Is Teaching 'La Causa' Grounds for Firing?
Is Teaching 'La Causa' Grounds for Firing?
Online magazine article
Source: "Is Teaching 'La Causa' Grounds for Firing?" Rethinking Schools Online 12 (3) (Spring 1998). 〈http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/12_03/cen-caus.shtml〉 (accessed July 21, 2006).
About the Author: Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit, independent publisher of educational materials, which was founded in 1986 by activist teachers. The organization advocates the reform of elementary and secondary education, with an emphasis on issues of equity and social justice.
This article reports on a mid-1990s case in Vaughn, New Mexico, in which two sisters were dismissed from their teaching posts for teaching Chicano studies and racial tolerance studies to their middle and high school students, ninety percent of which were Latino, on the basis that the teaching materials used were racially divisive.
The Chicano movement developed among Mexican American students in the southwestern states in the 1960s and 1970s, when the broader civil rights movement was at its height. At this time, there had already been several generations of Mexican settlement in the United States, but the Mexican American descendants of the earlier settlers, many of whom were of mixed race, continued to face racism and discrimination in American society. In response to this, they formed a new ethnic identity, calling themselves Chicanos or Chicanas, and established activist groups to protest against unfair educational systems, which they felt discriminated against them, and to campaign on other issues affecting Chicano youth, such as alleged police brutality.
Chicano activist groups, which emerged in the late 1960s, included the Young Citizens for Community Action, subsequently the Brown Berets, who organized a series of large-scale strikes among high school students in 1968 to protest inequalities in the educational systems. In colleges, Mexican students formed the United Mexican American Students organization. In 1969, most of the separate Chicano groups merged to form the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, to fight the cause or "La Causa" of Chicanos. The main hero of the Chicano movement was César E. Chávez (1927–1993), the leader of the United Farm Workers, who fought for better pay and conditions for Mexican agricultural workers in the United States and organized a series of strikes among agricultural workers. Robert Kennedy (1925–1968) is also considered a hero in Chicano history because during the 1968 Presidential campaign he agreed to meet with a group of Chicano students, to help legitimize their case to the school board. The ideological basis for the movement varied between its sub-groups. However, some extremists supported a socialist revolution action against white Americans, while others were more nationalistic in their focus, campaigning for self-determination for Chicanos.
In the late 1970s, however, the Chicano movement lost strength, weakened by a lack of common or clear goals among its various sub-groups. Some elements, such as La Raza Unida Party in Texas, turned to mainstream politics and contested local elections to promote their cause. But the movement survived primarily as an academic discipline, with most southwestern universities establishing Chicano studies programs and departments. California State College, Los Angeles, was the first to establish a Chicano Studies department, in 1968, largely in response to demands from militant Mexican American students. However, the Chicano studies programs have generally followed traditional mainstream accounts of Chicano history, rather than the more radical interpretations and the training for revolution which some students hoped they would cover.
When they were dismissed for teaching Chicano history, the Codova sisters turned to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for support and legal representation. This is a national non-profit association that defends individual rights and civil liberties in accordance with the constitution, through litigation, legislation, and training programs. Through the ACLU, the sisters sued the Vaughn District School Board for violating their rights under the First Amendment, part of the United States Bill of Rights, that prohibits Congress from passing laws that would restrict individual freedom of speech, religion and assembly, or the right to petition government for a redress of grievances.
Patsy and Nadine Codova 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.
In November 1998, the Cordova sisters won a half-million dollar settlement in their lawsuit against the Vaughn, New Mexico, School Board. Since then, they have received various awards for their action in standing up for the rights of ethnic minority students. These have included the Multi-Cultural Educators of the Year award from the National Association of Multi-Cultural Education, and the Guardian of Constitution Award from the New Mexico branch of the ACLU.
Although there is no firm evidence about the benefits of multi-cultural teaching for racial minority students, some researchers have identified positive effects, particularly in terms of confidence building among traditionally victimized groups, which is likely to improve educational performance. Those who are opposed to multi-cultural teaching, on the other hand, frequently argue that it can be racially divisive and can be a focus for the development of radical ethnic movements.
Rosales, F. Arturo. Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico Press, 1996.
Taylor, Ronald B. Chávez and the Farm Workers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
Martinez, Elizabeth. "A View from New Mexico: Recollections of the Movimiento Left." Monthly Review 54 (July/August, 2002).