The Feminist Versus the Good Old Boys

I only heard a snippet about legendary Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez in all my years in a Texas high school.

After learning about the civil rights movement and how African Americans fought for equal opportunity, we moved on to more important things. I didn’t think twice about asking my teacher how Mexican Americans impacted American history beyond fighting for rights that belong to us. Even in a city that has a large community of Mexican Americans, it wasn't until a college ethnic studies class that I learned more about people who looked like me.

Even worse, I had to take a women's studies course to learn about women who looked like me.

Which is why I found myself sitting in the office of Texas Sen. Dan Patrick this past March. Patrick is the author of SB 1128, which would have removed the option for students to pick ethnic studies courses as part of their history requirements. According to Patrick, those are not legitimate American or Texas history courses.

Looking at his Sammy Sosa poster, I realized the depth of his ignorance. He is not so different from other Texans who grow up only hearing about the white men who changed the course of American history with their bravery. In fact, the streets of downtown San Antonio are full of plaques celebrating the names of those that fought at the Alamo, including folk hero David Crockett.

White Texans won the revolution, so they control the story of its history. They don’t have to tell the story of the Native Americans and Mexicans who were also there.

"The reason I filed this bill is because last year the National Academy of Scholars wrote that both UT and A&M are not teaching a broad history of our nation, but rather singular topics on race, gender, and topics like the culture of alcohol and drugs, the history of popular music, or even a narrow topic like the history of sea power," Patrick wrote on his Facebook page in March. "Those courses are fine and can be taken as an elective if students are interested, but they shouldn't be the make up of the credits needed to graduate with a degree in history in the view of the scholars, and in my view as well."

Race, gender, and topics like the culture of alcohol are extremely relevant to most students who don't look like Patrick. For a woman of color to learn about ourselves and our impact on history, we must first enroll in college. This is already an injustice. In Texas, only 26.1% of the population held a degree from a two- or four-year institution; this number is even starker for people of color. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school and college.

Explaining this to the office of the senator was difficult to say the least. Representing Patrick, a staff member I met with wanted me to know that she was on our side. I told her that, while she may not understand what it is like to be a person of color living in Texas, she has the privilege of being a bill-writer and that she had the responsibility to understand the experience of every Texan, not just someone who is white.  

Her response?

"I will certainly take good notes and relay the information to Patrick."

I've learned that sometimes, when you're a woman of color in Texas, you have to fight for something you already have.

Eventually SB 1128 was removed from the floor.  We've won the fight on ethnic studies, for now. Students, community members, and Los Librotraficantes led the movement all over Texas to ensure news sources understood Latinos were not happy about SB 1128. Meanwhile, an Arizona copycat law was introduced that would have taken away the chance for students of color to learn about our history. Los Librotraficantes inspired more than 40 stories to be written about this bill. Eventually, that bill lost popularity and never made it out of Senate committee.

While getting access to the real history of Mexican American women when I was in public high school (and ensuring its place in college) proved difficult, it did teach me a different way history can be made: when ordinary people fight to make our stories known.