When you hear "civil rights movement" you think about the African-American civil rights movement. ... I don't think that [Mexican-American history] is seen as part of the main historical narrative. ... I wanted students to connect to the material and feel that their history was being taught in the classroom. That's why I decided to teach Mendez.
-- Mr. Morado, 11th-grade U.S. history teacher
Mr. Morado, a teacher at a predominantly Latino school in California, is expressing a concern for many educators: How do I make history culturally relevant to my students? He's worried that students might not see people who look like them in the history curriculum. More important, he wants students to feel connected to what they're learning in class. Given that school curriculum and textbooks often omit Latinos (Garcia, 1980, 1993; Noboa, 2006), it's up to Morado to find a place for Latinos, specifically Mexican-Americans, in his U.S. history teaching. To do so, Morado included Mendez v. Westminster School District in his civil rights unit.
The Mendez segregation challenge began in 1945 when the family moved to Westminster in Southern California. The family tried to enroll their children at their local elementary school, but they were denied admission. The school told the Mendez children to register at the "Mexican school." What followed was a lawsuit against five Orange County school districts. After a two-year legal battle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that since there was no state law mandating Mexican-American school segregation, the Mendez children could not be segregated. The court also legally recognized Mexican-Americans as racially white. As white, Mexican-Americans couldn't be segregated from other white students. Mendez didn't overturn any segregation policies; to the contrary, it actually reinforced segregation. Mendez left existing school segregation polices against Asian-Americans and Native Americans intact. Furthermore, Mexican-American children could still be segregated if they did not pass an English proficiency exam (Brilliant, 2010). School administrators thus continued to segregate Mexican-American children long after the case ended. "English proficiency" simply became another vehicle for justifying Mexican-American discrimination. But, later that year, California outlawed school segregation based on race.
While many educators have included Mendez in their curriculum on their own accord, only recently has California pushed for its inclusion into the classroom. After the state legislature's failed attempt in 2008 to pass a bill mandating the teaching of Mendez, the California State Board of Education included Mendez in its History-Social Science Framework in 2013 (Strum, 2010). The question now is how will Mendez included in history classrooms? How will California, where 51% of children are Hispanic (Ceasar, 2011), redress the exclusion of Latinos in its history curriculum?
To answer these questions, I observed Morado's 11th-grade U.S. History course while he taught the civil rights movements unit to a class of all Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant students. What I found after a month of observations and student interviews surprised me. Morado's students learned and discussed Mexican-American history as if it were an offshoot of African-American history. Mexican-American history was subsumed under the larger African-American civil rights story and stripped of its unique aspects. As a result, students learned an oversimplified version of Mexican-American discrimination and race. Morado and his students demonstrate that teachers and curriculum developers must be made aware in order to change the way we teach Mexican-American and Latino history in general.
Drawing parallels between Brown and Mendez
The instructional materials and class discussions constantly drew connections between Mendez and Brown v. Board of Education. …