Friday, March 19, 2010

Demand a full historical account

Demand a full historical account
by Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, LOCAL CONTRIBUTOR; Austin American

Published: 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Texas State Board of Education seemed to be listening closely in January and March as witnesses came from across the state to urge members to consider revisions to social studies curriculum standards. But apparently it didn't hear because board members recently voted along party lines to omit many of recommended revisions, revisions that would have provided a more complete and accurate story of Texas and U.S. history.

Some revisions concern Mexican American civil rights — in particular, the significant advances made by the World War II generation to dismantle a segregated social order.

The inclusion would have fit into high school social studies, which expects students to know about World War II and "the home front and how American patriotism inspired exceptional actions by citizens and military personnel volunteerism and military enlistment, including high levels of military enlistment ... and opportunities and obstacles for women and ethnic minorities."

The standards call on students to "describe the role of political organizations that promoted civil rights, including ones from African American, Chicano, American Indian, women's, and other civil rights movements."

But the Mexican American civil rights efforts did not originate in the 1960s and '70s, or even with the World War II generation. Complaints — and advancements — began before then.

World War II changed the American social order. During their childhoods, the Mexican Americans who fought in the war faced daily discrimination. It was not uncommon to see signs in storefronts announcing that dogs, Mexicans and "colored people" were not welcome. In smaller Texas towns, Mexican American children attended segregated, inferior schools. In several towns, schools for Mexican Americans only went up to the fourth grade. It was the exceptional Mexican American who graduated from high school before the war.

For returning Mexican American veterans, that segregation and pervasive racism would no longer be tolerated. They used their GI benefits to get their educations. With diplomas in hand, they set out to make our state more equitable for their children. They formed groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American GI Forum. They filed lawsuits, petitioned for changes, wrote letters and began to run for political office.

One telling story is that of Felix Longoria, who was killed in the last days of the Pacific war. In 1949, his body was exhumed to be returned to Three Rivers, his hometown. The funeral director told Longoria's widow that she would have to find an alternative site for his services, as Anglos would object to holding the wake of a Mexican American at the funeral home. Soon Corpus Christi physician and World War II veteran and American GI Forum founder Dr. Hector P. Garcia called on Lyndon Baines Johnson, then the junior senator from Texas, to intervene, which he did. Thus the sordid story of racism in Texas was brought under a national spotlight. "The state of Texas, which looms so large on a map, looks mighty small tonight," radio commentator Walter Winchell said. Longoria was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mexican American civil rights are rarely acknowledged in the classroom. Including the topic in our history books is important for all schoolchildren. It should be known to all that Latinos have been in the U.S. for generations and made substantial contributions to our country, our state and our local communities.

And Latinos, who make up 48 percent of Texas' public school enrollment, according to the Texas Education Agency, should know about those who came before them so that they could enjoy educational opportunities. Young people should pursue that education with all the fervor and determination that not so many years ago the WWII generation demonstrated.

In mid-April, the TEA will post the revisions online; the public will have 30 days to comment. In May, the board will make final adoptions for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for the next decade. Mexican American civil rights is just one of the concerns that will be revisited. But students should know that our rights are not handed to us and that the struggle continues today, under different guises.

Rivas-Rodriguez is the director of the U.S. Latino & 
Latina WWII Oral History Project at the University 
of Texas School of Journalism.

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