Sonia Salazar, 20, a UCSB student in Chicano Studies and Belmont High School graduate, joins over 1,000 people to commemorate the historic East LA student walkouts of 1968. They marched from Lincoln High School (in the background) to Hazard Park. The 1968 action launched the Chicano civil rights movement . (Photo by Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The cultural spotlight is once again on a conservative crusade against education that acknowledges the role of racism and its effects on modern American life. Although critical race theory isn’t taught in K-12 classrooms, anti-racist education advocates are struggling against tactics that Chicano organizers and educators are deeply familiar with. Long before critical race theory became a buzzword, conservative lawmakers and politicians had set their sights on a similar target: Chicano studies, a multi-disciplinary approach that examined the experience of Mexican populations in the U.S., specifically the dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico border and other Latinx communities. 

In fact, the current anti-historical accuracy movements targeting K-12 education are offshoots of previous attempts to stifle Chicano studies and Mexican-American history programs that focused on racism and discrimination against Chicanos, the racialization of U.S. immigration policies, and the treatment of undocumented workers. While Chicano history is still primarily taught at colleges and universities, K-12 programs have also been established since educators and activists fought for their implementation. As legislation targeting education about Black history and the civil rights movement rises across multiple states—also threatening Chicano and other Latin American history programs—the story of how Chicano studies was adopted into school curricula and continues to withstand attacks could hold a number of important lessons.

The past is prologue

In the 1970s, as academics like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado developed the intellectual frameworks analyzing racial inequality in the U.S. that would eventually birth critical race theory, the seedlings of the very first Chicano studies programs were also cropping up, especially in the U.S. southwest. 

For Chicanos in particular, the 1970s represented an era of opportunity for new possibilities. The Chicano power movement was in full swing and a new generation of young Chicano leaders were increasingly expressing their political autonomy and cultural pride, as well as challenging past assimilationist values of Mexican American communities. New political organizations such as La Raza Unida Party attempted to build electoral participation among Chicano voters in the southwest. Chicano students in East LA organized mass student walkouts protesting the lack of quality of education and unsatisfactory conditions in their schools. And self-defense groups like Brown Berets (inspired by Black liberation groups like the Black Panthers) brought attention to police brutality and other forms of state violence taking place in barrios throughout the country. As students and faculty vigorously fought for the inclusion of Chicano studies in school curriculums, conservative backlash wasn’t far behind.

Conservative lawmakers and leaders waged a particularly intense war on Chicano/Mexican-American Studies programs in states like Arizona. For years, the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in the Tucson Unified School District was the focal point of a political struggle between Mexican American students and conservative lawmakers. Founded in 1998, MAS introduced Mexican American history and literature into the district’s core curriculum for K-12 students. Although supporters lauded the program as a way to improve engagement with the more than 60% Latinx student population, conservative politicians claimed it was a means to sneak ‘anti-American’ and ‘anti-white’ sentiments into classrooms. Then-Gov. Jan Brewer eventually signed House Bill 2281 into law in 2010, prohibiting school districts and charter schools from offering classes and materials that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government,” “resentment toward a race or class or people,” or “ethnic solidarity.” 

The law was ultimately struck down by federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima in 2017 for being “motivated by racial animus,” and passed “not for a legitimate educational purpose, but for an invidious discriminatory racial purpose and a politically partisan purpose.” However, it still damaged the education and experiences of many Arizona students while it was in effect for seven years. Julianna Leon-Marin, a member of Tucson’s Brown Beret chapter and a former Tucson High School student, was enrolled in the MAS program when the state’s ban was first implemented. Chicano studies had made Leon-Marin feel more at home and confident of her place in the U.S. and encouraged her to study harder. Like many of her classmates, she was “devastated” by the ban and joined other students in organizing protests, walkouts, ceremonies, and fundraisers.

“We couldn’t believe that administrators wanted to ban something that felt so right to us,” Leon-Marin said. “We were engaging so well in school and our teachers really cared about us.”

Elsewhere, a publisher called Momentum Instruction submitted Mexican American Heritage to the Texas State Board of Education to be considered for inclusion in the state’s school curriculum in 2016. The text was racist and riddled with errors, claiming that Chicanos had “adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society,” and “it was also traditional to skip work on Mondays, and drinking on the job could be a problem.” Scholars, elected officials, and Chicano activists decried its consideration by the board. While the text ultimately wasn’t selected for use, the fact that the publisher thought its adoption was possible was a troubling sign for the future. 

Chicano Studies literature (Roberto Camacho)

Anti-CRT bans also threaten Chicano studies

While these past efforts to ban or whitewash Chicano studies programs failed, it didn’t deter conservative leaders from pursuing other avenues. Eight states have already moved forward with their own bans on “critical race theory in schools.” Similar legislation is pending in another 16 states, while statewide school boards have prohibited teachings in another three. In July, the Texas State Senate passed a Senate Bill 3 to remove required lessons on civil rights movements from public school curriculums, eliminating references to historical primary documents on César Chávez, along with Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, the history of Native Americans, the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other figures. 

Other states like Tennessee have taken even more draconian measures, going as far as to propose outright bans on what types of curriculum and discussions can take place in the classroom, with considerable consequences. The state education department could withhold 2% of state funds allocated to schools deemed to have knowingly violated the state law, and failed to take “corrective action.” In addition, repeat offenders could forfeit $5 million, or forgo 10% of annual state funds, and state authorities may even revoke, suspend, or deny the licenses of individual teachers. 

Unsurprisingly, Arizona is making another push that not only threatens Chicano studies courses again, but other history courses centering marginalized communities as well. ​​In July, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he had signed legislation banning the study or teaching of “critical race theory” in Arizona’s schools and government agencies. The bills HB 2906 and HB 2898 stipulate that the state can’t use “public monies for and requiring an employee to engage in orientation, training, or therapy that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex,” and that teachers can’t present instruction that says “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group, or sex”. Likewise, the law also allows a fine of up to $5,000 for schools that violate the law. 

The fight goes on

The language of these new laws grossly mischaracterize critical race theory, and much like HB 2281 nearly a decade prior, shares a common thread: the idea that public schools shouldn’t present the founding of the U.S. in a negative light, nor discuss how white people have historically benefited at the expense of nonwhite communities and relegated them to second-class citizenry. Modern-day attempts to ban anti-racist education don’t specifically target Chicano studies, but the cryptic definitions of what the bills consider “critical race theory” clearly indicates that they are intended to prevent students from learning about the inherent racism of America’s past and how it maintains the structures of inequality based on race. 

Many educators say that ambiguity is intentional and carries an implied threat of legal action and financial penalties for any perceived infraction to dissuade teachers and administrators from educating students about the history of racism, colonialism in the Americas, and the structural equality baked into the foundations of the U.S. Ultimately, the end result is an environment where educators are forced to teach in a climate of overwhelming fear with zero protection.  

“I feel like Republicans and politicians in general will always challenge anything that stands as a threat to their personal beliefs,” Leon-Marin said. “I believe that they are a potential threat to Chicano studies in other schools. If they could do it to my class in 2012, they could try it again with anyone else”. 

Fortunately, this time around teachers and educators have far more advocates, and have vowed to push back against draconian bans. Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), reiterated at an AFT conference last month that critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools, and vowed to fight “culture warriors” who are “bullying teachers.” The union has vowed to defend members who get in trouble for teaching “honest history,” and has a legal defense fund prepared for incidents that are undoubtedly destined to play out.

Chicano studies play a vital role in illuminating how Chicanos and other Latinx people often face discriminatory employment practices, substandard education, racial profiling, and police brutality, especially as mainstream political discourse and media coverage still largely flattens these issues as “immigration-related topics.” With the residual effects of Donald Trump’s presidency still feeding continued racism and hostility toward Chicano/Latinx communities, these courses remain necessary tools for educators in the classroom, regardless of who occupies the White House.

Teachers in areas facing or under anti-critical race theory bans are stepping into an uncertain future. However, it’s important to remember that programs such as Chicano studies didn’t simply manifest themselves, nor were they magically conjured up out of thin air. They were born out of a rebellion against racist school systems and outdated curriculum that failed to address the history of racism against communities of color in the U.S. and actively facilitated myths and a whitewashed revisionist perspective of history. Those advocates stood firm in the face of their work being derided as divisive and incendiary and the Chicano and Latinx history programs they championed still exist today.

This article was made possible in part through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Roberto Camacho is a Chicano freelance multimedia journalist from San Diego, California. His reporting typically focuses on criminal justice reform, immigration, Chicano/Latino issues, hip-hop culture,...