SAN ANTONIO — Texas Rep. Christina Morales, a Houston Democrat, knows her quest to pass a bipartisan bill that would require Mexican American and Black studies to be offered in every school district has gotten tougher. But then, she said, history abounds with Latinos and others succeeding amid seemingly insurmountable barriers.
“My grandparents had the first Latino-owned funeral home and the first Spanish-language radio station in the entire Gulf Coast," Morales said. Her grandmother was part of the League of United Latin American Citizens and other organizations formed to help promote Latino businesses.
Those connections and sense of history helped Morales, whose mother and father had both died by the time she'd reached her mid-teens.
“So many kids in our community … they need hope in seeing people who look like them and share similar stories of how they overcame obstacles and became leaders in the community,” said Morales.
Mexican American and African American studies already are elective courses in Texas, but they are not offered in all of its 1,250 school districts. Currently, 63 districts teach Mexican American studies, and 58 teach African American studies.
The bill reintroduced by Morales would require all districts to offer the courses as social studies options in addition to world history and world geography.
The bill would also allow the courses to count toward graduation credit.
The Texas House voted for an identical bill in the 2021 regular legislative session, and while it won the approval of a Senate committee, it didn't get a vote on the Senate floor.
And the reintroduced legislation is not guaranteed an easy path this session. Texas lawmakers have reconvened amid campaigns in GOP-controlled states, including Texas, to contain or limit teaching on race, and to end programs aimed at diversity and inclusion.
Attacks on ethnic studies and diversity initiatives have become a rallying cry for potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates who hope to rouse their party’s right-wing base.
Morales sighed heavily when asked about her confidence that she could get her bill to the governor’s desk and signed in such a political atmosphere.
“I know that we have some challenges ahead of us, but in the face-to-face conversations I’ve had with some members, I do feel there are enough moderates still” to get this bill to the finish line, she said.
Rep. Charles Cunningham, a retired businessman, is the bill's co-author. Cunningham, a Republican who served on the Humble, Texas, school board and was a city council member, took office this year.
Roel Benavides, Cunningham's chief of staff, said Cunningham had a family emergency that made him unavailable for comment Friday.
Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott's office did not respond to inquiries on whether he'd support the bipartisan legislation or what form it would need to take to gain his support.
The large majority of the state’s Latinos are of Mexican descent, according to the Pew Research Center. The Census Bureau estimated that the number of Hispanics in Texas has surpassed non-Hispanic whites in the state. Texas is the state with the nation’s highest Black population — almost 4 million, or about 14% of Texas’ total population.
In a news conference this week, lawmakers acknowledged they had a tougher political terrain to navigate.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher, who heads the Texas Democratic Caucus, said threats to college campuses regarding diversity and inclusion come with every news cycle, and “everyone seems to be walking on eggshells.” Despite “the odds and the headwinds,” the legislation is not meant to pit Republicans against Democrats or people of color against one another he said.
“My message here at this podium is to reach out across the aisle and let Republican colleagues know that this is an opportunity for us to stand together as one Texas, 254 counties, 31 million people, ninth largest economy in the world,” Martinez Fischer of San Antonio said. “We’re a global economy, we need to adopt and accept our global history.”
Rep. Ron Reynolds, chairman of the Texas Black Caucus, said passage of the bill could begin to heal the fractures in the state caused by bickering over diversity, equity and inclusion programs and critical race theory, a generally college-level concept whose main idea is that racism is systemic, or embedded, in laws, institutions and policies.
Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who supports the bill, said that Asian Americans had been targeted by laws that would deprive them of their civil rights, which angers the community. Bill SB147, filed for this session, would make it illegal for Chinese citizens to buy property in Texas, including homes.
To explain the anger, "we had to dig deep into our community history" and explain to people that "back in the 1800s, y'all already did this," Wu said at the news conference, referring to the Alien Land Laws. He also referred to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“Even though those are historic, community-breaking events for us, they are barely footnotes in our textbooks. … We refuse to be a footnote,” Wu said.
'We need to tell a robust story'
Morales told NBC News that before her grandparents, who were born in the U.S., started their funeral business in Houston, Mexican American families had to hold their services in their homes or garages because white-owned funeral homes would not allow them in their establishments.
Morales said her father had died of a massive stroke when she was 11, and her mother had died of kidney failure when Morales was 15. Her grandmother taught her about the funeral business, and when her grandmother died, Morales, at the age of 23, became the owner of her grandparents' funeral home.
Her grandparents' radio station, KLVL, had a show “Yo Necesito Trabajo (I Need Work) and helped many people find jobs.
“One man came to me and said, ‘My dad got a job through “Yo Necesito Trabajo” and he ended up putting us (his children) through college with that job,'” Morales said.
“Every (ethnic) community in our state has contributed to the success of our neighborhood, our city and our nation,” she said. “We need to tell a robust story when it comes to our history.”