After years of asking the Texas State Board of Education to give more space to Latino communities in its textbooks, scholars and activists have gotten their wish.
The result, however, is far from what they envisioned.
The board approved the inclusion of Mexican American studies textbooks in state curricula last year. Now, for the first time, according to the Associated Press, a book centered on Mexican Americans has appeared on the proposed list of textbooks for the 2017-2018 academic session.
But the text, called “Mexican American Heritage,” has been the subject of controversy since the Texas Observer originally cited excerpts from the online sample earlier this month.
Texas textbooks have long attracted scrutiny, particularly in regards to their handling of racial and religious issues. (One history book characterized slaves as immigrant “workers.”)
These incidents have prompted national concern because of the state’s outsize textbook market, which can influence textbook offerings across the country.
“Mexican American Heritage” is the latest prospective instructional text to incite outcry.
Latino scholars and activists say that far from being an accurate representation of Mexican Americans’ place in the nation, the book offers a distorted and, at points, offensive history of Mexico and Mexican American immigrants.
“Paradoxically, we pressed for the board to include texts on Mexican American studies, and we achieved it, but not in the way we were expecting,” Tony Diaz, a Houston radio host and Director of Intercultural Initiatives at Lone Star College-North Harris, told the Houston Chronicle. “Instead of a text that is respectful of the Mexican American history, we have a book poorly written, racist, and prepared by non-experts.”
The contentious elements of the text begin at its cover, which features a photograph of a man wearing a colorful headdress. As the Huffington Post pointed out, a web search reveals that the image, available for public use under a “Creative Commons” license, depicts an “Aztec Dance Look.” The indigenous dance is popular in Mexico, but is a misleading portrait of Mexican Americans, critics said.
Scholars also took issue with the book’s description of the Chicano movement, which fought for Mexican American empowerment in the 1960s. According to “Mexican American Heritage,” “Chicanos…adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.”
The terms “Chicano” and “Mexican American” are often used interchangeably, but the book clarifies on an earlier page that its usage refers to journalist Ruben Salazar‘s definition: “a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself.”
In other instances, the book links Mexican Americans to illegal immigration, and in turn to the illegal drug trade. Mexican pride is associated with creating divisions in society:
College youth attempted to force their campuses to provide indigenismo-oriented curriculum, Spanish-speaking faculty and scholarships for poor and illegal students…During the Cold War, as the United States fought Communism worldwide, these kinds of separatist and supremacy doctrines were concerning. While solidarity with one’s heritage was understood, Mexican pride at the expense of American culture did not seem productive.
While some parts of the text speak of Latin American immigrants as a homogeneous entity, others distinguish Mexican Americans as culturally separate.
“Cubans seemed to fit into Miami well, for example, and find their niche in the business community,” the book’s authors, Jaime Riddle and Valarie Angle, write. “Mexicans, on the other hand, seemed more ambivalent about assimilating into the American system and accepting American values…The concern that many Mexican-Americans feel disconnected from American cultures and values is still present.”
Angle’s LinkedIn page lists her as a “Subject Matter Expert” at Momentum Learning, the book’s publisher. The AP reported that the company is owned by Cynthia Dunbar, a former member of the Texas State Board of Education, well-known right-wing activist and author of the book “One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great.”
In the book, Dunbar calls the public education system “tyrannical.”
Dunbar has not commented on the backlash against “Mexican American Heritage.”
Douglas Torres-Edwards, who coordinated a Mexican American Studies course approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), told the Chronicle that he won’t be recommending the textbook.
“Frankly, that author is not recognized as someone who is part of the Mexican-American studies scholarship and most individuals engaged in scholarship will not recognize her as an author,” Torres-Edwards said.
While any author can submit their book for curriculum approval, local educators told the Chronicle that they were not aware of a call for submissions on Mexican American studies texts.
Nicolas Kanellos, a University Houston professor who directs America’s largest publisher of contemporary literature by U.S. Hispanic authors, said “Mexican American Heritage” “appears to be blatant opportunism from certain people to make money and/or to water down the real Mexican American history.”
The TEA followed standard procedure when calling for instructional material submissions this year, spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson told the AP.
She added that Texans can submit comments about the proposed books until September, at which point a committee of teachers and administrators will review them and make recommendations to the state board of education.
Books that end up on the board’s recommended materials list need not be taught in schools, and some schools have already been using books that did not undergo the board approval process. One such text is F. Arturo Rosales’s “Chicano: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.”
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