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A Texas Firewall?

Don’t Mess with Meskins

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

In West Texas, during the struggles to desegregate the schools in the later part of the 1960s, I listened to attorney Mark Smith caution a small audience that, “You may not like Meskins, but the Constitution gives them the right to equal access to schools. Things have changed during the past three wars. Many Meskins have served in the armed forces, so they know how to use BARs [Browning Automatic Rifles] and other weaponry, and they don’t take kindly to be called and treated like Meskins.”

Since that time, changes have taken place in the Lone Star State. The Mexican Americans’ numbers have exploded, and they are found in large numbers in almost every electoral district in the state. Because of this they are visible, and few white Texans refer to them as Meskins anymore – at least not to their faces.

Therefore, it was a surprise that Texas followed Arizona’s lead, and ultra conservative Texas State Senator Dan Patrick proposed S.B. 1128, a bill designed to ban ethnic studies as a choice for core Texas and U.S. history courses required in Texas universities. 1128 is the xenophobes’ version of “you are in America now so speak American.” It amounts to turning back the clock and trying to put Meskins back in their place.

Patrick who admittedly is not the sharpest knife in the drawer says that Latino history is covered adequately in K-12 education, and should not be considered in general Texas and U.S. history –something that is not borne out by the facts.

According to its proponents, SB 1128 was motivated by a report of the National Association of Scholars, an ultra-right wing conservative group that bills itself as nonpartisan. The NAS argues that U.S. history courses at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University focus on race, gender and class to the exclusion of intellectual and military history. Codes for too many non-whites are appearing in history.

The bill was opposed by the University of Texas at Austin. While most sources admit that more attention has been paid to race, class and gender since the 1960s when Mexican Americans were called Meskins and black Americans the “N” word, they argue that the change was for the better, and it made history more inclusive and reflects the true history of the United States.

When all was said and done, SB 1128 and its companion HB 1938 were stopped in their tracks. However, it is clear that the bills were motivated by Arizona HB 2281 that banned Mexican American Studies at K-12. Patrick and his gaggle of extremists hoped to emulate what they perceive as Arizona’s success.

Why was this bill successful in Arizona, and why and how was it stopped in Texas? Surely racism is no less virulent in the Lone Star State than in Arizona.

First off, it would be fair to point out that Texas has benefitted a great deal from the Arizona experience.  Los Librotraficantes, an organization of educators and writers, had its genesis in the Arizona struggle. Librotraficantes organized caravans to defend ethnic studies in Tucson, Arizona, and it was fortunate that the organization is based in Houston, and able to respond quickly to SB 1128.

The Houston group was very effective in mobilizing ready-made constituencies such as the Mexican American Studies Student Association (MASSO) at the University of Texas at San Antonio and feeding information to Mexican American politicos.

The anti-1128 and 1938 campaign also benefited from the fact that the Texas bills targeted universities where faculty governance plays a much bigger role than in K-12, which is run by political hacks that are interested more in their political careers and ideology than in education.

As UT History professor Emilio Zamora has noted, “People in history departments have expressed concern, because the bills attempt to weaken faculty governance, academic freedom and history teaching in departments.”

From what I have witnessed there was not a similar response in Arizona where universities were not included in the law and thus Chicana/o Studies were not immediately threatened by 2281.

Moreover, politics are different in Texas that has 34 Latino legislators out of a total of 180, 19 percent. Not great, Texas is 38 percent Latino; however, it was enough to create a firewall.

An added strength was that the Latino vote is significantly large in major cities such as San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and El Paso. Statewide this critical mass can make or break candidacies, and it is growing in strength. In contrast, representation in Arizona is more concentrated than Texas, and there are fewer Latino state and federal elected representatives.

Moreover, while conservative, Texas has a broad liberal streak; the Texas Observer is a leading and respected left of center magazine that regularly featured Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, and Lou Dubose. This and other magazines and community newspapers can be counted on to sound the clarions.

Moreover, corporate America has been able to buy a larger share of Arizona. The Koch Brothers, ALEC and other corporate giants get more bang for their dollar in Arizona than they do in Texas.

Finally, there is the role of Tejano academicians. In many ways the Texas Foco of the National Association for Chicana/o Studies is more active and better organized than the national organization.  UT Professor Emilio Zamora, a respected historian and scholar, played an important role in combatting HB 1938 and SB 1128 and in mobilizing the opposition in academe.

As a group Latino educators were much more proactive in Texas than in Arizona.  Zamora tracked the bills and kept Chicana/o educators informed nationally through websites such as Historia. Nationally known educators like Dr. Angela Valenzuela used their networks to inform Latino and non-Latino constituencies.

Texas has a particular culture that favors it. It is different and has richer history than let’s say California that has the largest Latino population in the nation.

Most national Chicana/o organization saw the light of day in Texas. Racism bonded Tejanos, giving them a distinct identity. Symbols such as the Texas Rangers and the Ku Klux Klan are still vivid in the Tejanos’ memories. Tejano music and culture unify them much as salsa unified Puerto Ricas in New York.

In the early days of the movement Tejanos were known for always closing ranks, and although they would criticize each other in private – publically they would present a united front. Some of this togetherness has been diluted in academe with the hiring of outside Chicana/o scholars who sometimes lack this regional identity. Yet there is enough left to imbue Chicana/o scholars with a “don’t mess with Meskins” mentality.

From my perspective, arguably this identity is not as strong in other states that seem to lack a similar tradition.

Sometimes the Texas bravado can be irritating. Like the notion of some old timers that Aztlán is in Texas, and someone could only be a Chicano if born in the Rio Grande River Valley – preferably in the Brownsville area.

However, it took that a don’t mess with Meskins spirit to fight back the threat to Mexican American studies. Even so it must be remembered that the attack was directed at the sector where these studies are the strongest. You wonder if this attack would have been directed at K-12 Chicana/o Studies program such as in Tucson whether the response would have been the same.

This point is moot, however, because outside of Tucson there are no large functioning K-12 Mexican American Studies programs. In Texas as in the rest of the country Mexicans and Latinos have been written out of history, which is the topic of another essay.

So in reality, although we have come a long way, they are still messing with Meskins who are invisible in K-12.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.