BROWNSVILLE, RGV – An early leader for Rio Grande Valley Person of the Year will speak in Harlingen on Friday.

To the delight of Valley school superintendents, Brownsville native Ruben Cortez, Jr., succeeded in persuading colleagues on the conservative-dominated State Board of Education to approve textbooks for the teaching of Mexican American Studies in Texas public schools.

Cortez will give the keynote speech at a meeting of the Rio Grande Valley Coalition for Border Studies and Mexican American Studies at the University Center in Harlingen on Friday afternoon.

“Think back a few years ago when Cesar Chavez almost got removed from our school textbooks. Thurgood Marshall also almost got removed. Dolores Huerta was not so lucky, she did get cut. To think that just a few years later we have a majority on the State Board of Education board voting for instructional material for Mexican American Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies and Native American Studies. It is huge. It is unprecedented,” Cortez said.

The make-up of the SBOE is 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

In his speech to the Rio Grande Valley Coalition for Border Studies and Mexican American Studies, Cortez will discuss the resolution on instructional materials he was able to pass at an SBOE meeting in Austin earlier this month and its implications for Texas education.

Trinidad Gonzales, coordinator for Mexican American Studies at South Texas College, said the mission statement of the Rio Grande Valley Coalition for Border Studies and Mexican American Studies is to “advance the teaching and research of Border Studies and Mexican American Studies for K-12 and higher education in the four counties of Willacy, Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr.” She said the coalition also “engages civic issues unique to the region by providing research briefs for stakeholders to consider when deciding federal, state and local policies.”

Ruben Cortez, Jr.
Ruben Cortez, Jr.

Cortez said it was not a formality to get the SBOE to approve textbooks for Mexican American Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies and Native American Studies. In fact, he said, an agenda item to introduce elective courses in these subjects was likely to get voted down. However, thanks to the tactical awareness of Valley school superintendents like Dr. Daniel King at PSJA ISD, Cortez used a different route to achieve largely the same result.

The Texas Educational Agency had already approved a course entitled Special Topics in Social Studies. Cortez succeeded in amending a separate agenda item to allow instructional materials for the teaching of Mexican American Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies and Native American so Studies. The idea being that these textbooks could be used for the Special Topics in Social Studies course.

“I inserted myself in a proclamation calling for instructional materials in Languages other than English. I knew I might not get there if I tried to win a vote on new course development,” Cortez explained.

“I had a Republican colleague from Lubbock vote yes to my amendment on the proclamation because, he said, it gives local control to the schools. In the end we won 11 votes to three with one abstention. It was amazing, Cortez said.

Cortez paid tribute to the role Dr. King of PSJA played.

“Danny was smart. He said we can use this course already on the books, Special Topics in Social Studies, for Mexican American Studies. All we are lacking is instructional materials. He said we do not need to call for a new course. If we have a textbook, we can make this an in-depth course, like they do in university. So, it gives local control. It was never going to be a mandated course,” Cortez said.

“What can I say about Dr. King. I am surprised he is not secretary of education. We are very fortunate to have him in South Texas. We may lose him to Washington, he is already part of the Clinton Global Initiative.”

Asked why Mexican American Studies is important, Cortez said that if students learn about heroes they can relate to they will perform better in school and life. Cortez said he was inspired to go into public life by his mother, Linda Salazar, a former school board member at Brownsville ISD and longtime justice of the peace in Cameron County.

“How do we as a state inspire our young people? The woman who inspired me to run for public office had been inspired herself by a rally and march she attended as a young lady in Salinas, California. She was a migrant worker and she participated in a rally and march that was organized by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers,” Cortez said.

“Can you imagine if this subject, Mexican American Studies, is taught in our public schools? Our students will see themselves in these stories. It does not have to be Mexican-American. It can be African American or Asian American. If a student can use somebody else’s obstacle to do better or give back or perform better in school, is it not incumbent on us to use every tool in our arsenal to try to inspire kids?”

Cortez said one of the heroes he would like to see taught in a Mexican American Studies course in Medal of Honor recipient Pedro Cano of Edinburg. “We now have an additional 17 Congressional Medal of Honor winners that were previously overlooked because of their race or ethnicity. One of these was Pedro Cano. That man’s story should be told in a course like this. He valiantly fought for his country. But, because he was a Mexican American he was not awarded the Medal of Honor. President Obama had to right this wrong. His story should live on.”

Cortez pointed out that of the five million or so students in Texas public schools, 3.4 million are Hispanic. “We are called the minority but in fact we are the majority. We at the State Board of Education need to govern from the classroom to the boardroom. We have to get this board to think beyond Republican or Democrat and think instead what is best for the children.”

Cortez also praised the school districts of South Texas for the way they are improving living standards in the region. “Texas ranks 46th in public funding and of the 25 poorest public schools, 15 are in South Texas. Yet, you do not see this when you walk into our schools. Our kids and the future of our kids are not governed by the wealth of the school or the size of their parent’s checkbook. We do not use our economic status as a crutch down here. Our schools are doing exceedingly well. If we can do a little bit more in terms of a cultural studies program, we can inspire even more students to do better.”

Asked for a final remark ahead of his speech before the Rio Grande Valley Coalition for Border Studies and Mexican American Studies, Cortez said: “As a state, Texas just moved forward. We will now have the instructional materials to teach Mexican American Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native American Studies. We narrowed the equality gap and gave hope and inspiration to all the races and ethnicities that make up Texas. I would like to thank the State Board of Education for putting politics aside and doing what is right for our children. It will pay dividends for generations to come.”