Chicana/o Struggles for Education: Activism in the Community

Chicana/o Struggles for Education: Activism in the Community

by Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

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Much of the history of Mexican American educational reform efforts has focused on campaigns to eliminate discrimination in public schools. However, as historian Guadalupe San Miguel demonstrates in Chicana/o Struggles for Education: Activisim in the Community, the story is much broader and more varied than that.

While activists certainly challenged discrimination, they also worked for specific public school reforms and sought private schooling opportunities, utilizing new patterns of contestation and advocacy. In documenting and reviewing these additional strategies, San Miguel’s nuanced overview and analysis offers enhanced insight into the quest for equal educational opportunity to new generations of students.

San Miguel addresses questions such as what factors led to change in the 1960s and in later years; who the individuals and organizations were that led the movements in this period and what motivated them to get involved; and what strategies were pursued, how they were chosen, and how successful they were. He argues that while Chicana/o activists continued to challenge school segregation in the 1960s as earlier generations had, they broadened their efforts to address new concerns such as school funding, testing, English-only curricula, the exclusion of undocumented immigrants, and school closings. They also advocated cultural pride and memory, inclusion of the Mexican American community in school governance, and opportunities to seek educational excellence in private religious, nationalist, and secular schools.

The profusion of strategies has not erased patterns of de facto segregation and unequal academic achievement, San Miguel concludes, but it has played a key role in expanding educational opportunities. The actions he describes have expanded, extended, and diversified the historic struggle for Mexican American education.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603449960
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 04/29/2013
Series: University of Houston Series in Mexican American Studies, Sponsored by the Center for Mexican American Studies , #7
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

GUADALUPE SAN MIGUEL JR., a professor of history at the University of Houston, is a past president of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. He is the author of three books published by Texas A&M University Press: Brown, Not White: School Integration and the Chicano Movement (2001), Let All of Them Take Heed: Mexican Americans and the Quest for Educational Equality (reprint edition, 2001), and Tejano Proud: Tex-Mex Music in the Twentieth Century (2002).

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Chicana/o Struggles for Education

Activism in the Community

By Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 University of Houstonâ"Center for Mexican American Studies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-996-0


Changing Patterns of Mexican American Education

Between 1900 and 1960, school officials provided Mexican Americans with limited, substandard, and inferior public educational opportunities because of their subordinate status in the society and their cultural and linguistic characteristics.

Those in power made sure that the adult members of the Mexican American community were structurally excluded from influential positions in public education and denied or discouraged from participating in the shaping of public school systems and their content. The pattern of education that developed in the first half of the twentieth century, with a few minor exceptions, then was that of community exclusion.

Mexican origin students also were unwanted in the schools. Local and state school officials as well as political leaders, Anglo parents, and the general public viewed them as racially inferior, culturally backward, and socially undesirable. These negative views in combination with intense pressures from political and economic interests opposed to their education soon led to the development of substandard and inferior forms of schooling. Students were denied equitable access to the schools, given separate and unequal facilities, institutionally mistreated in the schools, and provided with an imbalanced and subtractive curriculum. The imbalanced curriculum focused more on vocational training than academic instruction. The subtractive curriculum sought to divest the children of their Spanish language and their cultural heritage. The result of these actions was the emergence of a pattern of poor school performance.

During the latter part of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, these historic patterns of education changed as a result of new social, economic, and political factors. The following provides a sketch of these changes and continuities since the 1960s and the forces impacting them over the decades.


During this period, two distinct patterns were significantly changed—the structural exclusion of the Mexican community and the linguistically subtractive curriculum. Prior to 1960, as noted above, Mexican Americans were excluded from important positions of influence in the public schools. Officials also demeaned, devalued, and suppressed the children's language. Both of these patterns were significantly modified in the post-1960 years.

From Structural Exclusion to Differentiated Inclusion

The pattern of structural exclusion was disrupted and replaced with one of inclusion after the 1960s. During the latter part of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, Mexican origin individuals gained increased access to important positions in all areas of public education. They were elected to state, county, and local boards of education, appointed to state and private university boards of regents, and hired in increasing numbers as superintendents, principals, teachers, counselors, and faculty members. A new development in this period was their appointment or election to federal policy-making positions in Congress and in the Department of Education.

Notwithstanding this increased access, they continued to be underrepresented in all of these positions. Their inclusion, in other words, was not significant but limited and uneven in nature. Generally speaking, two patterns emerged—one of differentiation and one of tokenism and exclusion. The former pertained to positions within institutions that served the elementary and secondary grades in the public schools, the latter to those in higher education.

The pattern of differentiated access to power can be observed in local and state board representation. Representation in these institutions ranged from moderate to significant. In major urban areas where Mexican Americans comprised a significant proportion of the school-age population, access to local school boards was relatively moderate. In 1960, for example, there were no ethnic Mexican school board members in three of the top five largest school districts in the country, although the percentage of Latina/o students in these cities was either growing or already appreciable. The school districts with significant numbers of ethnic Mexican children and no school board representation were Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This situation changed by 2009. In this year, their representation in these local school boards increased, but only moderately. It ranged from 22 percent in Houston to 28 percent in Los Angeles.

Despite their increased representation, it failed to keep pace with the overall percentage of Latina/o students in the school-age population. Their proportion of the total school-age population for each of these cities in 2009 was: Houston—61 percent, Los Angeles—73 percent, and Chicago—39 percent. Mexican Americans thus continued to be underrepresented on these local boards.

The process of gaining board representation was an extremely gradual, uneven, and contested one. Progress, in other words, occurred at a glacial pace. The example of Houston shows how this pattern originated and developed over time.

In this city Mexican-origin individuals were absent from the local school board up until 1971. In this year one was elected to the board. This officially broke the twentieth-century pattern of Mexican American exclusion from policy-making positions. The number of Mexican Americans increased from one in 1971 to two in 2003. This meant that their percentage increased from 11 percent in 1971 to 22 percent thirty odd years later. The percentage of Latina/o students in the Houston Independent School District, however, also increased from 13 percent in the former year to over 55 percent in the latter.

While local school board representation in major urban areas was moderate, it increased rapidly and significantly in many small, rural school districts. Several examples from South Texas illustrate this important trend. In Laredo, Mission, McAllen, and Edinburg, for instance, school board representation jumped from less than 10 percent in 1960 to over 75 percent in 2007 (see table 1.2). The large percentage of Mexican American voters in these small urban and rural communities and their desire for power among the population probably accounted for the significant increase.

At the state level, a less diverse pattern of ethnic Mexican representation in school board positions can be found. State boards of education play crucial roles in determining the content and instruction of public education in each state. In three of the states where the vast majority of Mexican Americans were concentrated, only Texas had more than one person serving in the state board of education. The other two states had a token Mexican American on its board (see table 1.3).

At the postsecondary level, ethnic Mexicans, as mentioned above, gained some access to important positions of power in university governance, administration, and teaching. But it was mostly one of tokenism. In major university boards of regents, they were lucky to have one of their own appointed to this position. A selective review of a few major universities located in states with significant numbers of Latina/o students illustrates this point. As the table shows, ethnic Mexicans only have token positions in the boards of regents of four major university systems in the country (see table 1.4).

The presence of Mexican Americans in top administrative positions, especially in major research universities, is rare indeed. Several scholars have commented on how few if any of them are hired in important leadership positions in higher education. Out of all the major universities throughout the country, only one—the University of Texas at Austin—had appointed a Mexican American to head the campus. And this only happened recently, in 2009. Other major institutions, such as the University of California, University of New Mexico, and the University of Illinois, have yet to appoint any to head their flagship institutions. A similar pattern of severe underrepresentation of Mexican Americans in the senior ranks of the faculties in these universities, that is, of tokenism, can be found as we reach the second decade of the twenty-first century.

From Linguistically Subtractive to Linguistically Additive

Another pattern that underwent significant modification was the linguistically subtractive curriculum. Prior to the 1960s, Spanish and other non-English languages were excluded from the public school curriculum and constantly devalued through English-only laws or repressed, suppressed, and discouraged through no-Spanish-speaking rules. This changed after the passage of the federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968. This bill led to several important developments, including the elimination of no-Spanish-speaking rules at the local school level, the repeal of English-only laws throughout the country, and the passage of state policies that sanctioned, encouraged, or mandated the use of non-English languages in the schools. These policies were usually referred to as bilingual education policies. Between 1968 and 1978 more than thirty-four states repealed their English-only laws and enacted bilingual education policies.

The successful repeal of English-only laws, repressive no-Spanish-speaking rules, and the continued growth of bilingualism in the society, among other factors, led to a backlash in the 1980s and 1990s. In this period, both prescriptive and repressive language legislation resurfaced and became increasingly widespread. This was reflected in policies aimed at formulating and enacting English-only laws or at undermining, dismantling, or repealing those sanctioning the use of non-English languages in the schools. In states such as California, Arizona, and Massachusetts it became illegal to use Spanish and other non-English languages in the public school during the mid- and late 1990s. Between 1984 and 2004, more than twenty-five states enacted English-only laws. Bilingual education policies also came under attack in countless cities such as Houston, El Paso, Chicago, New York, and Miami. Educators responded in many cases by curtailing the use of these languages as mediums of instruction and implementing English-only classes. Despite the reemergence of linguistic prescription and repression in the schools, the majority of states in the country and hundreds of cities throughout the nation maintained policies favoring the use of non-English languages in the classroom and on the school grounds.


Several patterns of Mexican American education were slightly modified but not significantly changed during the post-1960 years. The two patterns discussed in this section are those dealing with student access to education and the culturally subtractive curriculum. Prior to the 1960s, students were provided limited access to the preschool and postsecondary grades. Students also were provided with a curriculum that sought to subtract or divest them of their cultural heritage. Both of these patterns underwent some minor modifications during the years after 1960.

Student Access to Education

By the 1960s, the vast majority of Mexican Americans had gained parity in access to the elementary and secondary grades, but they had not gained equitable access to the preschool grades or to postsecondary education. In the latter decades of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, these became the key areas of concern.

Access to the preschool grades increased gradually but inconsistently after 1960. By the early twenty-first century Chicana/o and Latina/o children were among those least likely to attend preschool. In 2001, for instance, approximately 36 percent of Latina/o preschool-aged children participated in a preschool program. In comparison, 64 percent of black and 46 percent of white children attended preschool that year. Enrollment continued to increase, but at a slow pace, by the latter part of the decade.

A similar development occurred in higher education. Prior to the 1960s less than 5 percent of Latinas/os were enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States. In the period after 1960, enrollments steadily increased but they continued to be underrepresented.

Latina/o undergraduate enrollments steadily increased from the 1970s to 2007. In 1976 it stood at 3.8 percent. This percentage rose during the next two decades as reflected in the following figures: 1980–4.2 percent, 1984–4.4 percent, 1991–6.5 percent, and 1997–8.6 percent. Their percentage continued to increase in the early twenty-first century. In 2006 about 10 percent were enrolled in college. The following year it stood at 12 percent.

It is important to note, however, that while their percentage steadily increased, most were enrolled in community colleges. In 1999–2000, for instance, 60 percent of those attending postsecondary institutions were enrolled in two-year colleges, the largest percentage of any other racial and ethnic group. This was problematic, noted Patricia Gándara, because "no more than 5% of these students will actually go on to complete a B.A." Indeed, the number of Latinas/os attending four-year colleges and universities out of high school was very small. A 1998 survey, for example, found that of all the first-full-time students attending public universities in the United States, 82.6 percent of freshman were white, 7.2 percent African American, and 1.4 percent Latina/o. As Michal Kurlaender and Stella Flores noted, Latina/o students showed the lowest rate of entry into four-year institutions and had the highest participation rates at two-year colleges. While community colleges have benefited many groups over time, critics noted that they "can actually exacerbate race and class inequalities in educational attainment."

The Culturally Subtractive Curriculum

Another pattern that underwent some slight modification was the culturally subtractive curriculum. Prior to the 1960s, the curriculum schools offered to Mexican American children sought to divest them of their cultural heritage by either omitting or else distorting, devaluing, and disparaging their cultural heritage in the textbooks and instructional methodologies, and in the operation of the school. The subtractive curriculum changed in the latter part of the twentieth century. Unlike the pre-1960 years, it did not seek to divest them of their heritage. Instead, it sought to affirm this heritage by valuing and incorporating Mexican and Latino-origin cultures and histories in the schools. This pattern of incremental change is best reflected in the revision of textbooks for the public schools.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of the most demeaning and distorted views of Mexican Americans in the history, social studies, and other textbooks were replaced with more positive ones. These efforts continued into the following decades. Despite these changes, problems remained in their portrayal, with many textbooks providing insufficient and inadequate treatment of their heritage and of their contributions to the history of individual states or the nation.

One can observe the gradual but positive changes over time in several major studies conducted between 1960 and 2000. In 1961 and 1970, Marcus Lloyd, on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, conducted two national studies of minority content in history and social studies textbooks. The first study indicated that Mexican Americans, for the most part, were ignored in these textbooks. In a few cases, however, some references were made to them, but these were largely stereotypical.

The patterns of omission and of inadequate and inaccurate portrayals continued into 1970. Only eight of the forty-five textbooks Lloyd examined offered some references to this group, and most of these were social studies textbooks. American history texts, for the most part, "flagrantly" avoided references to Mexican Americans or Latinas/os. The few comments found in these books created or reinforced unfavorable stereotypes.


Excerpted from Chicana/o Struggles for Education by Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.. Copyright © 2013 University of Houstonâ"Center for Mexican American Studies. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


ONE. Changing Patterns of Mexican American Education,
TWO. Contestation,
THREE. Advocacy,
FOUR. Advocating for Quality Instruction: The Case of Bilingual Education,
FIVE. Beyond Public Education,

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Edwina Barvosa

This book is well researched and written. It is a unique and valuable contribution to the field that offers a detailed account of long-term changes achieved through litigation, legislative action, and other forms of advocacy. As such, it will be useful to scholars and also accessible to a student audience."—Edwina Barvosa, Associate Professor of Chicana/o Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara

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