San Antonio Educators: ‘Who Gave You The Right To Change The Name Of An Entire Group?'

May 30, 2018

Supporters of a state-approved high school Mexican-American studies course are calling on the Texas State Board of Education to revert to the course’s commonly used name.

The board changed the course name to Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent when it approved the creation of course curriculum in April.

Educational, cultural and political groups held simultaneous news conferences in cities across Texas Wednesday with a single message for the board: When you meet in June, change the name back to Mexican-American studies.

The board is slated to give initial approval of the course’s curriculum framework on June 13.

“Our question to the nine Anglo Republican board members and one Latina Democrat: Why did you approve it?” said Juan Tejeda, a retired Mexican-American Studies Professor at Palo Alto College. “Who gave you the right to change the name of an entire group of people?

“There are some people that say, ‘So what? We made history, we got a class; the course is going to be there no matter what we call it.’ But we disagree. Names are important. And if they change our names what else are they going to change about us?”

Tejeda and other speakers at the Guadalupe Theater in San Antonio said changing the name took away the rights of Mexican Americans to self identify, and echoed the names white Americans used during the Jim Crow era.

“It’s like saying we’re dirty, and we’re not dirty,” said Modesta Bocanegra, a 7th grader taking a Mexican-American studies class at KIPP Camino Academy.

Carmen Tafolla, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and former state poet laureate, said Texas is at risk of sliding back to the norms of her childhood 60 years ago.

“There was a time in this state of Texas when our names were changed for us. When Esperanza became Esther, Jesús became Jesse, Guadalupe was renamed Lucy because the teacher said that sounded cute,” Tafolla said. “There was a time when the word Mexican was considered such a dirty word, such a cause for embarrassment and shame that people would refer to the more educated and financially powerful individuals as ‘Latin Americans’ or just ‘Latins’ or sometimes, to be nice, ‘Spanish.’

“When pushed to be more geographically and ethnically precise, they would include the word at the end of a long term — embedded — hidden to reduce the shame of using it.”

Tafolla said calling the course Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent gives students a message of shame, when the course should give students pride in their heritage.

Asked what activists will do if the state board doesn’t change the name, Tejeda said they will keep fighting until they do.

Velma Vela Ybarra of the Tejano Democrats said the focus is also on the ballot box. She said the board members who suggested and approved the name change shouldn’t be making decisions for Texas public school children.

More than 50 percent of Texas students are Hispanic; many of them Mexican-American.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille