The following is a guest post by columnist Mercedes Olivera.
Last week, reading Latino poetry was an act of protest.
It was part of a Day of Action in eight Texas cities by Latino opponents of proposed legislation that could effectively spell the end for ethnic studies programs in higher education.
It was the latest effort by Houston author and Librotraficante founder Tony Díaz to make sure Texas doesn’t go down the same path as Arizona.
Recently, he was in North Texas to organize efforts against SB 1928 and HB 1128 – state Senate and House versions of the same legislation. The bills, sponsored by Republicans Giovanni Capriglione in the House and Dan Patrick in Senate – would require six hours of history for graduation and would only allow general survey courses to fulfill the requirement.
Ethnic studies courses, such as Mexican-American history, would be reduced to electives.
Once they get on a path of being elective-only, demand is often reduced for these courses. They could potentially wither away.
He’s convinced that these bills are “a template to eliminate Mexican-American studies.”
And in today’s marketplace, a college education should be expansive, not restrictive.
“In a global economy, why would you build a border wall around history?”
Díaz founded Librotraficante – “book smuggler” – last year after Arizona banned Mexican American studies in its public schools and boxed up Latino literary works to the dismay of many educators.
Díaz then led a caravan to “smuggle” banned books back into Arizona and created four underground libraries.
He’s hoping this history doesn’t repeat itself in Texas.
But, just to be sure, he reminds Republican officials, who now talk of attracting more Latinos to their political party, that sabotaging ethnic studies programs in higher education isn’t the way to win Latino hearts – or votes.
Ethnic studies, in general, grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. In a country with a rich multicultural history, U.S. history textbooks were ignoring the contributions of its ethnic and racial communities.
Eventually, ethnic studies came to encompass issues of gender, class, and sexuality.
A study in 2011 commissioned by the National Education Association confirmed the value of ethnic studies in helping graduation rates among Latino students in today’s colleges and universities. The study found that “students of color have demanded an education that is relevant, meaningful, and affirming of their identities,” and ethnic studies filled a vacuum.
Without wading into the ethnic studies debate on campuses, let me say that my own anecdotal evidence has found that ethnic students find such courses not only relevant, but also life-affirming. They discover their own heritage and identity in an environment they often found hostile.
In the end, this journey of self-discovery is an incalculable benefit of a college education.
Díaz took ethnic studies in college and found himself.
“I didn’t even know I was Chicano until I read Chicano literature,” he said.
To be fair, however, many scholars today include the study of race and ethnicity across almost all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. But it has not kept pace with the demographic changes that have accelerated in the past couple of decades.
Critics of ethnic studies fear that it creates fragmentation.
Advocates counter that going after ethnic studies is what creates divisiveness. Being inclusive is the goal of ethnic studies.
Indeed, ethnic studies prevent fragmentation precisely because everyone – no matter what skin color or language or culture they have – is brought into the great American story.
Dallas native Mercedes Olivera has been writing a weekly column on Hispanic issues for The Dallas Morning News since 1975. She is the only Latina to write a column continuously for a major metropolitan daily on issues ranging from politics to culture to education and health care. She is also a regular contributor/commentator for the weekly Sunday show, Inside Texas Politics, on WFAA-TV Channel 8. A Fulbright Fellow who taught communications classes in UDLA-Puebla in 1996, Mercedes served as president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Network of Hispanic Communicators from 1990 to 1991, and of Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) from 2003-2004.