Is Teaching ‘La Causa’ Grounds for Firing?

Nadine Cordova

Patsy and Nadine Cordova were considered outstanding teachers in the small town of Vaughn, NM. But in June 1996 they helped students at Vaughn Junior and Senior High School organize a MEChA club, a common student group in the Southwest which stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan. And that, they believe, is when their troubles began.

That fall, Vaughn Superintendent Arthur Martinez told the Cordova sisters they could not teach anything “that reflects the MEChA philosophy.” He accused Nadine of teaching “racial intolerance” and promoting “a militant attitude” in her students.

Under legal advice, the Cordova sisters asked that any further curriculum directives from Martinez be in writing. They believed that the superintendent’s directives not only violated their rights under the First Amendment but were counter to the district’s policies on handling complaints about curriculum. Nonetheless, they sought to comply until their lawyers could resolve matters.

By January of 1997, relations between the sisters and the superintendent were strained. Martinez told the sisters in writing that they could not use the supplementary text “500 Years of Chicano History,” could not study Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, or hand out any materials that promote “la causa.” Nadine argues that agricultural interests in the area were particularly concerned that students learning about Chavez and the UFW union.

But the prohibitions went beyond the UFW. The sisters were also told “to eliminate any reference to or discussion of Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Constitution, Dolores Huerta, justice, courage or non-violence,” according to Nadine’s attorney, Richard Rosenstock of the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union.

The controversy escalated when an Albuquerque newspaper ran a front-page story on Feb. 15 titled, “Chicano Studies Out in Vaughn.” Rosenstock told Rethinking Schools that Martinez and his allies on the board were furious about the article. “As soon as this article comes out, he [Martinez] starts soliciting complaints from people from six or eight years ago and starts to put together a case against the Cordova sisters.”

On Feb. 21, 1997, the sisters informed Martinez in writing that they hoped to use materials from the group Teaching Tolerance. They enclosed the table of contents from the group’s curriculum package, “The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America,” copies of some articles, and the kit’s statement of purpose. Martinez did not immediately respond.

At a board meeting Feb. 26 allegedly set up to resolve the problems, however, Martinez asked the sisters if they would stop using the Teaching Tolerance materials. The sisters said they would do so only if the request were in writing.

The Cordova sisters got an answer, of sorts, two days later. The town’s chief of police walked into the school and handed them a letter telling them they were suspended on grounds of insubordination. That July, the board fired them. (For an excellent article on the case, see the August/September 1997 issue of Teacher.)

The Cordova sisters have filed suit in federal court to get their jobs back. They are confident they will win.

“I think somewhere along the line they thought they were going to scare us off, and that was going to be it,” Patsy told Teacher magazine. “And now they have to prove it. And they can’t.”