Everybody knows the phrase “manifest destiny,” but Indians may be a bit more sensitive to what it has meant in policy terms. Being on the receiving end will do that. U.S. schoolchildren are now looking at manifest destiny in the rearview mirror and what they should know about what it took to become a bicoastal superpower (whether God’s will was manifest or not) is a major disagreement among parents and teachers and public education bureaucrats.
When the Republican-controlled Texas State Board of Education voted not to adopt the only text on offer for Mexican American history, reportage on the rejection was a bit light on why. Because the SBOE had nixed the idea of having a course for high school kids on Mexican American history, voters could be excused for thinking the text was too “political,” a common conservative objection to ethnic studies in general.
Why a text about the contributions of Mexican-Americans to the culture along the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly Texas?
Because over half of K-12 students in Texas are Mexican-American?
Because the first discussion of “manifest destiny” occurs in the debate over Texas Annexation?
Because the Mexican War—resulting in annexation of the Southwestern U.S.—began as a dispute over the location of the Texas-Mexico border?
Because the primary ethnicity of Mexicans who cross to the U.S. is American Indian?
Because the Mexican border bisects traditional tribal lands?
Because several tribes from the U.S.—notably the Kickapoo—fled into Mexico to escape violence and returned later to be with relatives?
Because a greater percentage than ever of the people who do the backbreaking farm labor U.S. citizens won’t do speak an indigenous language before Spanish or English?
Because, in spite of all this and having fought on both sides of the Texas Revolution, Mexican-Americans were placed in segregated schools and confronted with signs reading “No Dogs or Mexicans” in places of public accommodation? Everything that happened to African Americans happened to Mexican Americans in the borderlands, separately and equally, as the law used to permit.
Eloisa Moreno, left, Ruben Garza, center, and Eloy Gonzalez, look over papers as they wait for a Texas Board of Education hearing to begin on April 8, 2014, in Austin, Texas. The SBOE was considering a proposal to add a statewide Mexican-American studies high school elective course, but instead issued a call for a textbook for the class.
These were not found to be good enough reasons for a course, so a supplemental text was a consolation prize. Handled with sensitivity, submerging Mexican American history in a required mainstream history course has the advantage that all kids would be exposed to the information.
The resulting call for a text brought in only one proposal, Mexican American Heritage, by Jaime Riddle and Valarie Angle, neither of whom is a known scholar in the subject area. It appears that Riddle has a graduate degree from Regent University, the Christian institution founded by Pat Robertson. Angle has no advanced degree but she once took a course on the “philosophy” of Ayn Rand.
Riddle’s and Angle’s work product was being examined in the first place because the SBOE shot down the idea of a high school level Mexican-American studies course. The book was a consolation prize to the teachers stuck with classes full of brown students tasked to learn a history that ignores them. Given the Board’s attitude toward the whole idea of including those kids, how bad would a text have to be to get turned down?
University of Arizona Professor Roberto Rodriguez wrote of Mexican American Heritage in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:
Mexican Americans are justifiably angry about this book, and yet, American Indians should be doubly angry. The book peddles foundational myths going back 524 years that posit that Indigenous Peoples—relatives and ancestors of Mexican Americans—were ungodly violent savages that roamed an untamed wilderness, always a threat to civilization. Only because the Spanish intervened (colonialism) did native peoples finally get a chance to prosper and partake in the benefits of Western Civilization.
The final vote of the SBOE has not been taken, but the result of the preliminary vote was unanimous. Most media reports of the rejection didn’t say what was wrong except there were errors and it claimed Mexican immigrants are “lazy.”
It was more than that. Scholars make specific factual errors and errors can be corrected. It’s a bit harder to correct stereotypes. National Public Radio quoted Professor Trinidad Gonzales of South Texas College, “There’s no way this textbook can be corrected. The reason it can’t be corrected is it really is not a textbook. It is a polemic.”
The Houston Chronicle reported that the text describes Chicanos as people who “adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society.”
The Texas Observer pointed out that the text offers a nod to “Mexican American literature” by citing Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia), Isabel Allende (Chile), and Pablo Coelho (Brazil).
Martha P. Cotera, consultant to the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, lacerated the text for ignoring Mexican American women.
The publisher, through spokeswoman and former SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar, admitted that Mexican American scholars were not engaged to write the book so as to avoid bias. She has owned up to one mistake, where the text suggested that English is the “official language” of the United States. Critics claim to have documented some 140 mistakes.
Cynthia Dunbar studies a curriculum version during a break in the meeting of the Texas State Board of Education on May 23, 2008, in Austin, Texas. She apparently founded the company that produced a widely criticized Mexican-American studies textbook proposed for use in Texas public schools.
While the disdain for Mexicans and therefore Mexican Americans is a constant theme, there is a great deal of stereotypical nonsense that manages to disparage all Indians, such as this description from page 10 of the text purporting to describe Indian warfare:
Massacre was an effective strategy because the victor gained complete possession of the vanquished tribe’s land. Sometimes there was ceremonial beheading, scalping, or partial cannibalism. A common North American Indian practice was beating the dead, with the highest honor given to the warrior who struck the first blow. If massacre was not the objective, captives might be taken to be ransomed if the tribe had economic needs or taken as prisoners of war if the tribe was depopulated. It was common for wives to be kept as concubines and children to be kept as slaves and adoptees of the victorious tribe. Some tribes in the Pacific Northwest such as the Haida were even feared as habitual slave-raiders.
Texas Monthly nailed the real problem. Ethnic studies start out to remedy the whitewashing of American history, and this text simply adds another coat of whitewash because Mexican Americans are not white. They may claim descent from Spanish colonists but, according to the white nationalist narrative, the Indians assimilated the Spanish rather than the other way around. The only role Indians have in manifest destiny is they are obstacles.
Rodriguez calls out the manifest destiny whitewash:
From start to finish, the authors argue that America is part of a great civilization, in effect, guided by God, that has given the world democracy, capitalism and freedoms and that Mexican Americans are part of another tradition or culture [Indigenous], rooted in primitive socialistic or communistic societies that committed mass sacrifices, cannibalism and engaged in constant warfare.
The story of the Southwestern borderlands is one of Indigenous and European cultures borrowing from each other to create something unlike either and unlike the rest of the United States. A teacher trying to explain the history to mostly brown students gets very little help from the manifest destiny narrative.