Teachers Suffer Consequences for Challenging Traditional History

Chronicle Features, San Francisco
RELEASE DATE: On or After March 14, 1997
LATINO SPECTRUM by Roberto Rodriguez & Patrisia Gonzales

Teacher Nadine Cordova is an accused racist. She has, for example, taught impressionable young minds about Cesar Chavez, the late leader of the farmworkers' movement, whom many have likened to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and other dangerous thinkers. Worse yet, Cordova wanted to teach her students about tolerance of our country's various different racial, cultural and religious groups.

As a result, at the end of February, she was suspended with pay from Vaughn High School in New Mexico. Her specific crime? Teaching Chicano history.

Teaching ethnic studies has always been controversial because it challenges the notion that history is simply the story of great white men and great events, rather than the stories of the courage and struggles of ordinary people. Today, however, critics of ethnic and women studies are going one step further, alleging that the teachers of multicultural history are racist.

As we mentioned in another column at the beginning of the year, Cordova was the sponsor of her local high school club, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA). Due to the hostile anti-Chicano environment on campus, it has since been disbanded. Cordova, who has taught for 12 years, was ordered by superintendent Arthur Martinez to quit teaching the "MEChA philosophy" and to refrain from teaching about Chavez and using the "500 Years of Chicano History" textbook. He deemed the curriculum racist.

The same action, for the same reasons, has also been taken against Cordova's sister Patsy, who has taught at Vaughn High School for 23 years.

Vaughn, which was settled as a railroad town at the end of the 19th century, "was built on the sweat of Mexican labor," says Herman Garcia, a professor at New Mexico State University. In fact, the entire infrastructure of the West was built on the backs of Chinese, Mexican, Native American, African American and other immigrant labor. So it is totally appropriate for the Cordovas to teach Chicano history, he says.

The racism of this region in New Mexico is such that many people of Mexican or Indo-Hispano origin proclaim that they have Spanish, rather than Mexican blood, says Garcia, who grew up in the area. This misidentification partly underlies the curriculum debate at the high school, he says. "Many Mexican-origin people say they're Spanish, French or Portuguese. Everyone looks into a false mirror. I too grew up calling myself Spanish."

Jeanne Guana, director of the civil and environmental rights South West Organizing Project, which distributes "500 Years," explained that after the Mexican American War ended in 1848, people of Mexican origin faced lynchings, land theft and virulent racism. Later, in times of economic depression, people of Mexican origin--citizens and noncitizens alike--were deported en masse. "That's why no one has historically wanted to identify as Mexican," she says.

As a result, many Mexican-origin people internalized the racism and learned to despise all things Mexican, says Guana, who was also raised in Vaughn. They equate being Mexican with being Indian, and to them, that's an insult.

That "500 Years" teaches this history of oppression does not make it racist, says Guana. Quite the contrary. It helps open people's eyes--and many students often tell her this with tears in their eyes.

University of Colorado's Evelyn Hu-DeHart, one of the nation's top ethnic studies scholars, says that the efforts to prevent the teaching of ethnic studies is tied to the "core knowledge" or "back to basics" curriculum movement. It is a backlash against curricula that challenge standard history. Instead of viewing those new curricula as expanding our knowledge, many educators see them as dumbed-down education. When that new knowledge is introduced, "standard [American] history loses its centrality, its primacy and its supremacy," she says. "It's not the students who are afraid of that curriculum, but rather the older generations. They feel that their world view has been taken out from under them."

The debate over ethnic studies is not the first time our educational system has been challenged. Last century, Ivy League students studied Greek and Latin history. English and American literature was not deemed worthy of study. Universities now teach English and American literature and the academy is still standing. Similarly, the broadening of our intellectual and cultural knowledge with ethnic studies can only strengthen our educational system, not weaken it, says Hu-DeHart.

Nadine Cordova is not fazed by the action against her. She believes she is on solid legal grounds and plans to sue if necessary. She feels the material she uses in class benefits the students, and says, "If you're not teaching relevant education, then you're not teaching." In a sense, it's sad that it will perhaps take a court of law to determine how relevant she is.

(Copyright Chronicle Features, 1997)

* Those wishing to obtain a copy of "500 Years of Chicano HIstory" - the book, curriculum guide or video, should contact SWOP at: 211 10th St. SW, Albq NM 87102, 505-247-8832 or

swop@igc.apc.org

Messages can also be sent there in care of the Cordova's.

Rodriguez/Gonzales can be reached at PO BOX 7905, Albq NM 87194-7905, 505-248-0092 or XColumn@aol.com

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