Texas' Mexican heritage textbook a racist travesty

The cover of  "Mexican American Heritage" features a bare-chested man with an elaborate headdress.

Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: "Mexican American Heritage" text proposed for Texas schools is inaccurate
  • He says the book advances stereotypes, does not belong in the curriculum of any state

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Be careful what you wish for. For years, activists have pressed the Texas State Board of Education for a more diverse curriculum, and this week The Associated Press reported, the board unveiled its first proposed textbook for Mexican-American studies.

The problem? For starters, the "Mexican American Heritage" text asserts that some Mexican-Americans during the civil rights era of the 1960s "opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society."
    It links Mexican-Americans to the drug trade and illegal immigration and says that Mexican-Americans are ambivalent about assimilating into the United States.
    The textbook presents a distorted view of Mexican-Americans, in part because it relies on stereotypes and incorrect assumptions. Its editorial content is dubious at best and flat-out racist at worst. The fact that the state of Texas is even considering it is troubling.
    Texas is home to the second-largest Hispanic population in the country (behind California), and more than half of the students in its public primary and secondary schools are Latino, most of them Mexican. So things looked promising when, two years ago, the State Board of Education agreed to begin developing a curriculum for elective courses in Mexican-American studies.
    However, the board is proposing a textbook with a photo of what one news report termed an "Aztec Dancer Look" on the cover. While this might work for a book on Mexican history, it is hardly reflective of the Mexican-American experience; the last time I checked, most Mexican-Americans were not running around bare-chested in elaborate headdresses.
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    The problems are not confined to the cover. The authors refer to the civilizations of pre-conquest Mexico as "Indian tribes." Its curriculum includes writers who are not Mexican-American, or even Mexican, such as Isabel Allende (who is Chilean), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombian) and Paulo Coelho (Brazilian). Oddly, the book includes the text of a speech by Fidel Castro. The textbook also suggests that the tango, rumba and salsa are Mexican dances. Actually, these dances are rooted in Argentina, Cuba and Puerto Rico, respectively.
    Yet none of these inaccurate depictions of Mexican-American history and culture are the most objectionable parts of the proposed textbook. What is concerning is its overall view of Mexican-Americans.
    In a passage of seemingly random editorializing, the book asserts, "Pressure exists that those of Mexican origin are not 'Mexican enough' or do not have enough sympathy and respect for their roots if they venture beyond the Spanish-speaking world." Huh?
    It goes on: "This belief, along with the idea that Latin culture must be held up as superior and separate from American culture, holds many back today." This has no place in a textbook for public school students. Equally inappropriate is the book's conflating of immigration with problems such as poverty, crime and drugs.
    On the contrary, evidence shows that Latinos, including Mexican-Americans, assimilate just like everybody else. In fact, immigrant Latinos struggle to keep their children and grandchildren from losing their ability to speak Spanish. There are also numerous studies showing the net benefits of immigration.
    In one of its more glaring misrepresentations, the book depicts Chicano activists in the civil rights era as separatists intent on overthrowing the United States. Ironically, these activists were fighting for their civil rights under the Constitution, so that they could be fully accepted as Americans.
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    The good news is that "Mexican-American Heritage" is at the proposal stage and has not yet been recommended by the Texas State Board of Education for use in schools. Texans have until September to submit comments on the book, and then a committee of educators and administrators will make its recommendation to the board.
    Still, it is noteworthy that this textbook was the only book for Mexican-American history on the state's list of proposed materials. And it's not cheap: "Mexican American Heritage" costs $69.95 -- although there are curricula in Mexican-American history put together by experts in the field that schools can use for free.
    Texas has a history of its textbook selection process being driven by misguided ideological fights. In recent years, the State Board of Education has battled over whether to approve science books that fully covered evolution. The board has also argued over climate change and the influence of Moses and other biblical figures on the Founding Fathers.
    True, it is a step forward that Texas is trying to adopt a more inclusive curriculum; research has shown that Mexican-American studies programs have led to better student performance in majority-Hispanic school districts.
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    But "Mexican American Heritage" is the wrong book for the job. It is not written by Mexican-American studies experts, of which there are many in Texas.
    The book seems to have been produced by Momentum Instruction, described by the Houston Chronicle as "a company that appears to be owned or operated by Cynthia Dunbar, a member of the Texas State Board of Education from 2007 to 2011. Dunbar, a right-wing Christian activist who questioned the constitutionality of public schools in 2008, labeled the education system 'tyrannical' when she published her book, 'One Nation Under God,' while serving on the board."
    "Mexican American Heritage" does not belong in the curriculum for Texas or any other state. Mexican-American public school students deserve books that respect the richness of our history and culture.