Retelling History Ethnic studies in California approved by Gov. Newsom

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By Ilyne Castellanos

Kasandra Delgado, a graduate of Salinas’ Everett Alvarez High School, did not always have ethnic studies courses available to her as she does now in college. However, as curricula evolved, and increasingly diverse course materials appeared in her classes, Delgado was given the opportunity to expand her horizons and learn more about herself and her importance in history through elements of ethnic studies in high school.

“Ethnic studies to me is the study of diversity,” said Delgado. “It is a way to study the differences that make humans unique like race, religion, or class status.” These differences can be better understood when discussed in academic settings, and with ethnic studies classes people have an opportunity to learn about themselves and how their history relates to their community and country at large.

Ethnic studies courses have not been widely available for students in California. However, on Aug.18, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1460 into law, making ethnic studies a graduation requirement at California State University campuses.

This milestone for ethnic studies is the latest step on a long road of many activists and politicians.

“There are 1.7 million high school students in California,” said Supervisor Luis Alejo. “And when I was pushing forward my bill five or six years ago, less than 1 percent of all high school students had access to some kind of ethnic studies class.”

Alejo, who represents Monterey County’s District 1, is a former state Assemblyman who has long advocated for ethnic studies and the impact they can have on students. While serving in the Assembly, Alejo sponsored AB 2016, a bill that would develop an ethnic studies curriculum for high school students. These days, California policymakers are still trying to make ethnic studies available for students at all levels.

Ethnic studies are interdisciplinary and can focus on race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality through different lenses. History, politics, psychology and literature are all courses that can have elements of ethnic studies. These courses focus on the history of people of color and minority communities in the United States.

For students of color, ethnic studies classes have proven to have a significant impact on their academic achievement.

A study by Stanford University that followed underperforming students in San Francisco high schools found that students of color who enrolled in ethnic studies achieve overall academic improvement. “Attendance jumped by 21 percentage points, grade-point average by 1.4 points, and students in ethnic-studies courses covering discrimination, stereotypes, and social-justice movements earned 23 more credits toward graduation,” reports The Atlantic.

The interdisciplinary nature of ethnic studies reflected itself on Delgado’s education at Everett Alvarez High. In one of her classes, she read “The Circuit,” or “Cajas de Cartón” as it is called in Spanish, by Francisco Jimenez, an autobiography describing Jimenez’s experience as an immigrant growing up in California.

“I never read a book that impacted me as emotionally as ‘Cajas de Cartón’ did,” she said. “When we read that book, I was fascinated that an immigrant’s story was being told. It impacted me in the way that I also want to tell my story of growing up as an immigrant.”

Studying familiar stories makes education more inclusive. Everyone’s story is worth telling, and there is no better way to validate one’s experience than being inclusive in the literature that is lauded as cannon by schools and teachers.

The origins of ethnic studies start with student activists themselves, 52 years ago in the Bay Area.

In 1968, following the firing of a beloved San Francisco State professor who was involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and minister of education for the Black Panther Party, students from the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front created a coalition and went on strike.

The strikers had a list of 15 demands, among them a school dedicated specifically to Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State, as well as higher admission rates for students of color, who at the time made up only 4 percent of the student body.

Today, people of color have greater opportunities when it comes to university admissions, with the University of California seeing the “largest and most diverse first-year class ever admitted,” according to the Los Angeles Times. To many students, ethnic studies courses represent an opportunity to learn about different communities and how they have impacted American history, and where their respective culture fits into the story of this country.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and civil rights activist, is another advocate for the wider implementation of ethnic studies in California. Recently, she was part of a series of virtual classroom webinars where different guests discussed ethnic studies and their importance in education. Hosted by the California Department of Education, Superintendent Tony Thurmond also participated in the lectures.

“One of the reasons that we have so many problems … in the United States is simply because we have so much racism … a lot of the racism comes from ignorance,” said Huerta. Her lecture, focusing on Latinx and Chicanx studies, did not fail to highlight the connections between different people that makes ethnic studies so distinctive from traditional courses.

Huerta explained how Indigenous Americans and African Americans built the foundations of the United States, followed by immigrants from Mexico, Japan, China, the Philippines and India. “Unfortunately, that is not being taught today in our schools. And because it is not being taught, and we have a lot of people that somehow think that the founders who formed our government, also formed the country, which are two different things,” she said.

By omitting the stories of underrepresented populations, an opportunity for understanding and empathizing is lost. Ethnic studies are not about erasing anyone’s history, they are about broadening the lens we see each other with.

Learning the diverse history of the United States is not going to erase the problems faced today, but it will bring honor to those stories, and figures who were quieted by white-centric curriculums. Once something is engraved in someone’s head, it is difficult to forget, which is why ethnic studies will help students remember everyone, even those who grew up differently.

California Department of Education Ethnic Studies Virtual Classroom Series (Facebook)

African American Studies 

Indigenous American Studies

Chicano and Latino Studies

Asian American Studies

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Ilyne Junuén Castellanos

About Ilyne Junuén Castellanos

Ilyne Junuén Castellanos is a graduate of Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas and is pursuing a double major in political science and Spanish at Hartnell College.