in the picture, doesn’t provide much context. But it seems to be referencing the age of Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican president and dictator who ruled for 30 years and who kicked villagers off their land to rent out to foreign interests. This led to calls for agrarian land reform and, eventually, the 1910 Mexican Revolution. At the end of the passage, it again references the lackadaisical Mexican work ethic by referencing a “mañana” attitude toward chores, and to drinking on the job.
The word Chicano—though it gained in popularity in the 1960s and alongside Cesar Chavez’s labor movement—is apolitical. It’s not a widely used term, or a preferred one, but it has always meant someone with Mexican roots. The Mexican American Heritage book, however, says Chicanos are people who “adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.”
The book also addresses the issue of illegal immigration, attributing to it an increase in “poverty, drugs, crime, non-assimilation, and exploitation.” And for a book about Mexican American history, it has a surprisingly sparse amount of it, as the Texas Observer pointed out:
In a 500-page book, only the last few chapters confront civil and labor rights issues. Most is subject matter you’d expect in any U.S. history book — the Declaration of Independence, the Kennedy assassination, the Cold War.
There are many other issues activists have taken—141 precisely—but for a book that will instruct students about Mexican American history and culture, it took a peculiarly Alt-right view of them. This made more sense after teachers and activists learned who published the book.
Momentum Instruction doesn’t have much information about itself online. Its website was created last November, and there’s no indication of how many textbooks it’s published, or if this is the only one. But its owner, as the Houston Chronicle pointed out, is well known to Texans. Cynthia Dunbar served from 2007 to 2011 on the Texas State Board of Education and gained more fame than the position typically endows after she published a book called One Nation Under God, in which she called the U.S. education system “tyrannical” and said sending kids to public school is like “throwing them into the enemy’s flames.” (Her book was published while she served on the board of education.) She’s now a professor at Liberty University, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.
I spoke with Dunbar and she was upset about the coverage her textbook had received. It was never her intent, she told me, to write a book that offended people. “Why would you choose to write a Mexican American studies textbook when your only goal is to the malign the culture you’re writing about?” she asked rhetorically.
I asked her why it was necessary to include passages that called Mexicans lazy, even if those were prefaced by saying it was a stereotype. She said it was a perception of the time, one that Mexicans worked to overcome, and that she wasn’t interested in whitewashing history, only with presenting “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of it all. Another issue that bothered critics was there seemed to be no Mexican Americans included in writing a book about their history—something that might have helped with the tonal issues in the book, if indeed they were harmless oversights. Dunbar said the deadline didn’t allow her to find a Mexican American professor willing to work within the time constraints. If teachers don’t like it, Dunbar said, and the board still votes to endorse the book, “that doesn’t keep them from using any of these other textbooks.”
She’s right. As of now, the textbook is not a certainty. The board of education will vote whether to adopt the book in November. If it does endorse the book, Texas schools that want to teach MAS won’t be required to use it. There are some schools that teach MAS in Texas, like Mission High School, where Trinidad Gonzales created the first dual-enrollment class in the state. Gonzales’ course draws on a few different books, but swapping out texts isn’t the point, he told me. It’d be one thing if it were just a bad book, Gonzales said, “but this is a bad textbook that is also racist.”
It may seem like a lot of hell to raise over a textbook that’s optional, but it’s not really about a textbook. Laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, HB 2281, this textbook, even Diaz’s Piñata war of 2012, are really about the shifting cultural dynamics of the region. Soon all the Southwest will be majority Latino. Not everyone likes that idea.
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