Friday, November 4, 2016

What my students saw in a Spanish class

Tejano Monument, Austin, TX
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Two students burst into my course on the American High School, angry to the point of tears, theirs the anger of righteous indignation.   Forget the syllabus and the assigned lesson: we had to hear their story.

These two Rice students had observed earlier that day in classrooms at one of the city’s predominantly Latino high schools:  95% Latino, some recently immigrated, most long-time Texans.   The subject of their fury:  a Spanish I textbook.  The kind that goes chapter by chapter introducing grammar rules, verb conjugations, and vocabulary. The interesting stuff is found in those sidebars,-- you know the ones that are in color and talk about the countries and cultures where this new language is spoken. 

My students were almost shouting, “It keeps saying ‘they’!”  “’They’ eat this, ‘they’ wear that….it keeps saying ‘they’!”

Seated in a Spanish class among Mexican American students, my Anglo students were shocked to find that these “cultural” sidebars described Spanish-speakers as an exotic “other.”  The “they” were all native speakers of Spanish wearing rebozos and singing Mariachi; “they all” eat tacos and enchiladas, with corn as the staple in their diet.

The “they” assumed the book – and the class – would be exclusively for non-Spanish speakers.

The problem of “othering” non-Anglo students is larger than the book: the district had vetoed several principals’ attempts to add Spanish-for-Spanish-speakers to their course offerings. Those courses in Spanish and Latin American literature, in advanced composition and conversation, were seen as electives “we can’t afford”  despite a Latino majority in the district’s student population. Thus students who were fluent in Spanish were having to sit through Spanish 1 and 2 to get “foreign language” credits on their transcript.

My students were very upset at what they came to see a form of cultural colonizing in the selection of the book. Even more upsetting was the silence about those “cultural” sidebars: the teacher did not mention them, nor did the students speak up against  this objectification of themselves and their families and their language.   Angela Valenzuela’s path-breaking book Subtractive Schooling:  US-Mexican Youth would suggest that by high school these students had probably absorbed this colonizing, this culturally subtractive curriculum, as normal, as the way we do school.  My students, preparing to be teachers, wanted assurance that this othering is not normal, will not be inevitable. They wanted to learn ways to teach respectfully, drawing on what students bring to class. They aspired to amass culturally rich and authentic instructional materials and, most important, they wanted to not hurt their students. And they wanted to work in schools that supported that vision and made it, not subtractive schooling, the norm.

That old textbook is not likely to still be bouncing around in our city’s high schools. But the colonizing continues and in very dangerous ways.

The newest instrument of colonizing is a proposed textbook that is as startling in the audacity of its racism as in the utter falseness of its content.  Whether as a cynical backlash against the hard-fought victory for Mexican American Studies courses to be approved by the State Board of Education in Texas or as a brash and opportunistic commercial venture, “Mexican American Heritage” produced by uninformed Anglo writers and a conservative former member of the state board of education – does far more damage than those references to a “they,” to the “them” in those Spanish I textbooks that so upset my students.  The "Mexican American Heritage" book didn't sit well with the State Board of Education committee that reviewed it, either:

"Jamie Riddle and Valarie Angle failed to meet the professional standards and guiding principles for the preparation of a textbook worthy of our teachers and youth in Texas classrooms. They failed to engage in critical dialogue with current scholarship and, as a consequence, presented a prolific misrepresentation of facts. This means that the proposed textbook is really a polemic attempting to masquerade as a textbook."

You can learn more about this book here.  Its errors and racist messages are documented by scholars and activists, as well as journalists. It does not take historians to know that a book that calls Mexicans “lazy” is toxic, racist, and frankly ridiculous.

But this racist text is not being met with silence.   Critiques have emerged from historians, activists, community groups, and most important from the state’s Mexican American community – the “we” of this story.

And this book can be stopped.  In fact, the book has catalyzed a movement.  When the State Board of Education meets later this month to vote on this book, the opposition will be organized, vocal and most of all, present.  Add your voice to opposition to having this fake history book in our schools.  See my next post for ways you can speak up against colonizing the Mexican American children of Texas. 

To register your thoughts on this book or share experiences with other ways our schools and our instructional materials may be colonizing our kids, click on the word “comments” below.

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