Arizona appears to have opted to once again become ground zero on the status of Latinos in the US. It was first to claim that anyone who looks Latino can be asked by local police officers to prove their residency status. Now it is trying to control how the history of indigenous people, Mexico’s fight for independence and the experience of racism among Latinos can be taught. Tucson Unified School District claims that Mexican American Studies Courses offered in high school promotes resentment towards whites and is now banning the program. A separate group Tucsonans United for Sound Districts has published an overview of the problem curriculum which features some not so traditional explanations of Thanksgiving, a summary of Mexico’s fight for independence as a threat to US Manifest Destiny and an example of the questions on a final exam for a class.
The reality is that Mexican-American studies offer students an opportunity to understand their own history and heritage absent the bias of Eurocentric interpretation. The unique lens through which we all learn about major events in US history is so ingrained in the curriculum of our textbook industry that it is indeed shocking to imagine how those same events may be seen from the viewpoint of other people. The indigenous civilizations of the Americas—like the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacano, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec—are estimated by some scholars to number upwards of 30 million in 1492 when Columbus came and pointed the way for other European immigrants. Through my own Chicano studies course in my first year of college I came to understand that these societies were governed through traditions, language, and beliefs that still influence the lives of their descendants today. It was the first time I had a chance to discuss my heritage outside my family dinner table conversations or family trips to Mexico.
I must admit that these courses did indeed make me angry—how is it possible to go through 12 years of public education and not know these historical facts? Why is the history of US relations with Mexico defined by events surrounding The Alamo and not the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo? What keeps us from discussing the core economics of immigration? Fortunately my pride in my heritage also grew and my resolve to finish my education was even greater. It is not surprising that Arizona Unified School District has also documented that students in its Mexican American Studies have a higher graduation rate than those who do not take the course. The confidence gained by knowing your history and celebrating the achievements of your heritage is an amazing break from the subtle and not so subtle messages that Latinos are somehow a “population problem”, an “education problem, or a “crime problem. For some, it is possible the one time they can see that they have made a contribution.
No student should be deprived of learning more about their heritage regardless of how much discomfort it creates for others. We have overcome the price of denying the history of slavery and segregation and today it has become much easier to recognize the role African Americans played in the US. The growing number of Latinos in the US represents an opportunity to fully embrace the true history of US-Mexico relations and to honor and value Latino contributions to the US. Arizona should be embarrassed that it may set a precedent others will follow to the demise of Latinos throughout the Americas.