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Diluting Mexican American History for Public Consumption: How Mendez Became the “Mexican American Brown

by Maribel Santiago - 2020

Background/Context: To adapt to increasingly diverse classrooms, some school districts are trying to offer additional curriculum that represents the diversity of their students. California, where half of school-age children are Latinx, is at the forefront of including Latinx histories in its curriculum. The state’s 2017 California History-Social Science Framework claims to prioritize “engaging and relevant” history curriculum. Yet, as this article reveals, curricular inclusion does not always lead to complex representations of Latinx histories.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article focuses on Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County (1946), a Mexican American school desegregation case, as an example of how Latinx experiences were diluted to appeal to a larger audience, gain traction, and justify their addition to the California framework.

Research Design: This article includes analysis of five forms of data: historiography of the case, primary documents regarding the court trial and appeal, primary documents related to Mendez becoming part of the California framework, educational resources, and interviews with people who advocated for Mendez to be taught in K–12 classrooms.

Findings: Although Mendez was included in the California History-Social Science Framework, the version that was embraced was more about Brown v. Board of Education than Mendez or Latinx school segregation. To appeal to a larger audience, the Mendez story had to attach itself to an already celebrated and well-known event. This gave rise to the “Mexican American Brown” interpretation that stretches the historical truth, exaggerating the connection between Brown and Mendez. Educational and curricular resources facilitated this process in three ways: (1) claiming that Mendez was the legal precursor to Brown; (2) fabricating Earl Warren’s participation in Mendez; and (3) exaggerating the role that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP had in Mendez. Historical actors were then used to corroborate the Mexican American Brown story. This article ends with analysis of what is lost when Mendez is represented in the California framework as the Mexican American Brown.

Conclusions: Mendez v. Westminster’s addition to the California framework signifies that it is an event worth learning. Yet, it is Mendez’s relationship to Brown that made it worthy. This leads to an “illusion of inclusion,” which gives the impression that Mexican Americans are being incorporated into the curriculum but actually fails to represent their unique experiences. Historical events that validate the stories of Latinx communities are still very much missing from curricular materials.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 8, 2020, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23381, Date Accessed: 1/15/2021 1:07:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Maribel Santiago
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    MARIBEL SANTIAGO, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of justice and education at the University of Washington and a 2019 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. She specializes in the teaching and learning of race/ethnicity in K–12 history classrooms, specifically how people in the United States collectively remember the experiences of communities of color, and the consequences of such depictions. Her other works have been published in Cognition and Instruction, Theory & Research in Social Education, and the book Teaching and Learning the Difficult Past.
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