Years of fighting for Mexican-American studies in the state of Texas finally yielded results on Wednesday, with one major caveat: the classes have to change their name.
The Republican-controlled Texas Board of Education gave the green light to courses on Mexican-American studies after changing the title to “ethnic studies” — a term opponents of the classes say is more inclusive. If the classes move forward after a final vote, they will officially be titled “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”
David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont, pushed for the change, arguing that honing in on Mexican-American identity could be divisive.
“I don’t subscribe to hyphenated Americanism,” said Bradley. “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”
The last-minute amendment met with opposition from three of the board’s four Latinx members. While Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) supported Bradley, Erika Beltran (D-Fort Worth), Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), and Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-Converse) all voted against the change.
“As someone who identifies as Mexican-American your experience differs from my experience,” said Perez-Diaz. “A vote in support of a change in this language sends a message that we are not about inclusivity.”
Others embraced the news despite the name alteration.
“This should have happened four years ago, but we’re pleased to see the board move forward on this today,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a non-profit working to protect civil liberties in the state. “It’s important for students to learn that the story of Texas and our nation includes the experiences and contributions of Mexican Americans and other people from diverse backgrounds.”
Only one board member voted against the re-named course: Lawrence Allen, a Houston Democrat, who supports Mexican-American studies but panned the name change.
Mexican-American history can be fraught in Texas, which was once Mexican territory and only won independence in 1836. Modern Texas, where non-white citizens are a majority, is home to a booming Latinx population, the second-largest in the country. According to the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of Latinx Texans were of Mexican descent in 2014.
Community members have long pushed for more inclusion in schools, but pushback from conservative, white Texans has been severe. Around 35 schools in the nation’s second-largest state offer Mexican-American studies, but educators worry that the lack of a state-wide curriculum is hindering their efforts. Smaller districts in particular have struggled to add such classes in a state where funding for education is already limited.
Naysayers like Bradley have stood in the way of sweeping change before. In 2014, the board member helped to veto another proposal that would have created a Mexican-American studies course, arguing it ran counter to the idea that “we’re all Americans.” Others have argued that students already learn a lot about Mexican-American contributions given the number of influential Mexican figures in Texas history.
Supporters of Mexican-American studies rallied prior to the vote on Wednesday, some wearing traditional dress. They ranged from elementary school age students to academics, activists, and teachers. More than 30 speakers argued in favor of the addition, one they asserted was long overdue.
“Students have a lot more freedom when we learn about our culture,” Damian Mota, a seventh-grade student from San Antonio, testified. “If you walk into our classroom, you’re not going to see a traditional classroom. We are passionate learners who back up our claims.”
While the effort appears set to move forward, some are still unhappy with the name change. Facing uproar from teachers and experts over his vote for Mexican-American courses under a different name, Cortez of Brownsville reassured critics the decision wasn’t set in stone.
“We can change the name in the public comment phase if enough of you turn out,” he said.
In addition to approving the measure on Mexican-American studies, board members also voted on Wednesday to establish a process for approving elective courses on Black, Native American, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islander studies.
Texas is only the latest state to eye expanding its classroom offerings. California, home to the largest Latinx population in the United States, already offers an ethnic studies model, while Indiana began requiring schools to offer ethnic studies in 2017. Activists in Arizona, meanwhile, have fought an uphill battle: in 2010, Republicans banned a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson, an effort dismissed by a federal judge seven years later who decried the law as racist. Schools in Connecticut, South Dakota, and Tennessee are among those that have eyed similar efforts.
A final vote on the course addition in Texas is scheduled for Friday.