Tony Diaz, a professor at Lone Star College and also an activist with the group Librotraficante, says when students can relate more to a class, they are more engaged and do better academically.
Kevin Fox, a student at Lone Star College, says the more students are exposed to people who are different than themselves, the more understanding they can gain. For this Mexican American literature class, Fox studied and interviewed local authors.
In this Mexican American literature class, professor Tony Diaz encourages students like Brenda Lozano to write their own history and find their own voice. Brenda investigated her own family history through photos and wrote about her rainbow-colored home growing up in Reynosa, Mexico.
More Texas high schools are expected to offer Mexican American studies and other ethnic courses, following the state board’s compromise to support them.
Last month, the Texas State Board of Education decided to leave it up to local school districts to develop and offer classes like Mexican American studies or not.
But state officials did put out a call for textbooks in a show of support.
Now the leader of that successful campaign for Mexican American studies has already set the next goals: 50 Texas high schools teaching Mexican American studies next fall. And the semester after, 100 schools.
“With Texas being as big as it is, this is going to spread like wildfire,” said Tony Diaz, professor at Lone Star College and an activist with Librotraficante.
Diaz says one reason the state board endorsed ethnic studies is sheer demographics. Half of the students in Texas public schools are Hispanic. In places like Houston, Hispanics make up an even larger part of the student body.
“The other thing that happened is they heard the Tejano boots pounding the pavement that day. There were students from the Valley, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, all over. And for every student, every one professor, every one professional we represented thousands,” Diaz said.
Diaz and other supporters managed to win over several Republicans on the partisan state board.
One of those Republicans was Donna Bahorich, who represents Northwest Harris County.
“I’m all about whatever it takes to get students connected to their education, invested in their education, is very important to me,” said Bahorich, calling the compromise to call for textbooks “very good.”
Along with Mexican American studies, the state board also put out a call for textbooks for African American, Asian American and Native American studies.
The debate over ethnic studies in public schools is growing in other states like Arizona and California.
Here in Texas, community college students at Lone Star College strongly endorse the idea of ethnic studies. Diaz teaches a Mexican American literature class at the college.
Student Luis Ochoa, 22, wishes he had something like this back in high school at Klein Forest.
“In high school when we would read Greek tragedies and Shakespeare plays and stuff like that I was interested in it but I knew a lot of people who weren’t. They said this is boring, this is lame or whatever,” Ochoa said.
He added that he relates more to the writing in this Mexican American literature class. In addition to well-known authors, students analyze current events and listen to writing by their peers.
“Because a lot of the stuff that they talk about it hits home more, like, I’ve gone through it, or like, especially when they speak about identity and stuff like that, like I most definitely – not just as a Mexican American, but just as a person in general – have gone through some stuff where it’s you don’t really know where you fit,” Ochoa said.
Students feel like they fit in here. Carina Quevedo, who was born in Mexico, said before she would always sit in the back of class and didn’t want to talk about herself.
Now she sits in the front, engages in class discussion and even is willing to share her personal writing.
“I think this class was the place where I felt like – it wasn’t a class so much, it’s was more like a family,” Quevedo said.
Another student Brant Roberts said Diaz’ class goes against the culture he grew up with – and that’s a good thing.
“It fights that racism that was just culturally inherent and it was just like really put in there,” Roberts says.
He grew up in Montgomery, a small town near Conroe, where he says he was surrounded by xenophobia.
Now he’s enthralled with Mexican American authors like Gloria Anzaldúa from the Rio Grande Valley.
“This class says a lot. And that’s why it could be really beneficial to not just Houston students but obviously a lot of Texas students. A lot of white Texas students can gain a lot of perspective. I think it will help fight racism. That’s why I like this class.”