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Mexicans Are Not Dumb; The Schools Fail

Created: 02 July, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
5 min read

   The great American educator, John Dewey, repeatedly made the case that students did not fail, schools failed students. This principle is one of the canons of Chicana/o or La Raza Studies. For the most part, the American public schools wrote them off as failures, blaming it on their culture-called them culturally deprived or culturally disadvantaged.

   Mexican American journalist Ruben Salazar, killed by Los Angeles Sheriff deputies while covering the Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970, reacting to educators calling Mexicans “culturally deprived,” wrote in 1963, “Presumably they want to save these poor people terrible void by giving them culture… What they don’t seem to realize is that Mexican Americans have a culture…”

   Two years later the National Education Association came out with a study, “The Invisible Minority,” part of its findings was based on a survey of the Tucson Schools. Aside from the teaching of bilingual education, the report recommended the building of pride in Mexican American students. It quotes an essay of a 13-year old eighth grade Chicana: “To begin with, I am a Mexican. That sentence has a scent of bitterness as it is written. I feel if it weren’t for my nationality I would accomplish more. My being a Mexican has brought about my lack of initiative. No matter what I attempt to do, my dark skin always makes me feel that I will fail. Another thing that “gripes” me is that I am such a coward. I absolutely will not fight for something even if I know I’m right. I do not have the vocabulary that it would take to express myself strongly enough.”

   The report wanted to ameliorate the high dropout rate among Mexican Americans. The solution was not to Americanize them and take their identity away from them. It asks the question: “Is there something inherent in our system of public schooling that impedes the education of the Mexican-American child-that, indeed drives him to drop out?” The NEA report found that it did, Mexican-Americans were schooled to fit a stereotype. It ingrained a negative self-image that produced the haunting words “I feel if it weren’t for my nationality I would accomplish more.”

   Increasingly, during the sixties an emerging Mexican American Middle-Class challenged the premise that “Mexicans are dumb.” World War II and the Korean War had shined a bright light on the high price that they had paid for denied equality. Arizona State University Chicana/o Studies Professor Carlos Vélez-Ibañez writes that “80% of Marine Reserve Easy Company … were Mexicans and Mexican Americans from Tucson, Arizona.

   Some at seventeen and still in high school were called up in June of 1950 and with very limited training fought valiantly through the Inchon invasion, the battle for the City of Seoul, and to the Yalu River bordering China. Some returned to graduate from Tucson High School, many wounded and all suffering from different levels of battle shock. Some Marine officers in Korea derided units with many Mexican Americans as only ‘Mexican Marines’ but were defended hotly by fists and hearts by other Marine officers like Captain Herbert Oxnam.” Mexican Americans were awarded six Medals of Honor.

   The 1960 U.S. Census drove home the points that Mexican Americans despite these sacrifices were not equal and one of the reasons was that they are getting an inferior education. Without a minimum education, they did not qualify for college and were unable to take advantage of the educational benefits other veterans enjoyed.

   By 1968, Pueblo and Sunnyside High Schools were almost half Mexican American. Students such as Salvador Baldenegro chafed at the high dropout rate and the premise that “Mexicans are dumb.” Baldenegro called attention to the failure of the schools and in March 1969 he along with other Chicano studies led walkouts at Tucson and Pueblo high schools.

   The grievances were that there were not enough Mexican American teachers in the schools, that Mexican cultures were dismissed, the lack of bilingual education and discrimination. Baldenegro said, “These students feel that education might be the key to break the whole cycle of poverty.” In September 1969, Baldenegro led a boycott of Mexican American studies program at the University of Arizona. He and Raul Grijalva, president of the MALC, accused the administration of tokenism.

   They wanted a quality education. This idealism attracted students such as Guadalupe Castillo, Isabel García and others who knew Mexicans were not dumb.

   These events merged with other streams throughout the Southwest, Midwest and Northwest, in calling for pedagogy to address the high dropout rate and stop the schools from failing them. The pedagogy consisted of building positives image and knowing more about the development of people of Mexican extraction in the United States. It employed the multi-disciplines to study the corpus of knowledge that had been accumulated in areas such as history, sociology, education, the arts and humanities. And just like there were specialists in Asian, Latin American, American and European Studies, higher education and that teachers in particular should know the Mexican American student and not make they feel like “My being a Mexican has brought about my lack of initiative. No matter what I attempt to do, my dark skin always makes me feel that I will fail.”

   La Raza or Chicana/o Studies has left a rich heritage. It has addressed the problem the National Education Association described as the “Invisible Minority.” It has called attention to the presence of Latinos nationally and exposed idiotic suppositions such as “Mexicans are dumb.”

   Through building pride in themselves many Latinos have succeeded in higher education. Their dark skin doesn’t make them feel inferior, they are not cowards and will fight for what they believe in. In Tucson, La Raza Studies proves “que si se puede” and for once the schools are not failing them.

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