Opinion: The need for historical knowledge to prevent human tragedy

texas history

Teaching history at a higher education level is instrumental in helping students build their cultural identity.

Photo: Bigstock

December 20, 1845, the Republic of Texas, still considered by Mexico to be a renegade Mexican State, became the 28th American State by annexation. The event broke diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States, leading to the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, which Mexico lost.

As a result, all the territories above the Río Grande river were granted to the United States. These lands included what we know today as Arizona, California (through the Gadsen Purcase), Nevada, Utah, New México, some parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and, of course, Texas.

This is old news, valuable maybe to some historians and history teachers, or perhaps it can be relevant in the present day, given our current reality. In a set of more recent events, Patrick Crusius entered a Walmart store in El Paso armed with an assault rifle. He intended to kill as many Mexicans as he could before the authorities stopped him. The final count of El Paso’s active shooting: 22 deaths and 24 wounded.

His crime, which is going to be processed as domestic terrorism, was motivated by the incorrect belief that Hispanic immigrants were invading American soil; and that Cursuis’ duty as a citizen was to defend his country from that invasion. Maybe if his manifesto was based more on real historical knowledge and less on the same train of thought that fuels his president’s tweets, the shooter would have known that Hispanic presence in Texas had nothing to do with a Mexican invasion, but exactly the opposite.

The fight for a complete historical perspective

According to The Washington Post, history classes are mandatory in elementary school and junior high. From fourth to seventh grade, Texan students are supposed to learn about their State history, from Texas’ declaration of independence and annexation to the United States, until the end of the Mexican-Américan war, in which México conceded the land to the United States.

If this is something all Texan children who attend school know, why are there still people who get it backwards? Are these classes just conveying forgettable historical facts? Or are they going in-depth to create in the students the critical thinking and sensibility to understand the difficult historical path that their own State had to walk to become what it is today?

Universities in the southern United States have struggled with this, especially in the last decade. In 2012 the State of Arizona ordered Tucson to ban Mexican-American students. This order was overturned in 2017 in the State Court for being considered racist.

Texas’ case is a bit complex. Even if it does have mandatory history education at a basic level, it still lacks higher education standardized history programs for Mexican-American studies. This is crucial since higher education is the academic level where students not only learn historical facts but are also trained to be critical about them. Ideally, this is when they become aware of how those historical facts shape the society they live in today.

Until last year, in Texas, higher education Mexican-American Studies professors were in a state of academic abandonment. They didn’t have official content or guides to base their programs on. If they wanted to teach the subject, they had to fend for themselves and procure the best educational material they could on their own.

It wasn’t until April 2018 that the State Board of Education voted preliminarily to create curriculum standards for a Mexican-American studies class. Unfortunately, the Board also voted for a change of name, from “Mexican-American Studies” to “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

This change may seem harmless, but in reality, it hides a heavy educational bias. When we talk about Mexican-American Studies, in the title we imply the intention of explaining the delicate balance that Mexico and the United States have shared through various historical moments, and how that history affects the current relations between the two countries, as well as the lives of the Mexican-Americans and Latino communities in the United States.

If we change it to “An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent,” we are implicitly presenting the Mexican aspect of the class as a thing of the past, erasing it from our present, we turn it into an accessory that belongs to the American perspective, which is the central point of view. The Mexican aspect of the bicultural Texas’ identity becomes a vestigial structure of what it means to be a Texan, not the present and living element that it actually is.

Teachers and activists from the Mexican-American and Latino community in Texas fought this decision. In September 2018 they got the Board to agree on a new and final title for the class: “Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies.”

This was a significant milestone in the effort to connect Texans with their history and cultural heritage, which is undoubtedly a critical necessity. To erase half of a cultural identity through control of history education has real and tragic consequences, more than we ever anticipated given the recent events.

The weight of silencing half of Texan bicultural identity through education

Without the much-needed awareness of Texas’ bicultural identity, it’s hard to process the reality we live in right now. We’re experiencing one of the biggest Immigration Crisis in Modern History. In El Paso, the number of families crossing the border rose to 2,100 % during the last fiscal year. The vast majority of them came from Central America, and 15,000 of these families were arrested during this period.

To make matters worse, President Donald Trump and his team at the White House have been hard at work to create a narrative in which they are the victims of a foreign invasion. They have also led hostile international relations with Mexico to force them to impose severe migration policies that stop migrants in the country before they get to the United States. Their inflammatory discourse describes the Immigration Crisis as nothing short of an act of war on American soil, which is the actual definition of what an invasion means.

Texas is immersed in this reality as one of the states with the highest immigrant count in the country. But to take only this fact as definitory of all the complex social and cultural situations inherent to Texas, ignoring that what made Texas what it is today was precisely American migration into Mexican territory, and framing today’s migration into the United States as an invasion is historical and cultural erasure at its finest.

Educational silence towards the full history and cultural heritage of a State, erases fundamental parts of its identity and humanity, more specifically the Mexican part, and enables the Crusius of the world to rationalize an Immigration Crisis as an invasion.

Under this context, historical knowledge is not just an optional subject, it's the inalienable right of every student, and a critical obligation of all American schools and universities. One that must be met as soon as possible, preferably before the United States current president writes another tweet about immigration and the Mexican people.