My Students are Missing Their Own HistoryRoundup
tags: higher education, ethnic studies, Hispanic Heritage Month, Latino/a history
Arlene Dávila (@arlenedavila1), the founding director of New York University’s Latinx Project, is the author of Latinx Art: Artists, Markets and Politics.
For the last 20 years, I have taught Latinx studies at New York University. My classes often provide my students, many of whom are seniors and Latinx themselves, with their first opportunity to examine their own identity and political histories. Recently, one student was shocked to learn that California schools segregated children of Mexican descent until a case legally struck down segregation for Latino students in 1946, paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education. Another student was surprised to learn that the pioneering feminist artist Ana Mendieta was not just a Latina but also Cuban American, like her. This is a reminder of how little information about the ways Latinos have enriched the country’s history have made their way into K-12 curriculums, let alone higher education.
Seeing my students’ reactions takes me back to when I was a student, decades ago. Most of the classes I took focused on Europeans, but there was little to no mention of Latino or African American history in the United States. I learned about Latinx art, culture and history on my own, and mostly during graduate school. My peers and I worked to carve spaces for Latinx studies across the nation’s universities in an effort to address these glaring gaps in education, and we often did so with limited support from our mentors and institutions.
Latinos, who make up 19 percent of the U.S. population, are vastly underrepresented in academia, newsrooms, publishing, Hollywood films, TV and more. If we’re serious about correcting this wrong, we can start with investing in Latinx studies programs, which remain siloed, underfunded and marginalized in most major universities. These courses are foundational to students’ ability to see themselves represented in all sectors of society. They also help educate and ensure that no publisher, museum director, news editor or head of any company can continue to dismiss this demographic out of ignorance. They teach all of us that Latinx history is American history.
It’s worth noting that people of Latin American backgrounds living in the United States have a long history of chafing against the various terms used to categorize them. The label “Latinx” signals an openness to gender inclusivity and more tacit recognition of our racial and ethnic diversity. Some object to the term, but whatever word we choose to describe ourselves, our students deserve to see themselves represented in their studies.
This desire for representation is exactly what fueled the development of a handful of Chicano and Puerto Rican studies programs at schools like Cal State and Brooklyn College. Those programs grew out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the years since, they have changed focus to recognize the diversification of the Latinx population.
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