A student participating in the Mexican American Studies camp poses with guest speaker Rosie Castro on June 14, 2019.
A student participating in the Mexican American Studies camp poses for a photo with guest speaker Rosie Castro. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Clustered around a small desk, Bonham Academy students Brandon, Cassandra, and Henry debated what color paint to use and how many flowers to draw on an album cover for a corrido they had written about political activist Rosie Castro. They settled on a mix of pink and teal for the background and six daisies surrounding Castro’s head, with one important detail.

“The hair has to be silver,” Henry stated in a matter-of-fact tone.

The three students, along with about 100 others, were taking part in a San Antonio Independent School District summer camp focused on the history and culture of Mexican Americans. It’s just one example of how local districts are expanding offerings for students to fill what teachers say is a real demand for cultural context and history.

Last September, members of the State Board of Education ended a four-year debate over the need for a Mexican American Studies course, establishing state standards for a one-credit elective. Some schools in San Antonio had already been offering such courses, but educators argued that having state-approved standards would make it easier for more schools to introduce them.

Bonham Academy offered one of SAISD’s two existing courses during the regular school year, and added a summer camp for students in grades six through 12 in June. More than 100 students enrolled in the camp from 20 different campuses across the district.

For two weeks, students took classes focused on history, music, and arts and crafts and listened to prominent Mexican American speakers talk about their upbringing and accomplishments. Conjunto musician Juan Tejeda, poet Carmen Tafolla, and Texas State Board of Education member Marisa Perez-Diaz all spoke at the campus near downtown.

Maria Paula, an incoming 10th grader at Young Women’s Leadership Academy, hadn’t heard of some of the notable figures she learned about in her week at camp.

“My brother goes to [Bonham] and he takes the class here and is always learning about our culture, and sometimes I feel like I really missed out on that growing up,” Maria Paula said. “Like just today, we were learning about [voting-rights activist] Willie Velasquez and his story, because I had never fully learned about him.”

Through her summer studies, Maria Paula became inspired to create stickers focused on the strength of Mexican American women. She created stickers that depicted symbols of Chicana power from the civil rights era and other women who were proud of their skin color.

One of the stickers said, “Tu eres magia.” You are magic.

I really think that is very important for Latina girls, especially women of color, to hear,” she said.

Gilbert Flores, teaches a Mexican American Studies course at Brackenridge High School, also used art to communicate lessons about Mexican American history.

In his class at the camp, students drew the history of Mexican Americans in a mural, with a large tree at the center.

“A story is normally told in a linear way, but here we are drawing it in the form of a metaphor, and the metaphor is a tree,” Flores said. “The roots are scholarship, and our wisdom is based on the ancestral knowledge of our ancestors. The Mayans and the Aztecs were incredible academics and scholars.”

Students draw the history of Mexican Americans in a mural, with a large tree at the center.
Students draw the history of Mexican Americans in a mural, with a large tree at the center. Credit: Emily Donaldson / San Antonio Report

Students working on the mural added other important events in Mexican American history to the artwork: drawings illustrating the civil rights era, what Flores called “the toppling down of structures that represent white supremacy,” and even the sign outside of Bonham for the MAS camp.

Flores hopes that visualizing the history of Mexican Americans will give students an appreciation for their ancestors. It’s only because of their achievements that the students can study Mexican American history, he said.

The local Mexican American figures chosen for corridos in the music class next door to Flores’ room illustrate his point well. Students drew names of notable local Mexican Americans, wrote a corrido about each one’s legacy, and created an album cover.

An album cover depicts a drawing of Rosie Castro.
An album cover depicts a drawing of Rosie Castro. Credit: Emily Donaldson / San Antonio Report

“We are going to tell you the tale of Rosie a great ladie, a creator, a mother, and overall a person con creatividad y un aggravator,” read the script of Brandon, Cassandra, and Henry’s corrido about Rosie Castro.

Castro herself visited Bonham’s cafeteria at the end of the camp’s second week, telling students about her own journey from San Antonio’s West Side and how her twin sons launched political careers, Joaquín as a congressman and Julián as San Antonio’s mayor, then a cabinet secretary, and now a presidential candidate.

While at Bonham, Castro met Cassandra, who shyly showed off her group’s pink and teal album cover. The meeting connected the dots for Cassandra, illustrating the plethora of Mexican American history in San Antonio that students still can learn.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.