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Ethnic Studies Comes Into The Classroom And Onto The Streets

On a sunny, hazy day, a group of cyclists rides down a street.
Cyclists participate in a historically-minded community bike ride in El Monte, with local resident Sandra Gutierrez at the front.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist)
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If you grew up in California, there’s a good chance that sometime in elementary school, you made a model mission — a tiny rendering of the 21 religious outposts set up throughout the state under Spanish colonial rule.

Ethnic Studies Comes Into The Classroom And Onto The Streets

Asbelian Mora, a junior at Mountain View High School in El Monte, recalls her mini-mission being exceptionally pretty.

“The kids got mad at me,” she said, laughing. “They thought I bought it.”

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When Asbelian was a child, she was told that the missionaries had "saved the souls" of the Indigenous people who'd been forced to work there. Alfred Mendoza, her ethnic studies teacher, helped her gain a new perspective.

"I grew up as a Catholic, and I’ve always heard that the Church is very good. But I'd never heard that they’ve done a lot of genocide," she said.

Mendoza also made a tiny mission when he was a boy. Having grown up in El Monte, he was also tasked with making a little covered wagon.

The El Monte Historical Museum, an 8,500-square-foot space that houses pioneer-related artifacts.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist )

The wagon, he explained, is part of the official local history, which celebrates the arrival of white settlers to the region.

Nestled in the San Gabriel Valley, some 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, El Monte has long championed this pioneer narrative. In it, white settlers are regarded as ancestors and town heroes. They're enshrined in the city’s landscape, from its seal to its history museum.

Looking back on 3rd and 4th grades, Mendoza recalls that U.S. expansion and Spanish imperialism were taught as “victories, signs of civilization progressing.”

Alfred Mendoza, who grew up in El Monte, now teaches U.S. history and Ethnic Studies at Mountain View High School.
(Julia Barajas

Today, he’s part of a team of educators working to provide students with a more complete understanding of local history, one that examines systems of power across time. They maintain that the story El Monte tells about itself erases its non-white residents — from the indigenous Tongva people to Mexican braceros to its Asian American neighborhoods.

“We tend to teach with a very Eurocentric bias, but also with an East Coast bias,” said Michael Weller, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history, ethnic studies and serves as a journalism advisor at Mountain View High School. “But at the time that the so-called Founding Fathers were doing their thing, California wasn’t empty.”

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Every two weeks, 10 teachers from El Monte and South El Monte come together to discuss not only what they’ll teach their students, but how they’ll go about it. Coffee and pastries abound. So do impassioned conversations.

Romeo Guzmán, a history professor at Claremont Graduate University, guides the meetings. He co-edited a book called “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte.” Geared at college students, the text examines the region’s rich and complicated multiethnic history, including ugly things like housing and school segregation, the internment of Japanese Americans, and a Nazi movement that went on until the '70s.

Earlier this year, California became the first state in the country to make ethnic studies a requirement to graduate from high school, starting with the class of 2030. But in some districts, that change is already in effect. The El Monte Union High School District implemented a one-semester requirement amid the pandemic, and the educators in Guzmán’s seminar have seized the opportunity to craft a hyperlocal curriculum.

Romeo Guzmán, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, stands before a mural created by South El Monte Arts Posse.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist
LAist )

Historians In The Making

Though this is Guzmán’s first time leading the seminar for local teachers, his work in El Monte dates back at least 10 years to when the city was celebrating its centennial.

As part of South El Monte Arts Posse, Guzmán and his colleagues launched a public history project to uncover the region’s multiethnic past. The group — made up of scholars, writers, urban planners and educators — conducted oral histories and digitized hundreds of city and personal records. As a result, the teachers participating in his seminar have access to thousands of primary sources.

But the archive isn’t complete, said Guzmán, who just bought a fancy scanner to keep the project going.

“One of our goals is that we’ll teach students to do oral histories, to scan and digitize photographs and to provide us with context,” he said. He’s confident that students are capable of producing valuable archival materials.

“Ultimately, we want them to see that they’re historians, too,” Guzmán added.

Facing A Violent Past

At a recent gathering at El Monte High School, Guzmán and the teachers discussed a chapter on white vigilante justice in the 19th century.

This was a particularly bloody period in the region’s history, during which the targets of violence were often people of Mexican descent. Lynchings and decapitations were common. Some vigilantes went so far as to play with their victims’ heads. A central question emerged: How should we teach our students about this violence?

The conversation remained cordial, even when teachers didn’t see eye to eye. Some noted that this type of violence was not unusual throughout the rest of the country. Others insisted that even if it was common, it’s important to talk to students about how those public punishments were used to communicate power.

Mendoza, who teaches at Mountain View High School on the east side of town, brought another primary source to share with his colleagues: an official history of El Monte’s police department, published in 2008. In it, the vigilantes are said to have crafted “a form of peacekeeping befitting a wild frontier area.”

“I’d like to discuss what it means to have a police department that describes lynching as ‘peacekeeping,’” he said.

How Should We Teach About Race In Schools?

Ethnic studies has been a battleground for decades, from its founding in the late 1960s to its ban in Arizona schools in 2010.

How and whether race is taught in schools has recently become a favorite talking point among right-wing politicians. In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that restricts teaching about race in public schools. Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee have introduced similar legislation. And Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate who was just elected governorof Virginia, promised to ban critical race theory on his first day in office.

(Although influenced in part by ethnic studies, critical race theory is an academic framework used to understand how systemic racism can perpetuate discrimination and disadvantage.)

“It teaches children to see everything through the lens of race and then to divide them into buckets and have children that are called privileged and others that are victims — and it’s just wrong,” Youngkin said in an interview with Fox News. “In fact,” he continued, “[it] forces our kids to compete against one another and steals their dreams.”

Amid the media maelstrom, some teachers have become quick to eschew any discussion of race in the classroom.

This work is not anti-white, it's about healing. But to dismantle white supremacy, students need to understand that it’s a structure, not just an ideology.
— Alfred Mendoza, ethnic studies teacher, Mountain View High School

Not Brian Tabatabai. He teaches five periods of ethnic studies at El Monte High School and, in his view, it’s ridiculous for educators to be swayed by baseless declarations on TV.

“It's such a disservice to scholars like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose work has undoubtedly shaped the way I think,” he said.

Courses that offer “It’s A Small World”-like tours of different cultures, Tabatabai added, are not ethnic studies. “At its core, ethnic studies is about critically examining systems of power, including race, gender and class,” he said.

“You may have all these critiques, but come to my classroom, see what I’m doing,” said Mendoza. “This work is not anti-white, it's about healing. But to dismantle white supremacy, students need to understand that it’s a structure, not just an ideology.”

To drive home the point, Guzmán pointed to a chapter in “East of East” that features Father John V. Coffield, a white religious leader who worked to end housing and school segregation in the region. Coffield also helped children of Mexican descent access recreational areas at a time when city ordinances kept them out of local parks and pools. In Guzmán's seminar, teachers likewise reinforce the need to highlight historical figures who went against the grain.

Carribean Fragoza graduated from South El Monte High School and co-edited "East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte."
(Samanta Helou Hernandez )

Building Community In The Classroom

Because ethnic studies can generate uncomfortable conversations, said Tabatabai, it’s essential that students feel safe and seen. In his class, students are required to know all of their peers by name. In fact, it’s part of their grade.

In Mendoza’s class, unity and dialogue are fostered through routine talking circles. Students who are too scared to speak can submit questions and comments anonymously.

For Carlos Camacho, a freshman at Mountain View High School, Mendoza’s course is unlike anything he’s seen before.

“It’s more about us,” he said. “History is not my favorite subject. This is the most interesting it’s ever been.”

Atziri Talavera, who’s also a ninth grader, said Mendoza’s class inspired her to learn more about her own heritage. Her family hails from the Mexican state of Michoacan, and she only recently learned that both of her mothers spoke Tarascan, an Indigenous language spoken in the highlands.

For Tabatabai, hearing that students are making personal connections to what they learn in class is especially significant. He is the grandson of a woman who was deported from Waco, Texas in the 1930s, part of a “repatriation” program that shipped away about a million people of Mexican descent, regardless of their citizenship status.

When his school district launched the Ethnic Studies program last year, he was heartened to find that some of his students’ parents sat in on his Zoom class.

“That’s been the biggest thing for me — when the class connects students to their families,” he said.

Taking It To The Streets

But these ethnic studies educators have no interest in confining learning to the classroom. Over the next several months, Guzmán will team up with other South El Monte Arts Posse members to host community bike rides, which will take cyclists to many of the places featured in the book. Everyone is welcome, no matter their address.

Cyclists pause to examine archival materials during a community bike ride in El Monte.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist
LAist )

During the rides, Guzmán and his colleagues give site-specific mini-lessons, including tear-proof copies of primary sources. At the first bike ride earlier this month, writer Carribean Fragoza had cyclists pause before a mural titled “She Brought Her People With Her,” part of the collective’s work to resurrect El Monte’s mural movement.

After Chicano artist Gronk painted a mural of a female Mexican Revolution fighter at a local shopping center in the 1970s, controversy ensued and the image was whitewashed. To quell ruffled feathers, Ron Reeder, an arts professor at Rio Hondo College, proposed a mural featuring Godzilla smashing through the city.

It was supposed to be a way to band squabbling neighbors against a common enemy. It was also supposed to be funny. The city council, however, was not amused. In response, it issued a moratorium on all murals in the region.

Following Fragoza’s presentation, 8-year-old Luxiano Gonzalez raised his hand to pose a question. He wanted to know what people have against Godzilla, anyway.

“He’s not doing it on purpose,” said Luxiano, in reference to the sea monster’s destruction. “He’s just big, and he’s scared.”

“He raises an interesting point,” said Fragoza. “Who do we vilify — and for what reasons?”

Cyclists ride along the banks of Rio Hondo, shortly after visiting Whittier Narrows Nature Center, where they learned about Teatro Urbano's work in the community.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez for LAist )

Later that day, Adrian Rodriguez, 58, looked out on the banks of Rio Hondo and contemplated everything he did and didn’t learn growing up. He’d joined the bike ride to get some exercise. Now he was thinking about how segregation in El Monte had affected his family.

“Most of what they shared today, I didn’t know,” said Sandra Gutierrez, 29, who once attended El Monte High School. And when she learned that the bike ride was connected to the curriculum being taught at her alma mater, she beamed.

What questions do you have about Southern California?