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California Ethnic Studies

Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/LA Times

It’s official. Latinos now make up the largest ethnic group in California. They surpassed Whites for the first time since California was part of Mexico.

However, the same is not true about our curriculum. Attempts to make our curriculum more diverse came in the late 1970’s, but stopped short. As Professor at CSU Monterey Bay, Christine E. Sleeter, stated in her study, The Academic and Social Benefits of Ethnic Studies, “As national concern shifted towards standards and accountability, efforts to make curricula multicultural subsided.” Many think that this issue has been taken care of in the past. But it hasn’t.

Despite being a majority in the state, Latinos are largely invisible in our curriculum and others are sorely absent. Our curriculum is dominated by a largely Euro-Centric point of view.

One only has to look at the History Social Studies Framework for California Public Schools to see the problem as Dr. Sleeter explains, “Of the 96 Americans who were named for study in the framework’s course descriptions, there are 77 percent White, 18 percent African American, 4 percent Native American, 1 percent Latino and 0 percent Asian American.” The truth is, that despite being a majority in the state, Latinos are largely invisible in our curriculum and others are sorely absent. Our curriculum is dominated by a largely Euro-Centric point of view.

This sends the wrong message to our youth and our community; the message that Latino history, culture and contributions to our society do not matter and that the only ones who do are White. However, White and other students are also who are robbed when we leave whole communities out of our curriculum.

When we leave out Latinos we miss the history of people like labor union leader Emma Tenaycua, who fought for labor rights long before Cesar Chavez (who seems to be the only Latino ever mentioned in out textbooks). Students also never learn about Chicano Civil Rights Leaders like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, who fought for political representation and better education for Latinos. Lastly, the stories and contributions of Latina LGBT leaders like Sylva Rivera, of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan decent, who was a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, will never be learned about.

It is these stories of resilience that give a sense of pride and accomplishment among Latinos, who are now the majority, that was not there before. It also helps in building better intercultural understanding and appreciation among people of all ethnicities.

Our curriculum standards are like an unofficial Jim Crow on the newfound Latino majority in California.

Luckily, many districts across the state—from Sacramento to San Diego—are implementing Ethnic Studies programs to help address this problem. Ethic Studies courses are interdisciplinary courses that can range from traditional African American or Chicano Studies to Multicultural Literature. They examine the complexities and contributions of one or more Ethnic groups in the United States with a focus on social justice.

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Most universities across the state have Ethnic Studies programs and it’s a growing trend in K-12. This past year, over 19 school districts passed resolutions establishing or expanding Ethnic Studies programs across the state. Five districts took it a step further and made it a graduation requirement.

California State lawmakers are also considering AB 101 that will require the California Department of Education to create a model Ethnic Studies curriculum that districts may implement. It passed the State Assembly and is waiting for a vote in the State Senate.

Teachers and community activist around the state have also begun a demand for Ethnic Studies in our schools. They have set up a website to support the growing movement across the state.

Ethnic Studies is also backed by sound educational research. Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, recently published a study on the Tucson, Arizona Mexican American Studies program and found that, “There’s a consistent positive relationship between taking Mexican American Studies (MAS) classes and student achievement, and the more classes students took, the greater their likelihood of academic success."

Indeed, Professor Christine Sleeter’s research review of Ethnic Studies also found the same, “Studies of fifteen of the sixteen (Ethnic Studies) curricula reported a positive impact on students, two of these using state standardized tests as a measure of achievement. In other words, well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies benefits students of color academically.”

With the new numbers demonstrating the growth of the Latino population there is a demographic imperative that we support Latinos in our schools, in every possible.

It is time to end the unofficial Jim Crow in our curricula.

We must continue to support Ethnic Studies programs in our schools so that all our children learn to value, respect and learn from each other and that no one gets left out. Especially Latinos.


Jose Lara