How California Texts Portray Latinos

When Slavery is a “Life-style,” What Happens to Mexicans?

By Elizabeth Martínez

When we read a social studies text for 5th graders which refers to slavery as a “lifestyle,” we might think it’s some book from the 1940s or 50s. Alas, such descriptions can be found in the glossy new series published by Houghton Mifflin and adopted for California schools in 1990-91. Even worse, this series was supposed to mark a major break with the longtime Eurocentric textbook tradition.

California had invited publishers to submit new histories for grades K-8 as part of an overall effort to upgrade its instructional materials and methods. Houghton Mifflin was the only house that submitted books for all those grades. It also was the only house that prepared books specifically intended to fit into a new history and social studies “framework,” or curriculum, that California had adopted.

The framework called for pupils to study history much earlier and more extensively than in the past. Recognizing that the majority of California’s 3.7 million elementary and junior high pupils are now young people of color, the framework also required that textbooks “accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society.” (Nevertheless, the framework, written by conservative historian Diane Ravitch, by no means advocated equality between peoples.) The main author of the Houghton Mifflin series is Gary Nash, a UCLA professor with a reputation for advocating multiculturalism.

California’s Board of Education adopted the Houghton Mifflin series and an additional 8th-grade history from Holt, Rinehart & Winston despite protests from thousands of people in virtually every racial and ethnic sector (including Muslims, who had been the first to object) as well as gays, lesbians, and the disabled. Since local school districts are not legally obliged to buy the state-approved books in California, the struggle continued.

Eventually most local school boards adopted the approved texts, sometimes with supplemental readings. In Oakland, where students are almost 92% of color, both the Houghton Mifflin series and the Holt, Rinehart & Winston title were rejected. (The task of finding satisfactory substitutes has yet to be resolved.) In San Francisco, where 83% of the student population are of color, the new books were finally adopted on the condition that supplemental readings be used. However, the school district placed just one copy of each supplemental title in each school.

Behind all the highly publicized debate one can assume some heavy-duty politicking. Houghton Mifflin calculated that the California market alone could yield $52.9 million in sales of the textbook series. With so much at stake, Houghton Mifflin hired a public relations firm for the first time in its history to help win state approval.

Those defending the Houghton Mifflin titles claimed that they were a vast improvement over the past, with much more information about people of color and their perspectives. “We have 80 pages on African history for 12-year olds,” Gary Nash pointed out. But a numerical increase in textual references or images doesn’t promote multiculturalism if the content leaves a fundamentally Eurocentric worldview in place. The occasional inclusion of dissenting views from people of color may give some balance to isolated passages; it does not alter the dominant perspective.

The worldview put forth in these texts rests on defining the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” This view sees Native Americans as the first “immigrants,” based on their having come across the Bering Strait from Asia (but this theory is rejected by many Indians, a disagreement not mentioned in the series). After Indians come Africans (but weren’t they brought here in chains?) and then Mexicans (but wasn’t their homeland seized by Anglo force?). Europeans and Asians round out the list of so-called immigrants.

The immigrant model has usually included the “melting pot” metaphor; the Houghton Mifflin series rejects that now tarnished image in favor of the “salad bowl,” which allows different peoples to retain their ethnic identity and culture inside one big unified society. But how different is the bowl from the pot?

Both ignore issues of power and domination, such as which groups in society have power and which don’t, or which groups dominate and which are dominated. Both are molded by a national identity firmly rooted in an Anglo-American culture and perspective. As critics of the textbooks pointed out, the norm to which so-called immigrants are supposed to relate is white, Anglo-Saxon, and usually Protestant — in short, WASP, and the Mexican-American, for example, is not a “real” American. The Houghton Mifflin texts hammer home the power and authority of this norm with an extraordinary quantity of U.S. flags (in the K-5 book alone, 29 depictions compared to zero flags from other nations).

The Eurocentric viewpoint of the series can be found in its treatment of all U.S. peoples of color, exemplified by one sentence in a literature selection in the Grade 5 textbook: “She had blue eyes and white skin, like an angel” (which reduces us darkies to being devils, I assume). Scores of inaccuracies, distortions, sanitizations, omissions, and outright racist accounts pepper these books. Here we’ll take a look at how the Houghton Mifflin books depict Mexican-Americans and other Latinos in the U.S. (Having limited space, we’ll defer a review of how Mexico and other parts of Latin America are portrayed, although this certainly affects the image and self-image of Latinos living in the U.S. Also, not every error will be noted.)

Five major problems appear, then, ranging from general perspective to the handling of key events involving people of Mexican origin. The first general question is: do we even exist?

1. Invisibilization

Increasing the quantity of references to a people doesn’t multiculturalize a textbook, as we said; at the same time, invisibility definitely hurts. The Houghton Mifflin series gives very shabby treatment to Latinos in this respect.

By the third grade it would seem reasonable to expect real awareness of Mexicans in the U.S., especially when the textbook From Sea to Shining Sea has a 60-page unit called “Settling the Land.” But no. In the whole book, Mexican Americans appear only as farmworkers, and even then their historic role in producing vast agricultural wealth is not recognized (nor is that of Filipinos). A single photo shows an orchard with a rain of almonds being shaken out of some trees — by machine, not people. .

Nowhere does the text say that agriculture was made possible in the Southwest by an art that Mexicans and Indians taught to Anglos: irrigation.

The fourth grade book, Oh California, offers lots of Latinos but they are almost all “explorers” and “settlers,” missionaries, or upper-class ranchers. Nowhere can we find the lower-class Mexicans, nowhere the many Mexicans who were violently repressed and driven off the land, often even lynched, from the Gold Rush days to the 1930s, nowhere the massive strikes by Mexican workers in the 1930s or the deportation of thousands who were actually citizens. Chicanos and Mexicans vanish totally from California in pp.157-259. Then we find a paragraph on East Los Angeles which includes Mexicans in a listing of all immigrant groups; it doesn’t say that they formed the original population of L.A. and have continued to be a strong presence for over 200 years.

Oh California briefly describes the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez, in the series’ only account of Chicano/ Mexicano struggle for U.S. social change. We find nothing about how the courageous farmworkers stood up to mass arrests, beatings and harassment by the growers and their goons. Nothing about Dolores Huerta — one of the best known women activists for social change in the U.S. today — who headed the union along with Chavez.

Nothing about the ongoing struggle against pesticides. And nothing about other movements of California Chicanos such as the walkouts by thousands of high school students in 1968 and the anti-Vietnam war march of some 20,000 people on that day in 1970 when police tear-gassed hundreds at a peaceful rally, including this writer, and caused three Chicanos to die. A picture of one “Chicano Power” mural is apparently supposed to suffice for all those years of mass activism.

In America Will Be, a basic 5th grade U.S. history book, Latinos as a people do not exist beyond immigration statistics and other lists with the exception of a single immigrant family presented totally out of context. Even Latinos as governmental representatives vanish after 3 pages on Juan de Oñate, who invaded New Mexico for Spain in 1598. From p.128 to 370, no references at all.

If it is hard to find Mexicans in this series, other Latinos are even less visible. After profiling the great baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente in the Grade 2 text, the series abandons Puerto Ricans. For the millions of Central Americans resident in the U.S., Houghton Mifflin includes a single nameless young woman who came from Guatemala for unspecified reasons and lives an undescribed life here (Grade 3 text). In grades 4 and 5 we get one and two sentences respectively referring to refugees from Cuba and Central America — with no explanation of why they had fled.

2. That Old White Magic: Eurocentrism and Its Values

The books for kindergarten, The World I See, and Grade l, I Know a Place, lay the foundation for Eurocentrism. Both include a thematic photo with several pupils of color, including a probable Latino, and the K volume has one story about Mexico. But the drawings in the “Long Ago” pages of the K book are overwhelmingly populated by whites; one image shows 31 persons out of 35 as white, another makes all 20 people white, and so forth. In the Grade 1 book also, everyone from the past is white, e.g., a unit called “Grandma’s Album” and another called “I go with my family to grandma’s.” The message comes across loud and clear: the foundations of our country are EuroAmerican (or perhaps people of color don’t have grannies). Yet Mexican people settled in what is now the United States from 1598 on.

Some People I Know (Grade 2) introduces Teresa Sanchez of East L.A. The text puts a healthy stress on the merits of being bilingual and bicultural like Teresa, but why did they make her a totally Anglo-looking girl? Any Latina — like this writer — who has grown up longing for blonde hair and light-colored eyes will know what a bad message this conveys, especially when everyone else in Teresa’s family is dark. (Perhaps she can be one of those angels?)

A special form of the Eurocentric perspective, Hispanicism, flows through the Houghton Mifflin series. Again and again the “customs” and “culture” and “traditions” of the Mexican people in the U.S. are described as originating in Spain — a European country. Indian or mestizo roots go unnoticed. This would be laughable (how many people in Madrid eat tortillas and beans?) if it were not so racist.

The Houghton Mifflin authors actually discuss Eurocentrism (Grade 8), defining it as “the notion that Europe is the center of the world.” They then, however, affirm that viewpoint by stating, “And for a long period of time it seemed to be. From the 1500s to the 1900s, European countries controlled a large part of the world.” End of explanation, leaving readers with a very Eurocentric view of Eurocentrism. The same book tells us that “U.S. citizens…tended to look on Mexico as a backward nation, an attitude that has continued to this day.” No comment; no criticism or alternatives to this view are suggested.

If one of the goals of Eurocentrism is to make U.S. history a more comfortable abode for white people, the 5th grade textbook shows how. The teachers edition suggests an exercise in which students are asked to think about what it is like to move into a new neighborhood or even a new country: what are the neighbors like? Is it scary? It then says, “Lead them to understand that the colonists in America shared many of the same experiences and feelings.” What a novel way to imagine taking over someone’s land! Other examples of sanitized treatment abound. For example, the often deadly racism practiced against Mexicans in the Southwest is described as “considerable discrimination” (Grade 4) and “prejudice” (Grade 5).

The series is riddled with a Eurocentric vocabulary: “discoveries,” “the new World,” “the Age of Exploration,” and “Moving West.” It also manipulates the reader with self-justifying types of word usage. Again and again Anglo-Americans’ “belief” in the rightness of their actions is used to justify how Mexican people and Native Americans have been treated historically. One text (Grade 4) even describes as “idealistic” the U.S. belief that westward expansion would help “bring freedom” to the “less fortunate” Indians and Mexicans.

The use of “dreams” serves a similar purpose, as in statements like, “The forty-niners had dreams of becoming very wealthy.” (Grade 4, teachers edition, my italics). Such descriptions tend to make young readers identify with men who in fact often robbed, raped, and murdered people of color. The text goes on to say of the forty-niners that “They did not feel they had to share those dreams with Indians…,” a remarkably mild way of describing their actual deeds.

Eurocentric usage of “beliefs” and “idealism” and “dreams” — all concepts which many youth embrace — can work wonders. We see this in the series’ treatment of three historical periods: westward expansion and the take-over of Texas; the U.S. war on Mexico; the Gold Rush and Mexican resistance to the U.S. take-over.

3. Westward Expansion and Taking Texas

“United States expansion in the West was inevitable,” says the 4th-grade text. A section on “Texas and the Struggle with Mexico” (Grade 5) describes how Anglos obtained land and settled in Texas with Mexico’s permission on certain conditions, including no slaves and being Catholic. When they broke their promises and Mexico tried to tighten its control, the Americans in Texas “were upset…Mexican rule…had become too strict.” Being “upset”

— a variation on “belief” — apparently legitimizes the Anglo move to take Texas.

The Battle of the Alamo at San Antonio, Texas in 1836 is the one event involving Mexicans that appeared in every publisher’s textbooks submitted for consideration in California. This Mexican military victory, in which all Anglo fighters died defending the fort — or, some scholars say, were executed — sparked a legendary desire for revenge. The Grade 5 teachers edition emphasizes that students should see the Battle of the Alamo as “an important symbol of freedom and liberty” where “heroes” fought for Texas independence.

From a different perspective, it was a symbol of U.S. landgrabbing in which the “heroes” featured an escaped murderer (William Travis), a slave-runner (James Bowie), and a gunfighting adventurer (Davey Crockett). But that perspective doesn’t appear.

In a unique account of the Texas take-over, Holt, Rinehardt & Winston’s 8th-grade book — which was adopted with the Houghton Mifflin series — tells how the U.S. surprise-attacked Mexico at San Jacinto after the Alamo battle. Confronted by the revenge-hungry Anglos, the Mexican troops “fearfully” called out: “Me no Alamo!,” supposedly in hopes of being spared. “…in fact,” the book says, “these were the very same men who had slaughtered the defenders of the mission.” Thus Holt encourages the stereotypes of Mexicans as cowardly, murderous, sneaky, lying buffoons — who cannot, of course, outwit the righteous Anglo.

4. The 1846-48 U.S. War on Mexico and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

These two events must rank among the most inaccurately depicted history in U.S. schoolbooks. “Belief” strikes again in the Grade 4 text from Houghton Mifflin, which bluntly states: “In the 1840s many [U.S.] people believed that their nation should rule all the land between the East and West coasts. Mexico owned much of this land. So the United States decided to go to war with Mexico to try to win this land.”

More detail comes in the next grade: “Mexican officials refused to talk” (that word “talk” — which sounds like little enough to ask — actually meant negotiating with the U.S. over its demands for more Mexican land). So, “President Polk ordered American forces to move down to the Rio Grande. They were now in territory that the Mexican government said was theirs. In April 1846 Mexican troops fought with an American scouting party, leaving 16 dead or wounded. The United States and Mexico were now at war.” A teachers edition section on Critical Thinking says: “No one really wanted the Mexican War. How could it have been avoided?”

This is a disingenuous, indeed deceptive version of what even Anglo historians have identified as Polk’s deliberate provocation of war with a view to seizing half of Mexico. Polk declared his intent in his own diary, but the text remains silent on that. We also find not a word about the atrocities committed by U.S. invading forces during the war or the fact that General Ulysses S. Grant and other Americans denounced the war. In some apparent gesture to objectivity the Grade 4 text says about the war in California: “In these battles [Mexican] soldiers fought brilliantly. Stephen W. Kearney, a general in the United States Army, admired their horseback riding.” Given the failure to identify this war as naked expansionism, such compliments are patronizing trivia.

The war officially ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, the text states, provided that “As citizens, the Californios would have the same rights as other United States citizens.” There’s no mention that this treaty was grossly violated. The civil rights of Mexicans were not respected as promised by the U.S. The landholding rights guaranteed in a Statement of Protocol accompanying the treaty at the Mexican government’s insistence were ignored.

By Grade 8 the textbook does say that Polk deliberately ‘provoked’ the war, and that the treaty was “often not enforced.” But at this late date a few facts about what the U.S. actually did are unlikely to reverse years of conditioning to identify with this nation’s policies, no matter how unsavory.

5. The Gold Rush and the U.S. Occupation

The Houghton Mifflin series sanitizes some of these events and demonizes others. Its treatment of the Gold Rush is wondrous: “Beside the gold they found, what did the forty-niners contribute to California?” The teachers’ edition answer: “They contributed the skills, energy, and population increase that would help California grow.” One wants to add: not to mention driving out or killing Mexicans and Indians so that California had a white instead of Mexican majority and could become a state. And what about the crucial skills, beginning with mining technology, that were taken over from the indigenous populations?

Resistance to the U.S. occupation is transformed into sheer criminality: “‘Joaquin!’ they gasped. No one felt safe…Who was this Mexican bandit?” Actually Anglo miners drove Murieta (like other Latino miners) out of the goldfields after raping his wife; as a result he began a guerrilla-type movement which enjoyed widespread support. Many Mexican people saw him as a resistance hero. The Holt, Rinehardt & Winston book also calls the resistance heroes “bandits.”

Confronted by textbooks like these, some California teachers are making special efforts to present the Mexican-American or Latino perspective with other materials.

One San Francisco teacher in a largely Latino neighborhood has created a special curriculum around the theme of Manifest Destiny and another at her school makes minimal use of the adopted textbook. Let’s hope many more can make such corrective efforts.

But what is the larger, long-range solution? During the textbook battle Dr. Sylvia Wynter, a Stanford University professor of African and Afro-American Studies as well as of Spanish and Portuguese, circulated a lengthy, forceful paper rejecting the immigrant-America concept. It’s not just a matter of recognizing our cultural diversity or pluralism, she argues, but of redefining what she refers to as our “native model” and what is often referred to popularly as the “American character.”

The textbooks present a dual problem, Wynter observes. First, they are dominated by a Eurocentric perspective. Second, to paraphrase Wynter’s view, this Eurocentric perspective is not acknowledged but is camouflaged by a “multiculturalist alternative.” Yet this alternative remains entrapped by its assumption that the U.S. is integrated as a nation on the basis of a single, EuroAmerican culture. Thus this “multiculturalist alternative” seeks to “save” the EuroAmerican nation model by multiculturalizing it. The real solution, however, is to de-imagine the United States as a nation and then re-imagine it as a “world”: a community of communities relating on the basis of mutual respect and integrity.

It goes without saying that achieving such a goal would require a massive shift in power relations throughout U.S. society. Still, defining one’s goals — no matter how distant they may seem — matters. With the help of Wynter’s re-imagining, perhaps we can also imagine new textbooks that will make real sense out of American history.

[My deep thanks to Communities United Against Racism in Education in Berkeley for research assistance. CURE issued an 85-page study of how the K-5 Houghton Mifflin books treat people of color in general; it is especially strong on Native Americans and includes examples of alternate wordings to avoid Eurocentrism. The study can be obtained for $10.00 from: CURE, c/o Oyate, 2702 Mathews St., Berkeley, CA 94702.

Elizabeth Martínez is a San Francisco-based writer, educator, and activist who has written extensively on Latino issues. Her most recent book is the bilingual volume, 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures.