By Andrew Kordik
For readers of history, it was not shocking when the Arizona Department of Education decided to close Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program. In a debate on the popular news program Democracy Now!, Superintendent John Huppenthal defended his position, saying, “I want to make sure these students aren’t being indoctrinated . . . what we want to do is create a society in which everybody is working for a better tomorrow, not working to get even.”
In reality, Mr. Huppenthal’s policies have precisely the opposite effect, leading to the indoctrination of students by ensuring their only exposure to American history is through state-mandated curriculum for U.S. history courses.
Mexican-American history is not shunned because of what it reveals of Mexican culture, but because of what it can teach us about the United States. The history of the United States is strikingly different when viewed from the experiences of Latin America, and these perspectives are avoided in public schools because they fail to meet the goals of state education.
The story of Latin America, since 1519, serves to undermine the most fundamental myths of the United States’ mission. It is in this story, which is only a microcosm of a global phenomenon, that we see how “the West” developed its position of preeminence by stripping the world of its resources, using these resources to feed a developing industrial economy, and eventually forcing the rest of the world (whose most valuable resources had already been stolen) to compete with well-developed European manufacturing.
To be fair, part of this story is found in textbooks, where it is usually viewed as an unfortunate, but ultimately justified movement of “progress.”
Upon arrival in the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese (and eventually the English) quickly relieved the Aztecs and Incas of their gold and silver possessions.
Looking to gain more from the Americas, Europeans forced monocultures upon much of Latin America, imposing upon them an international division of labor, whereby each region grew only one crop, which was to supply European markets — in many places, it was illegal to grow anything other than the plantation cash crop (sugar in Brazil, cacao in Venezuela, coffee and bananas in Guatemala, Chiapas, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador), thus forcing natives and African slaves into dependence upon Europe for other foods. As historian Eduardo Galeano explains, Latin American economies were designed to be dependent on Europe.
This dependency continued, as a well-entrenched political construct, deep into the 19th and 20th centuries. In large part, the United States became a great industrial power by exploiting the resources of Latin America. The tin used for aluminum came from Peru and Bolivia; copper, with its myriad uses, was taken from Mexico, Peru, and Chile; the rubber used for car tires, among other things, came from the Brazilian Amazon; and, until late in the 20th century, the petroleum used to drive those cars came from Venezuela.
As U.S. companies grew wealthier from the exploitation of Latin American goods, Latin Americans themselves saw almost no benefit or increase in the standard of living, with the exception of a few wealthy plutocrats. When Latin American countries attempted to use the ballot box to remedy their problems and kick out American companies, the United States helped overthrow democratically elected leaders (Guzman in Guatemala; Allende in Chile) while imposing leaders who supported U.S. business interests, and who happened to be brutal dictators (General Armas in Guatemala; General Pinoche in Chile).
Such stories undermine American pretensions to democratic values, revealing that the United States government cares more about financial interests than democracy. The danger here is when people become aware of how the past creates the present, they are empowered to make changes in the present for the benefit of the future. Mr. Huppenthal, who has a master’s degree in business, is unlikely to support any program questions the status quo, since, of course, he is a beneficiary of the status quo.
A more serious problem posed by Mexican-American Studies classes is their ability to reveal that this history is still with us, embedded in the very framework of our international organizations. Colonialism is practiced today, but under different names and usually veiled in the obscure jargon of economics. Colonialism is now achieved through U.S.-backed organizations and policies, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And by studying these issues, students can see how poverty is created in Latin America, giving them an historical understanding of the politically-charged immigration issue.
With the help of the IMF and the World Bank, Latin America has been opened even further to exploitation. Many financially struggling countries, often controlled by U.S.-backed dictators, accepted loans from these organizations. When these countries struggled to repay their loans, the IMF and World Bank offered to lower interest rates in exchange for the privatization of public resources. For example, the IMF offered billions of dollars to Bolivia, under the condition that Bolivia sell its oil and water rights to foreign companies. President Evo Morales refused such offers and, as a result, is vilified by the U.S.
Among the problems plaguing the Mexican-American Studies program is the fear that students will realize U.S. policies have provided Mexicans with few options other than immigration. Mexicans don’t immigrate the U.S. for the weather or the natural beauty; Mexicans make the trip up North because they are destitute, and they are destitute because of centuries of Euro-American exploitation, corruption, and unfair trade policies, like NAFTA.
Under NAFTA, heavily subsidized American corn has flooded the Mexican market, having the effect of displacing millions of Mexican farmers who simply could not compete with U.S. government subsidies (hence the distinction between free-trade and fair-trade). These Mexican farmers move to Mexican cities and create a surplus-labor force, which drives down the cost of labor for Mexican businesses and American maquiladoras. The result of this surplus labor force is high unemployment, which leads to higher rates of immigration. It is not a coincidence that rates of immigration have skyrocketed since NAFTA’s inception.
There is a legitimate pro-American side to these stories, of course, but it is taught to children throughout their public education experience. In our history classes and textbooks, the perspectives of Latin American nations are non-existent. But these stories, when combined with the traditional U.S. view of the past, give us a more complete understanding of how the United States developed its role in the world.
So, why can’t kids in Arizona be exposed to Mexican-American studies? It’s not that John Huppenthal doesn’t want them to be indoctrinated; it’s that he doesn’t want his state’s efforts of indoctrination to be undermined by teaching children the other half of America’s story. Teach your kids Mexican-American and Latin American history, even if the State will not; it’s our duty to the future.
Andrew Kordik, a long-time resident of Escondido, holds an M.A. in history from Fordham University.