EDINBURG, RGV – A Texas State Board of Education member says his efforts to allow school districts to provide Mexican American Studies have been boosted by the White House’s focus on Hispanic war heroes.

President Obama recently bestowed Medal of Honor awards on 24 previously ignored veterans. Of these, 17 were Hispanics. They had been denied the U.S.’s top military honor at the time of their service because of their ethnicity.

State Board of Education board member Ruben Cortez, Jr., wants Mexican American Studies to be taught in Texas public high schools so that the contributions of Hispanics are not ignored. His proposal will be considered by the SBOE at a meeting in Austin on Wednesday.

“President Obama’s decision to honor our Hispanic war heroes has helped our cause. It brought attention to a grave injustice. Just as we must honor the valiant Hispanic soldiers who fought for this country, we should also make sure the contributions of Mexican Americans to the development of Texas are not ignored,” said Cortez, who represents the South Texas border region, otherwise known as District 2, on the SBOE.

Cortez’s resolution in support of an elective Mexican American Studies course in Texas high schools has won the support of the Mexican American School Board Members Association, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the League of Latin American Citizens, the Texas State Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Texas Freedom Network.

However, this does not mean it will be a formality for Cortez to get approval for his proposal. Cortez pointed out that the political composition of the 15-member SBOE is ten Republicans and five Democrats. He said a straight majority is needed for success. So, he reckons he has to get three Republicans to support the five Democrats who will likely back his proposal.

State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr., and Hidalgo County Commissioners Court support Mexican American Studies being taught in Texas high schools.
State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr., and Hidalgo County Commissioners Court support Mexican American Studies being taught in Texas high schools.

“Unfortunately, the ethnic composition of the State Board of Education does not reflect the demographics of our student population,” Cortez said. “There are only three Hispanics on the SBOE whereas 51 percent of students in Texas’ public schools are Hispanic. Whites comprise 30 percent, African Americans comprise about 12 percent, and Asian Americans three percent. It could be an uphill fight on the SBOE.”

Cortez said his efforts were boosted by a resolution of support from the largest school district in Texas. Houston ISD’s student population is 61 percent Hispanic. Other school districts to pass resolutions in support include Brownsville, Donna, Santa Maria and South Texas.

Last Wednesday, Cortez made a pitch to Hidalgo County Commissioners Court. The Court voted unanimously to support Cortez’s resolution. “I cannot believe we do not have Mexican American Studies courses. We have been here since the 16h Century,” said Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia.

Cortez said if the SBOE does support his proposal, Texas would be the first state in the nation to offer an elective Mexican American Studies course in its high schools. “We are not saying everyone has to offer this course. If school districts in the Rio Grande Valley want to offer the course that does not mean Waxahachie has to. It’s up to them,” Cortez said.

Asked how he came up with the idea of Mexican American Studies history course, Cortez said he heard of the need while on the campaign trail. “Wherever I would go, people would tell me that important Hispanic names were being eliminated from our textbooks. People like Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.”

Cortez said the fight to stop the removal of Cesar Chavez from Texas history textbooks and the decision of the SBOE to strike Huerta’s name from the same textbooks struck a chord with his mother. “My Mom was crying when she heard about it. She marched with Cesar Chavez when she worked in the fields in Salinas, California. Dolores Huerta has been a role model.”

Cortez said he first brought up the idea of Mexican-American Studies course when SBOE members were considering House Bill 5, the big education reform legislation. “The chairwoman asked if we had any ideas for new courses. I mentioned Mexican-American Studies and the room went silent. I thought all the conservatives on the board would lash out. But, they didn’t.”

Retired educator Ester Salinas of Mission said she fears Mexican Americans are losing their identity and so young Mexican Americans need to learn about their heritage. “I applaud your passion. Having a Mexican Americans Studies course in our public schools is long overdue,” Salinas told Cortez, outside the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court room.

Inside the courtroom, Cortez read a letter to Commissioners Court that he has been sending to friends and colleagues in order to encourage support for his proposal. Here is the letter in full:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I would like to take a moment to tell you a story. As a young girl, my mother grew up picking crops in the fields as a migrant worker alongside her family. She remembers this man named Cesar Chavez that people talked about with excitement, cheering when newspaper accounts were read aloud, and heads nodding in agreement as the story unfolded. She knew his name, but didn’t understand the excitement.

As my mother became older, she learned that Senor Chavez endured the wrath of an unjust system and stood for the rights of people that didn’t know they had rights. And, against all odds, he made a difference. To my mother, Cesar Chavez was, and remains, a true American hero – her hero. And, today, as a Justice of the Peace, her hero still lives on in her heart. But, there’s more work to be done.

As children and young adults, we embrace role models. They are our heroes and become part of the DNA of our character. Many heroes are historical figures and advance a cause, or foster a belief that defines society.

There is a vital piece in the development of character that is noticeably missing for the young Mexican-American and that is the positive influence historical figures of the same culture bring to bear on the Mexican-American youth of our society.

Mexican-American children make up the single largest cultural majority in the Texas school system and the numbers will continue to grow. Let us not forget that Mexican-Americans are Americans, with a Mexican heritage rather than a European heritage.

As an American, a Mexican-American and a Texan, it is with honor that I propose the Texas Board of Education the creation of a Mexican-American history course be made available as a course for students at the high school level.

Our ability as a society to adapt defines the essence of the American spirit. We must acknowledge the historical significance of the contributions of Mexican-Americans and record them as history so all generations may come to know that cultural diversity is what continues to make America the greatest nation in the world.

I humbly ask for your support on this initiative and that you stand with all Mexican-Americans and declare to the State Board of Education the judiciousness of creating curriculum that is inclusive of the historical influences of Mexican-Americans. Our culture defines us and our heritage is our legacy. We are Mexican Americans.

“We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community – and this nation.” – Cesar Chavez.

Yours in service,

Ruben Cortez

Member, Texas Board of Education, District 2.

Ahead of next Wednesday’s SBOE agenda item on Mexican-American Studies, there is also public hearing in Austin on Tuesday, starting at 1:30 p.m.