Last month, a little over three weeks after the Walmart massacre, I stood in front of a packed room at my university and spoke about white supremacy. Everyone in that room had been affected directly or indirectly by the massacre. On the morning of August 3, a 21-year-old white supremacist opened fire at an eastside Walmart in my hometown, killing 22 and shooting another 24. He took the lives of people from both sides of the border, from ages 15 to 83. Witnesses said he walked into the Walmart confidently, calmly, like he had a mission, carrying his AK47 style weapon. He drove 650 miles from the Dallas area to kill Mexicans living on the border. He was a foot soldier for white supremacy. He hoped to be a martyr for white supremacy.
In my talk, I asked what it meant if people whose words and actions reinforce white supremacy (like Trump) denounce white supremacy in the aftermath of an event like the Walmart massacre. I wanted to understand it beyond the obvious hypocrisy of such denunciations. I don't want to remain at the rolling my eyes stage when I hear Trump speak against white nationalism. I want to understand how criticisms of white supremacy by people like Trump actually serve to bolster the system of white supremacy, to make it invisible, to make us comfortable again.
My questions drew an immediately backlash.
Shortly after my talk, a blogger put a video of my talk on his page and consequently, a conservative online newspaper picked up the story. As soon as the video went up, I began to experience online harassment that has lasted weeks. The spamming and hacking have been time-consuming and irritating to deal with. Online harassment is a classic right-wing strategy to silence people. Doxing and swatting are extreme examples of this strategy. Journalist Ijeoma Oluo writes about the terrifying attacks she and her family have confronted because of her work on race. You can read about it here.
What caught my attention the most, however, was a comment that harkened back to a time when physical violence was regularly used to silence Mexican Americans.
Art Crosby, a frequent contributor to conservative websites, wrote:
“Not too liong ago (she Wouldn’t of had that job in the 1st place) That would have earned her a trip to the nearest Tree.” (Typos and grammatical errors are in the original post.)
“A trip to the nearest tree” taps into a long history of lynching Mexican origin people that has only recently come to light through the work of historians. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican-origin people were lynched from the mid-19th century well into the 20th century. The "Refusing to Forget Project," and historical monographs The Injustice Never Leaves You by Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands by Villanueva Jr., Nicholas, and Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 by William Carrigan and Clive Webb are among the investigations into anti-Mexican violence.
"A trip to the nearest tree" is a horrifying reality.
The violence also reminds me of the generations of women who have refused to be silenced. In the late 29th and early 20th centuries, journalists Ida B. Wells and Jovita Idár documented the violence against their communities despite threats of violence. Wells began investigating cases of lynching of Black men in the 1890s and immediately experienced death threats. Her newspaper, Free Speech, was destroyed. White supremacists forced Wells to leave Memphis but she continued her work in Chicago.
Twenty years later, Jovita Idár wrote against lynching in South Texas. When the Texas Rangers showed up in 1914 to close down El Progreso, a newspaper that featured articles by Idár critical of President Wilson sending troops to the border, Idár stood up to them. You can listen to an oral history with her brother describing that day here. She continued her work despite the threats.
History is filled with examples of Black and Brown women who have refused to be silenced in the face of violence and threats. I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s scary. Frustrating. Enraging. In these times of anonymous online trolls, it is terrifying. White supremacy fights to survive in any way it can and uses anyone it can to fight its battles.
But what choice do we have? To return to writer Ijeoma Oluo, “If you live in this system of white supremacy, you are either fighting the system or you are complicit.” There is no in-between.
I don't want to be a martyr and I won't be scared into silence. Continuing to speak up is what I owe the women who came before me who faced threats because of their words and it is something I owe my grandchildren and their children.
The Saturday before last, my grandson and I sat in my car preparing to go to a movie to celebrate his 14th birthday. He is a compassionate, creative, funny boy who notices the way that the sun makes the trees sparkle at my work. He writes poetry every day. He works hard to do the best he can while living with autism.
I had just heard the news. “Mijo, there’s a live shooter at the Walmart at Cielo Vista.” His immediate response was, “Abuelita, they want to kill Mexicans.” I was shocked at his statement. “Did you hear that on the news? Are they saying that?” “No, I just think that. I know that.” The police report proved him right.
"The defendant stated his target were 'Mexicans.'"
Meanwhile, early reports were blaming it on gang violence, something that most of the people I have spoken to immediately dismissed.
On August 2, a young white supremacist drove close to 650 miles to my hometown to carry out a massacre. He killed 22 people and injured over two dozen more. The murdered ranged in age from 15 to 90. Police attribute a racist, rambling essay to him that was published on 8chan shortly before the killing. In that document he talked about responding to the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas, an ahistorical statement that I addressed here.
El Paso is not a small town but we function as one. I know people who were in the Walmart when in happened. The mother of one of my closest friends tells her story here. I know people who lost family members to the white supremacist. I know many people who wake up each day frightened now. Students are reaching out to me to talk about their futures. I am scared.
Many of us are retraumatized by the massacre. My friend Teresa talked about this in a public meeting the other day where we discussed what actions to take now. On the border, we are constantly traumatized and retraumatized.
For almost three years, I have worked with the people of Barrio Duranguito, the first platted neighborhood in our city and an area that the mayor and City Council have pledged to demolish for a sports arena. The neighborhood is low-income with an average annual income of $9,000. It is majority women over 65 and it is almost completely a barrio of renters who are vulnerable to negligent landlords.
When residents began to organize against their displacement and the destruction of their historic neighborhood in 2016, the City and the landlords responded violently. The property owners hired a manager who harassed the residents day and night, calling them endlessly, knocking on their windows at night, threatening to have their utilities cut. While the City had to offer financial assistance to the residents by federal law, it was the constant threats and the effects on their health that pushed many out.
Last November, the City shut off access to the street by installing a fence. It has isolated the remaining residents on that street. They wake up each morning to an ugly, green fence. The mayor has a thing about fences, we know.
I think back over just the past year and reflect on the trauma and suffering we have witnessed on the border. The constantly changing federal policies imposed by Trump that keep us in a continual state of imbalance. My partner and grandson were preparing meals for asylum seekers at shelters through the refugee meal program at the Borderland Rainbow Center. They never knew how many people ICE would release that day—would it be 50? Would it be 200? For community organizations and volunteers, it was a matter of never knowing how to prepare to assist the refugees, day by day.
We saw hundreds of asylum seekers penned in under the international bridge, like animals, sleeping on the gravel. The bridge is just six miles from my home. It was heartbreaking. Once, I gave a ride to a young mother and her toddler. Her daughter had a terrible cough and when I asked why she was sick, her mother told me they had spent five days under the bridge, suffering the night time cold weather, eating frozen burritos given them by ICE, and sleeping on the ground.
Recently, I interviewed another mother whose 5-year-old became so sick during their time jailed under the bridge, that she became unresponsive. When the mother begged for medical care for her daughter, the officer told her, “Don’t worry. She’s not dead yet.” After they were released to a detention facility, the little girl would not eat. She could not talk for days.
The inhumane treatment of asylum seekers gained wide media coverage such as this article in TIME.
Last Wednesday, a white supremacist from Houston came to our city where he harassed mourners at the memorial created for those killed in the Walmart massacre. Later that day, he went to Casa Carmelita, a shelter for migrants, with a loaded gun and a knife. The El Paso Police Department detained him but later released him, telling the organizers at Casa Carmelita that “he had rights.” Casa Carmelita is not the first place he has threatened. There is a stock photo of him in from of the library that was hosting an LGBTQ event in Leander, Texas.
Last Friday, I visited Respettrans, the LGBTQ migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez. It is a welcoming place. It is more than a shelter, it is a home for the transwomen, gay men, and lesbians who are seeking refuge. When I arrived, the founder of the home, Grecia Hernández, had just returned from the morgue. Each time a transwoman is killed in Juárez, the authorities call her to see if she can identify her. She didn’t know her, but the details of the murder were not unusual. “Another woman beheaded,” she told me.
Violence, individual and structural, against the poor, against migrants, against women, against queer people, against Brown people, against the most vulnerable among us is everywhere in my city.
It is also true that my binational community is filled with caring people who will and have come together to help others. There are people here who have very little yet will give what they have if someone is hungry. We have always been that kind of place.
We are both: a place of violence and a place of love.
My family, my friends, my students ask where do we go from here? What do we do now? Organizations in the city are providing counseling, as is my university and our school districts. This is an important first step to deal with the shock we are experiencing.
I’m grappling with what to do next. I’m talking with folks about what specific actions to take next, both individually and as a community. I’m looking to history to see how our ancestors fought white supremacy and what worked and what didn’t work. I’m writing, finally, after a year because it is therapeutic. And I’m turning to my spiritual practices to ground me.
It is a time for us to come together to talk in a real way about the hatred and white supremacy in our city, in our state, and in our nation. It is not new and the fight against it is not new either. Join me.
Today, on el Dia de los Muertos, we re-publish a blog from last year about the beauty of remembering our ancestors!
This week Pixar’s movie Coco opened to glowing reviews. I took two of my grandchildren to opening night and at the end of the film, the audience applauded. People sat in their seats during the almost interminable list of people who had worked on the film, intrigued I think by this film that finally presented our cultura in a beautiful and complex way. I think every generation can identify with the film, from the young like my grandchildren who recognized in Miguel their own struggle to follow their own dreams to those of us who recognized the 1950s black and white movies starring handsome Mexican entertainers (in the movie, Ernesto De La Cruz, a handsome entertainer wildly beloved even in the afterlife.) For those of us fortunate to have known our abuelitas or who have witnessed our own parents age, abuelita Coco reached our hearts with her beautiful, wrinkled face and her childlike smile.
In the film, the Rivera family, renowned for their skills as cobblers, have rejected music for generations. Coco’s father, a musician, abandoned the family when she was a child and her mother, once a lover of music blessed with a beautiful voice, forcefully eliminates music from their lives. In obedience to the family tradition, five generations of family live without it. As Miguel grows, he must hide his love of music and his talent as a musician and singer, retreating to a secret hideaway, filled with tributes to his idol De La Cruz.
The film is framed by el Dia de los Muertos, increasingly popular in the United States as a day of face painting and parades, altar building, and celebration. Traditionally, it is a day when our dead visit us and in a twist, Miguel ends up in the land of the dead, a glorious place of shining lights and shimmering buildings. Accompanied by his dog Dante, the film gives us a nod to Mesoamerican traditions where a xoloitzuintle acts as our guide in the underworld.
There are so many ways to write about this film. As I watched the film, alternately laughing and crying, what stood out to me most was how beautifully it presented intergenerational healing. My maestras and maestros have taught me that it is possible to heal across generations, backwards and forwards. As a historian and a healer, I have often reflected on the ways knowing our history can heal us. History is a tool of oppression and of liberation. It is a reflection of power and resistance.
Over the decades as an educator sharing little known histories with my students, I’ve caught glimpses of this healing. Once, a student told me that she thought her family was “crazy” and “stupid” because they had returned to Mexico in the 1920s after already having migrated here. “It was something about getting land,” is all she knew. When I told her the history of the Mexican government offering land to entice Mexicans back to their patria post-Revolution and how so many saw this as an opportunity for their families, she looked at me wide-eyed. “So they were not crazy. And that story about land was true.” Her ancestors were not crazy, illogical people. They had the family in mind as they made the momentous decision to return to their homeland. They had future generations in mind. They had her in mind even though it was decades before she was born.
Teaching the history of Mexican-origin people in the United States has given me the opportunity to witness many such moments. In this article, I write about how learning about the vicious, violent policies against speaking Spanish in the schools took Spanish away from generations of people who were so traumatized that they didn’t teach Spanish to their children. These children grew up often resenting their parents for having taken away the gift of being bilingual. It was a decision that made sense to our ancestors, however, who were thinking about us, the future generations. They did not want us to experience the violence they had confronted.
In It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, Mark Wolynn centers recent research that shows that a family trauma, even if it is forgotten or silenced, can live on generation after generation. These trauma manifests themselves through behaviors, depression, obsession, anxieties, and addictions. In an interview, Wolynn talks about the “ancestral alarm clock” that goes off when we hit a milestone related to the traumatic event we may not even know occurred. For decades, Indigenous scholars have written about intergenerational trauma. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart and Dr. Eduardo Duran are pioneers in these discussions. You can view a summary by Brave Heart here.
As I watched Coco, I wasn’t just thinking about Miguel, however. I was thinking about his great-great-grandmother who had been abandoned and about her daughter, Coco, and his abuelita and his parents. I thought about the dead who also needed healing. Hector, who helped Miguel navigate the land of the dead, mourned that his photo had never been placed on an ofrenda and that soon, no one would remember he ever lived. He would experience the final death, the end of memory. I believe that the dead call on us to remember them.
It is not easy to heal the traumas. There are stories that we cannot speak. In my own family, I was not allowed to ask my tia abuela about my family's repatriation back to Mexico in the 1930s even as I conducted research on the million Mexican origin people who returned under duress, including hundreds of thousands of US-born children like my cousins. It would be too painful to remember, my mother told me. So I scoured newspaper articles, government reports, and the interviews of other repatriates to understand my own family's silenced history. My younger aunt, Maria Jesus, had died in Mexico City and it was a source of great grief that she had died so far from home. One year on a visit to el DF, I went to the Cathedral and paid for a mass to be said in her name. I wanted her to know that she was still remembered.
Our dead want to be remembered. They need to be acknowledged and loved. Whether we know their particular traumas or not, we can learn the broader histories in which they lived and acknowledge them that way. We can pray with them and for them. We can reach out to them through meditation and reflection. We can honor them by thanking them for helping bring us to the world. We can share their stories, both the happy and the sad, and remember them that way.
I cried when Coco ended because knowing that learning the true history healed the living and the dead. We, too, can heal ourselves and our ancestors and our descendants. And we don't have to wait until El Dia de los Muertos. Our dead, our ancestors, are with us always, in our DNA, in our favorite foods, in our anxieties and our character strengths. Remember them and may we all heal.
I remember the day I discovered that my mother was American. I was in Mexico City with a friend doing research. She invited me to her suegra's house and after a couple of bus rides, we found ourselves at a lovely home, welcomed by her in-laws. Her mother-in-law had prepared a wonderful meal based on the traditional cuisine of Veracruz, her home state. She was very proud of her roots and her ability to offer me the delicious dishes of her homeland. As we sat around the table, she asked me: "¿Cuál era la comida tradicional que su mamá cocinaba?" What was the traditional dish that my mother cooked? I thought for a while: what was my mother's traditional food? I wanted to say something very Mexican because I thought of my parents as very Mexican.
"Meatloaf," I answered abruptly. I loved my mother's meatloaf.
The suegra wasn't sure what I was talking about and my friend laughed. (How would you say meatloaf in Spanish, anyway?)
That was the moment I realized my mother was American.
My mother in front of the presidio apartments where she lived in El Segundo Barrio, 1920s.
My mama crossed the border from Chihuahua to Texas as a nine-year-old, eventually entering El Paso's first "Mexican school," Aoy Elementary. When the school district was first created in 1883, students who did not speak English were not allowed to attend. In 1887, a newcomer arrived, Olivas Aoy, and with the support of Mexican parents who wanted an education for their children, he founded the Mexican Preparatory School. Later, after his death, it was renamed in his honor. Aoy, a Spaniard, is an enigma and not much is known about him before he arrived to the United States. In a newspaper interview, Aoy told the reporter that until a child learned English, he remained "just a Mexican." By the time my mama entered Aoy in the early 1920s, the idea of Americanizing Mexican and Mexican American children was entrenched in the curriculum and in practice.
Policies against speaking Spanish in the "Mexican schools" were widespread across the Southwest. Teachers and administrators humiliated, mocked, and corporally punished students for speaking Spanish on school grounds. Yet, in the so-called "American schools," white children were taught Spanish since they would be the future employers of Mexicans. In the 1960s, with this policy still in place, teachers castigated my older cousins who attended one of the historic "Mexican schools" for speaking Spanish. As I prepared to enter first grade, my parents forbade me from speaking Spanish-- they didn't want me to be punished. They continued to speak only Spanish to me while I responded in English. What they didn't know was that my elementary school was one of the "American schools" and I attended Spanish class my entire time there.
After being fluently bilingual as a small child, this new rule to speak only English while my parents spoke only Spanish confused me. It made them seem even more "Mexican" to me. My mother laughed when I tried to speak Spanish so eventually I stopped. I remember my mother's older sister laughing at my mother's Spanish. "Ay, you don't even know how to speak Spanish," she would say. My mother's face took on a pained look. I didn't understand why my aunt would say that-- Spanish was my mama's language. My aunt, who was fifteen when they crossed the border, had attended school in Mexico. My mother had been educated here. My aunt saw my mother as pocha as my mother saw me. Pocho, long used as a pejorative term indicated a Mexican American who was not fluent in Spanish.
As a teenager in the twenties, my mother wanted to be like the other American teenagers. She asked her father if she could cut her hair in a bob. He said no. She did it anyway. She worked washing dishes for neighbors in order to buy enough red bandanas to make a dress. When her father saw it, he tore it up. A popular 1920s song from San Antonio, "Las Pelonas" ("The Short Haired Women" or flappers) captures my mother's story:
Los paños colorados
Los tengo aborrecidos,
Y ahora las pelonas
Los usan de vestidos.
And now the flappers
Use them for their dress.
Sometimes, even in her sixties and seventies, she would dance the Charleston in our living room, recalling her days as a pelona.
My flapper mother in the late 1920s
I heard these stories my entire life but that day in Mexico City put them in another perspective. Growing up as the English-speaking daughter in a Spanish-speaking home, I uncomfortably felt very "American" and my mother seemed very "Mexican." Now, I could see that she was indeed American, the product of Americanization programs and American popular culture. I felt close to her in that moment, pocha to pocha.
Title: Detained at the Refugee Camp. Creator: Walter H. Horne, 1883 - 1921 Date: ca. 1910 - 1918 Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.
The photographs startled me as I sat in the serene setting of the University of Arizona Library Special Collections that day, 23 years ago. The refugees stared at me from the black and white photographs. Women and men and children stood still for the photographer. Some serious. Some with confusion in their eyes. The children sometimes looking blank and sometimes smiling. There were photos of their preparing food on camp fires. Photos of families and children standing in front of tents or accompanied by soldiers. The captions told me that the location was Fort Bliss in 1914.
Following Pancho Villa's victory against federal forces in the Battle of Ojinaga, a battle with over 1,000 casualties, in the winter of 1913, thousands of federal troops and civilians crossed the Rio Grande at Presidio. Throwing themselves at the mercy of the US government, this "steady stream of suffering humanity," as one government official put it, walked four days to Marfa, accompanied by US troops. There they were transported to El Paso via train. Fifty babies were born along the way.
According to historian Nicolas Villanueva's The Lynching of Mexicans (University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 5,000 refugees were "corralled behind barbed wire as 'guests' of the United States." Why place refugees behind a barbed wire fence? Villanueva writes that Americans feared that the thousands of refugees would enter the nation and "swell the impoverished neighborhoods in El Paso." He writes that the American press characterized the internment camp as so wonderful that hundreds of El Paso's Mexicans tried to break into camp. There is no evidence of this other than the English language media's propaganda. Historian Ligia Arguilez has uncovered another history-- one of fear, trauma, escape attempts.
This is the history that came rushing back when I heard the news that on Tuesday Fort Bliss had been chosen by the Department of Homeland Security to house 12,000 asylum seekers, families. Fort Bliss will house families while Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo has been chosen to house children. This is not the first time in recent history that children have been detained on military bases. In 2016, Fort Bliss housed hundreds of unaccompanied minors. Under the Obama administration, numerous military bases were used to house children crossing the border.
A century after the "steady stream of suffering humanity" was corralled behind barbed wire at Fort Bliss, we are witnessing the upcoming internment of possibly 12,000 refugees on the same military base.
"How close can I get to you and yet do I really want to get that close?"
Art work by Lucia Martinez (2004)
On Saturday, July 30, hundreds of thousands of people will march in "Families Belong Together" rallies. In DC, 300,000 are expected to participate. The rallies have been organized in every state of the Union as well as at international locations. It is a strong response to the question posed by Melania Trump in her recent visit to a children's detention center in Texas on June 21. "I don't care. Do u?" Yes, hundreds of thousands of us care enough to rally in public for families and children. As I sat in the offices of the Border Network for Human Rights last night in a room full of people making posters for the upcoming rally, I knew the answer.
Here on the border, in El Paso where Fort Bliss engulfs us more and more with each passing decade, we know we have to be vigilant beyond the rally. Growing up less than two miles from Fort Bliss, I thought of it as the place my daddy went to work every day to inspect the clothing and items left behind by soldiers who had left. Today, I know it is the largest Army base with 1.2 million acres that spread from West Texas to Southern New Mexico. It is located in the Chihuahuan Desert. In the summers, it is unbearably hot. 12,000 refugees can easily disappear into this behemoth.
Rallies are important-- we've seen the impact that they have. Beyond the rally is just as important. People have asked me how to help, especially if they are far from the border. Keep up with the news. Donate if you can. Spread the word.
For more information, check out these orgs.
Families Belong Together
Border Network for Human Rights (El Paso)
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services
This Saturday I will march with my 12 year old grandson and hundreds of thousands of others to tell the federal government that Families Belong Together and not behind barbed wire.
I saw a photo of Maria Jesus once-- she was beautiful like her mother, my great-grandmother. A small girl, slender with long hair and sad eyes, she stood with her mother and sisters. They called her Cachuy. She died in 1931 but her story lived on for decades in my mother's tears.
In 1931, part of my family left behind a thriving small business to move to Mexico City in the midst of the Great Depression and the virulent anti-Mexican atmosphere that spread throughout the United States in response to the economic crisis. As a child and even a teenager, I didn't understand why they had moved. When I entered college and learned about the massive deportations and repatriations of Mexican immigrants and their US-born children, I discovered that my family was part of a larger history.
This week, I uncovered Cachuy's death certificate. I learned that she died at 10 in the morning on October 10, 1931 of typhoid fever in el Hospital General de la Ciudad de México. She was 14 years old. It was the first documentary evidence I had uncovered of her life, yet I had already begun the work of healing the interrupted story. In 2004, while visiting Mexico City, knowing that she was buried there, a thousand miles from home, I went to the great Catedral and had a mass offered in her name. Then I went to my hotel room in el Hotel Histórico Central, prayed and wrote a poem. Sometimes that's all we can do to heal-- pray, remember, and write. And it is a powerful combination.
Today, I share that poem with you. Remembering Cachuy who died so far from home because of economic and political events that she had no say in.
This is so that people will remember
That you were born in Chihuahua
when the nation was at war with itself
That you were the youngest daughter of five
That you were the middle child of ten
That your eyes were green and your hair light brown
That you were the one who smiled
That your sisters told you that they loved you the most.
This is so that people will remember
That you spent your short life migrating
From Chihuahua to El Paso to la Ciudad de Mxico
That your young life was shaped by Revolution
and economic crisis
And the day to day wonders
Of your mother's tortillas and your baby brother's eyes.
This is so that people will remember
That your mother died when you were ten
That when your father left you
He crossed the border to drink himself to death
That your sisters cried each night alone
Missing your mother's touch... her soft gaze.
This is so that people will remember
That you were not alone
That a million others joined you
Pushed out of the land of opportunity
by violence and poverty and hope that
Somewhere else would be better
Some imagining a long lost home
Others returning to a land they did not know.
This is so that people will remember
That your last thoughts were of sitting at the kitchen table
Listening to your mother hum softly as she cooked
That the pain in your stomach could not
drown out the memories
Of walking home from school laughing
That at the end you let go without fear
this is so that people will remember
That somewhere in this massive city lay your bones
Laid to rest so many decades ago
In an unmarked grave in the sacred ground of Tenochtitlan
That for seventy years your sisters cried
To have left you so far from home.
From ATejana in Tenochtitlan
June 29, 2004
Photo courtesy of ApproveMAS Facebook
The headlines caught my attention. The Dallas Morning News declared "Texas board of education approves a Mexican-American studies course (but they won't call it that)." The Texas Tribune's headline stated "Texas education board approves course formerly known as Mexican-American studies." One article asserted that the change came because, as the headline boldly asserted, it was "Too dangerous to be called Mexican-American Studies." After years.... no, after decades of fighting for Mexican American Studies in K-12, advocates and educators found the Texas State Board of Education finally agreeing to a course. At the suggestion of conservative SBOE member David Bradley (R, Beaumont) who said he found "hyphenated Americanism to be divisive," Mexican American was removed from the course title. The new name is now "Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent." The new name was approved by a majority of the board, nine white Republicans, as well as El Paso's representative Georgina Celia Perez, a Democrat. The other Democrats, — Ruben Cortez (D, Brownsville), Erika Beltran (D, Fort Worth}, and Maria Perez-Diaz (D, Converse)-- argued against the erasure of "Mexican American" in the course title. The name change has been controversial to say the least, especially among those educators who have worked for years for an MAS course.
Some school districts in Texas already offer Mexican American Studies. In fact, years ago I guest lectured at an MAS class in El Paso. It's not about allowing school districts to teach MAS. As news articles have reported, the TSBOE class will be modeled after Houston class. What the TSBOE vote does is provide support to school districts state-wide by developing TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and centralizing the class. It will provide resources to school districts.
"So what's the big deal?," people ask. The course was approved. Students will have access to a course they didn't have before. And politics requires pragmatism and negotiation. And a name is just a name. Those are some of the arguments that have been made in support of the name change and TSBOE member Perez. Sounds reasonable. At least on the surface. But names make all the difference. Names can either erase historical connections or they can nurture the consciousness of connection.
I had a reminder of that this week. I have a xoloitzcuintle dog, perhaps the most ancient breed in the Americas. Considered sacred by many Indigenous peoples, its image can be found in pre-European contact codices. It is a guide and a healer. It is a national symbol of Mexico. A few days ago, my 12 year old grandson looked at my xolo and said, "You cute Hispanic dog!" I laughed at the characterization but it was a striking example of how labels make a difference. Over almost three decades of teaching Mexican American history, I've witnessed the label "Hispanic" emerge as the normalized and often the preferred label among Mexican Americans. By calling my xolita "Hispanic" my grandson unknowingly erased the deep Indigenous history of my beloved dog. There is nothing "Hispanic" about a xoloitzcuintle. Labels can erase connections.
Xoloitzcuintle from Borgia Codex and my xolita.
Erasing the "Mexican American" in Mexican American Studies echoes the Arizona attacks on MAS that these courses are "divisive." It's a tired, old trope that's been used by right-wing conservatives across the Southwest.
Renaming MAS separates the class from its history and from its academic roots. Would the TSBOE decide to rename political science? Biology? Computer science? As journalist Elaine Ayala writes, "Mexican American Studies is also an established field of study recognized by institutions of higher learning. The academy has accepted the work of fellow scholars of MAS and how they’ve chosen to self-identify that scholarship: the books, research projects and classroom work."
If the name doesn't matter, why did Bradley move at the last minute to change the name? MAS was founded because we claimed the right to name ourselves and because we believed our history was worth teaching. What the TSBOE is saying is that they will benevolently allow us to offer a class but we, as scholars, don't have the right to name ourselves or our field. In fact, Bradley told a journalist, “They just can't figure out how to say thank you.” In 2013, "Hispanic" students became the majority of Texas students. Do we need to "thank" the TSBOE for providing relevant education to our youth? Aren't they there to respond to the needs of the students they serve?
The TSBOE vote is a tragic but classic example of creating an interruption whose consequences will trickle down through generations. It doesn't have to be that way, however. We have the right to name ourselves. We have the right to respect for our academic scholarship. We won't be erased.
For a video of the vote, click here: "Texas Approves Mexican American Studies."