The great American educator, John Dewey, repeatedly made the case that students did not fail; schools failed students. This principle is one of the canons upon which Chicana/o, or La Raza, Studies was formed. Historically, American public schools have written Mexican-Americans off as failures, blaming their lack of progress on their culture - labeling them culturally deprived and/or culturally disadvantaged. Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar, killed by Los Angeles Sheriff deputies while covering the Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970, expressed the reaction of Mexican-American educators to the term "culturally deprived," writing in 1963, "Presumably they want to save these poor people [of this] terrible void by giving them culture ... What they don't seem to realize is that Mexican-Americans have a culture ..."
Two years later the National Education Association came out with The Invisible Minority, basing many of its findings on a survey of the Tucson schools. Aside from the teaching of bilingual education, the report recommended the building of pride in Mexican-American students. The report quotes an essay by a 13-year-old eighth grade Chicana: "To begin with, I am a Mexican. That sentence has a scent of bitterness as it is written. I feel if it weren't for my nationality I would accomplish more. My being a Mexican has brought about my lack of initiative. No matter what I attempt to do, my dark skin always makes me feel that I will fail. Another thing that 'gripes' me is that I am such a coward. I absolutely will not fight for something even if I know I'm right. I do not have the vocabulary that it would take to express myself strongly enough."
The purpose of the report was to motivate schools to implement pedagogies addressing the high dropout rate of Mexican American students. According to the NEA, the solution was not to Americanize them and take away their identity. It asked the question: "Is there something inherent in our system of public schooling that impedes the education of the Mexican-American child - that, indeed drives him to drop out?" The NEA report found the schools complicit; Mexican-Americans were schooled to fit a stereotype. In the process, it embedded a negative self-image that produced the haunting words "I feel if it weren't for my nationality I would accomplish more."
Increasingly, during the sixties an emerging Mexican-American middle class challenged the premise that "Mexicans are dumb." World War II and the Korean War had shined a bright light on the high price that Mexican-Americans had paid for denied equality. Arizona State University Chicana/o Studies Professor Carlos Vélez-Ibañez writes that "80% of Marine Reserve Easy Company ... were Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from Tucson, Arizona. Some at seventeen and still in high school were called up in June of 1950 and with very limited training fought valiantly through the Inchon invasion, the battle for the City of Seoul, and to the Yalu River bordering China. Some returned to graduate from Tucson High School, many wounded and all suffering from different levels of battle shock. Some Marine officers in Korea derided units with many Mexican-Americans as only 'Mexican Marines' but were defended hotly by fists and hearts by other Marine officers like Captain Herbert Oxnam." Mexican-Americans were awarded six Medals of Honor during this war.
The 1960 US Census drove home the points that Mexican-Americans, despite these sacrifices, were not equal, and one of the reasons was that they were getting an inferior education. Without a minimum education, they did not qualify for college and were unable to take advantage of the educational benefits other veterans enjoyed.
By 1968, Pueblo and Sunnyside High Schools were almost half Mexican-American. Students such as Salvador Baldenegro chafed at the high dropout rate and the premise that "Mexicans are dumb." Baldenegro called attention to the failure of the schools, and in March 1969 he along with other Chicano students led walkouts at Tucson and Pueblo high schools. The grievances were that there were not enough Mexican-American teachers in the schools, Mexican cultures were dismissed, there was a lack of bilingual education and discrimination was rampant. Baldenegro said, "These students feel that education might be the key to break the whole cycle of poverty." In September 1969, Baldenegro led a boycott of the Mexican-American studies program at the University of Arizona. He and Raul Grijalva, the president of the Mexican-American student organization at the University of Arizona, accused the administration of tokenism. They wanted a quality education. This idealism attracted students such as Guadalupe Castillo, Isabel García and others who knew Mexicans were not dumb.
These events merged with other streams throughout the Southwest, Midwest and Northwest, in calling for a pedagogy to address the high dropout rate and stop the schools from failing them. The pedagogy consisted of building positive images and knowing more about the development of people of Mexican extraction in the United States. It employed multi-disciplines to study the corpus of knowledge that had been accumulated in areas such as history, sociology, education, the arts and humanities. And just like there were specialists in Asian, Latin-American, American and European Studies, higher education professors should know how to teach Mexican-American students and not make them feel like "My being a Mexican has brought about my lack of initiative. No matter what I attempt to do, my dark skin always makes me feel that I will fail."
La Raza, or Chicana/o, Studies has left a rich heritage. It has addressed the problem the National Education Association described as the "Invisible Minority," calling attention to the presence of Latinos nationally and exposing idiotic and racist suppositions such as "Mexicans are dumb." Through Chicana/o studies that build pride in students, many Latinos have succeeded in higher education.
Their dark skin doesn't make them feel inferior, they are not cowards and will fight for what they believe in. In Tucson, La Raza Studies proves que si se puede, and for once the schools are not failing them. The bottom line is that no one has the right to make a student feel inferior.