Research shows that when students see their own culture and history reflected in their classwork, they do better in school. But most Hispanic and Latino students in New Mexico public schools don’t get that experience, at least not in the form of ethnic studies. Some schools have been experimenting with Mexican American and Chicano Studies classes to help kids succeed.
Enthusiasm for ethnic studies is starting to take hold across the nation, and advocates lean on a few successful case studies. One of those was in Tucson, Arizona. It was back before a ban on ethnic studies there made national headlines.
Diane Torres-Velasquez is an associate professor at UNM’s College of Education and president of the Latino Education Task Force. She said Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program, remarkably, closed the achievement gap there after just a few years.
"The achievement of Latino students kept rising and rising and rising, to the point where the gap was inverted," said Torres Velasquez, "until Latino students were actually doing better than their White and Asian American counterparts."
For the Tucson program to work so well, Dr. Torres Velasquez said all the teachers got in-depth training to debunk misconceptions about Hispanic students. "They were developing a mindset that being Latino was not a deficit," she said, "that the students had strengths and that they could achieve."
In southeast Albuquerque, Robert Frausto and others at Highland High School were closely following the Tuscon saga. Two-thirds of their students are Latino and Hispanic, and they were looking for ways to keep them in school. So in 2012, Frausto started recruiting for his own Chicano Studies class.
"I make it a practice of walking through the cafeteria every morning," Frausto said. "I’ll just stop stranger kids and say, 'hey, you’re gonna take my class next year.'" If he finds out a student is struggling in 9th grade, they’re likely to end up in Chicano Studies their sophomore year. "Once they’re in the class, I kind of step up! I track their absences and attendance in their other classes. I call home. I kind of ride herd on them until they graduate."
Frausto’s curriculum covers Aztec and Mayan cultures, the Mexican-American War, civil rights, all the way to contemporary Chicano activists and authors. One of the first lessons, he said, deals with colorism – a widely-held prejudice that lighter skin is better. "We can talk about güero, light skinned; preto, dark; moreno, brown," he explained. "And we can play with that in class, but we also live with the reality that we’re looked at differently."
Osman Orta Aragon, a 16-year-old recent sophomore, met up with Frausto and me at Highland High School on a summer morning. It's a rare day off from his job at a fast food place. "I don't work today, and I just feel so relaxed and so happy," Osman sighed.
He was upbeat despite some bad stuff that’s been happening at work lately. He said one day a white customer came in and started making racist comments. Osman is Mexican-American, and he thinks the customer was reacting to his darker skin.
"He would be telling me, 'I don’t want that kid touching my food! He could be full of bacterias!'" he recalled.
It wasn’t just the one incident. Osman said that for a week, multiple customers made comments or asked for him not to cook, "so [management] would put me aside, to wash dishes or something like that. So I was hurt about people’s point of view of me."
"I think it's going back to that stereotype," said Frausto, "that Hispanics wanna take your job, they have diseases, they'll stab you in the back, and they wanna take your women. That stereotype persists to this day. And Osman is kind of living it."
Osman isn’t going to quit his job. Money is tight at home, he needs the paycheck; he's even eyeing a promotion to grill chef. As for the racist behavior, he gets that it comes out of a whole history of colonialism and oppression. And that’s thanks to Frausto’s class.
"He told us people are gonna come in and try to take you down, but eventually you have to be the greater person and stand up for yourself," said Osman. "His advice is one of the best I've ever got."
Time and data will tell whether Frausto’s Mexican-American Studies class is really keeping kids in school. He wants to enter UNM’s new Chicano Studies Ph.D. program, to crunch the numbers.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to start every Chicano Studies class with the same poem, called In Lak'Ech:
You are my other me.
If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself.
If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.
Tú eres mi otro yo.
Si te hago daño a ti, te hago daño a mi mismo.
Si te amo y respeto, me amo y respeto yo.
Frausto hopes that poem gives his students a framework to deal with any discrimination and racism they face.
This story is part of KUNM's My Voice project that features stories driven by input from New Mexico students. Our media partners are New Mexico PBS and Generation Justice and funding for the project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.