Creating an Interrupted Story: The Course Formerly Known as Mexican American Studies
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."
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