Salinas students defend ethnic studies High school board continue support despite some opposition

Zaira Hernandez testifies at school board meeting | Screenshot from zoom


By Karen Dorantes

On June 22, parents and grandparents arrived at a Salinas Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting to voice their disapproval of the ethnic studies curriculum currently taught at high schools in the district.

That night, no students were there to defend it.

Mike Lipe, one of the adults who showed up to oppose the curriculum, told the board that “there is absolutely no place for activists within our school boards and administrations. These principles are rooted in radicalism and racism to their core. They promote division and hate among society.”

But the board members who voted for ethnic studies as a semester-long graduation requirement in 2019 — to be implemented for the class of 2024 — stood their ground.

The board’s support for ethnic studies stood in contrast to a 2012 decision in Tucson, Arizona, where one of the most popular and effective Mexican American ethnic studies courses was banned by a law that prohibited any course that “advocated ethnic solidarity.”


Diego Puga Escobar speaks at school board meeting | Screenshot from zoom

Carissa Purnell, who has taught ethnic studies in Salinas for the past six years, defined ethnic studies as “courses that use an interdisciplinary approach to analyze the historical and contemporary issues and experiences associated with race, class, and gender.”

She said ethnic studies was first introduced in the fall of 1968, when the Black Student Union led a student strike at San Francisco State University demanding more representation on campus.

School board President Phillip Tabera said it took five years of discussions to approve the district’s year-long ethnic studies course in 2018. It became an elective for all five Salinas high schools that year. The board approved a semester-long ethnic studies course in 2019 that will become a graduation requirement for the freshman class of 2024. District officials said the curriculum was developed with input from teachers, parents, students, and the board.


Carissa Purnell | Provided photo

Students defend ethnic studies

After the controversy at the June 22 meeting, about a half dozen young people turned out at the July 13 board meeting to voice support for the ethnic studies curriculum. Many other students attended the meeting, hoping to speak, but public testimony was limited by the board. The most noticeable group of students was from La Cosecha, a youth organization that is part of the Building Healthy Communities initiative. (Disclosure: I am a member of La Cosecha.)

To see a group of students come together and rise up against adults who are telling them what they should or shouldn’t be studying in schools is something new for this generation.

The La Cosecha youth, who are mostly Latinos, said they support ethnic studies because they wish to be taught about their own history by professionals. “My history should be taught, my history should be shown in these schools,” said Diego Puga Escobar, a La Cosecha member and incoming senior at Alisal High School.

Escobar said after the meeting that he chose to speak to the board because he wanted to be the voice for those who may have been afraid to advocate for ethnic studies. Without ethnic studies, he said he believes that there is a much greater “rift” between people of different cultures, nationalities, or ethnicities.

”If we are constantly being taught one [side of history], then we’re going to be led to believe that there’s just one truth,” Escobar said. “All we are trying to do is provide the resources for our people and to be able to see that there’s multiple truths to one side.”

Maraly Escalante showed up but wasn’t able to speak at the July 13 meeting because time ran out. She’s a recent graduate of North Salinas High School who took an ethnic studies class at Hartnell College. She said the class allowed her to see Mexicans and Latinas in history, but she also learned the history of other ethnicities and races.

Escalante said she believes ethnic studies allows students to have a better understanding of where the members of their community come from, what their cultures are like, and what struggles they may have.

“I feel like ethnic studies unites us more because we have a new understanding,” she said. “One of my friends was telling me that throughout his school career, he was ashamed of being African American and he did not know why he should be ashamed of it. In a way, ethnic studies makes us understand why certain stereotypes are in our communities and how to fix them.”

To those who oppose ethnic studies, Escalante responded: “Yes, many people can identify themselves as American, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they see themselves throughout [the version of] American history that they teach in high schools.”


Phillip Tabera | Photo by Carlos Castro

Meaningful conversation

Alma Cervantes, the regional education equity manager for Building Healthy Communities, said her goal is to give a platform to youth and to “critically challenge a system that has blocked them from learning the truth of this country, a system that hasn’t provided a space for them to talk about their story, their history, their cultures.”

Cervantes said ethnic studies creates a transformative space where students can engage in meaningful conversation with not only teachers, but also each other.

“Ethnic studies is beyond a curriculum,” she said. “It’s a transformative way for students to feel that they belong in the classroom. It supports their self-esteem, it supports their academics, good attendance, and it allows us to see ourselves in classrooms.”

Purnell cited three papers that support Cervantes’ point. She said research shows ethnic studies has been “proven to increase GPA, credits, attendance, graduation, and college-going, as well as lead to better outcomes in tests, grades, math, reading, writing, science and social studies.”

Zaira Hernandez, another member of La Cosecha and a recent graduate of Alisal High School who spoke at the July 13 board meeting, said, “These young students are expected to know who they are, and where they want to go, and what they want to do for the rest of their lives, but how are they expected to know who they are, their identity, without taking a class like this, that shares their history and their culture?”

Beyond Salinas, on July 17 Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill requiring California State University freshmen to take an ethnic studies course in order to graduate.

Hernandez said taking ethnic studies helped her learn about people who may look more like her, not only in race or ethnicity but also gender. She disagrees with the claim that the curriculum promotes hate.

In fact, she said, it helps students respect others more. “It’s not trying to divide people.”

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