I walked into my homeroom advisory classroom at KIPP Camino, a Westside San Antonio charter school where 97 percent of students are Hispanic, and overheard my seventh graders talking about a homework assignment in social studies.
“Ms. Saldaña, where are the brown leaders? Like the people who look like me,” one student asked me.
As a teacher who identifies as Chicana, I advocate for Mexican-American Studies. My goal is to help my students understand the history of our ancestors.
Given my background and advocacy, I answered, “They are there. Maybe not on that certain assignment or the textbooks used across the state, but they’re there. We have always been involved with historical events across the nation.”
Surprised and upset, the student, along with a few other classmates, asked, “Why aren’t we included then? We’re important, too.”
As the bell rang for first period, my class of 30 students quieted down when they heard my response.
“How many historical Anglo-Americans can you name?” I asked. Within the first minute, students had named most of the founding fathers. The total number was 12 – all white males.
“How many historical African-Americans can you name?” I asked. The students made a list of five African-American leaders, including Barack Obama, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X.
“How many Mexican-Americans/Tejano/Tejanas can you name?” I continued. The students looked at each other, perplexed and disappointed. Then two students said, “Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.”
My students realized at that moment the lack of brown-skinned people – their people – within the curriculum in history. The discussion led to questions demonstrating concern about their history learned in schools. Some students expressed feeling cheated by their public school education all these years.
Mexican-American Studies has been a controversial topic for many years. Regardless of how we feel about the program being included in school curriculum, results show that students enrolled in the Mexican-American Studies elective excel in class. Our KIPP Camino students enrolled in the program have scored highest in the regional district benchmarks for reading and writing.
Through the elective, our Mexican-American Studies students have built onto their concepts of community by understanding the social struggles within San Antonio and across Texas; this understanding was evident as they testified in front of the School Board of Education on April 11 for the approval of Mexican-American Studies Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.
This knowledge of skills is a recommended outline given to teachers in the state of Texas to help students build higher-order thinking, analyzing, and debating in the subjects of reading, writing, and math. (The subjects of reading and writing include the subjects of science and social studies.)
Mexican-American Studies students want to see these curriculum standards change to include Mexican-American leaders.
By giving students knowledge about the majority of the Latina/o population, we help them become aware of struggles that exist in the social and academic worlds. Students who identify as Mexican-American – and even those who don’t – understand the heritage and struggles of their ancestors, and are encouraged to effect change.
We encourage them to enrich their communities by becoming involved as productive community members who understand that often decisions are made based on the city’s demographics according to income level, education, and political involvement.
Much of our understanding of historical contributions by Mexican-Americans comes through lessons we learn as adults. Our goal as educators is to teach our students about community and political involvement at a young age. When students identify and see themselves in history as contributors to this great nation, they want to do more so they continue to see themselves as change agents in their communities.
Mexican-American students and teachers who advocate for this study want it to be embedded in the academic curriculum so that others, too, will feel empowered to improve their communities. As leaders, we want our students to voice their concerns about who they are, especially in a city where the majority of the population is Mexican-American.
With demographics drastically changing, we must educate and diversify within our educational system. The more we do, the more San Antonio can build powerful scholars, advocates, and leaders who reflect our diverse community.
Jo Ann Trujillo contributed to this commentary. Trujillo is a seventh-grade English-language arts teacher and Mexican-American Studies teacher at KIPP Camino Academy. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio in the bicultural-bilingual program, and is a member of the social justice core team for her Church district, COPS/Metro Alliance, and Somos MAS.