For many Americans, Cinco de Mayo is reason enough to party, to drink and raise a glass. But to what exactly?
A misunderstood holiday more celebrated in the U.S. than in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken, even by people of Mexican descent, as Mexico’s Fourth of July. Actually, it commemorates a Mexican victory over the French Army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
Houston educator Tony Díaz thinks Cinco de Mayo is the perfect metaphor for the Mexican-American condition.
“We’re invisible most of the time, then all of a sudden the nation thinks of us and they don’t quite get us right,” Díaz told NBC News. “You’re going to see Cinco de Mayo all over billboards, and in commercials, but nobody knows what it’s about. At the same time there is this desire to know more about us.”
One of the co-founders of Librotraficante, the group formed to protest the Arizona Legislature’s banning of a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson by “smuggling” banned literature books into the state, Díaz is one of the leaders of a push to commemorate a Mexican American Studies Day in Texas on May 1.
“If everyone studied Mexican American Studies courses, people would understand the cultural context of Cinco de Mayo,” Díaz said. “That's what Mexican American Studies Day is all about."
Díaz said cities and towns across the state will commemorate Mexican American Studies Day on May 1. A statewide proclamation will be read on the Senate floor at the Texas Legislature in Austin.
While largely ceremonial, Díaz thinks Mexican American Studies Day signals momentum for a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Texas, where more than 50 percent of the 5.1 million students in public schools are Latino and the majority of those are of Mexican descent. Latino student populations are even higher in the state’s most populous cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin.
"Mexican American studies prepares all our students for a multicultural era, which is here," says proponent Tony Díaz. "It doesn’t just create leaders who can navigate the Ferguson issue and the immigration issue, it cultivates leaders who can avoid cultural clashes," he adds.
Yet, Mexican-American and Latino history is not a staple of classroom textbooks. And Mexican-American studies and ethnic studies curriculums have been hot-button issues in the state's conservative legislature.
Last year, the State Board of Education approved adoption of textbooks for elective courses on Mexican-American studies, African-American studies, Native American studies and Asian-American studies, giving local school districts options to develop curriculums on their own. The measure gained bipartisan support, though it was called "reverse racism" by a Republican board member.
The controversy over Mexican-American studies is not just limited to Texas. In Arizona, conservatives claimed ethnic studies curriculums stirred resentment against non-Latino white people.
Proponents say students who learn about Mexican-American accomplishments and history perform better academically, become more confident and more engaged in the classroom and more invested in their academic success.
Díaz teaches Mexican-American literature and is the director of intercultural initiatives at Lone Star College-Harris in Houston. NBC News recently spoke with him about growing efforts to promote Mexican-American studies programs in Texas.
NBC News: What do you hope to accomplish with Mexican American Studies Day?
Díaz: One of the main ideas is to spread awareness. It’s twofold: To let people know there are actually very sophisticated research results that show without a doubt that Mexican-American studies helps our youth not just graduate in higher numbers, but they pass standardized math and English tests at higher numbers, too.
On the flip side, teachers in Texas have the abilities to implement Mexican-American studies in many different ways. I think sometimes they don’t understand the amount of power they may have, or they may not know about all the resources they have at their disposal.
NBC News: Why is it important to have Mexican-American studies programs in public schools?
Díaz: Mexican-American studies prepares all our students for a multicultural era, which is here. It doesn’t just create leaders who can navigate the Ferguson issue and the immigration issue, it cultivates leaders who can avoid cultural clashes, who can prevent these clashes from even occurring.
It’s vital that we implement ethnic studies right now because these cultural clashes will keep building up and continuing. It’s up to all of us to update the American dream. That’s what’s at stake.
NBC News: You’ve said that support for implementing Mexican-American studies and ethnic studies programs in Texas is “spreading like wildfire.” Why now?
Díaz: We’ve got a burgeoning movement going. You’ve got students from the Rio Grande Valley (in South Texas) who are lobbying to get state funding for Mexican-American studies at the collegiate level there. My students on their own are saying, ‘Let’s go to the high schools and get information to the kids.’ I think we haven’t seen this sort of activity since the civil rights movement...When Arizona tried to obliterate our culture, we woke up.
NBC News: But Texas is still a very conservative state politically, and given conservative pushback in Arizona to Mexican-American studies curriculum there, why are you hopeful about Texas?
Díaz: It’s the Republican far right that strongly opposes Mexican-American literature. I think when the ban on Mexican-American literature gets overturned (in Arizona), that’s going to change the way the course is perceived. There actually are Texas conservatives who are not going to oppose it. I meet Texas conservatives who say, ‘You’re right. This is a good thing to have.’
This is going to be a good test to see where everyone stands. But we have to have Mexican-American studies right now for the good of our youth and really, for the good of the American dream.
I think when teachers see how students get inspired through Mexican-American studies literature, they will embrace it. Igniting a voice is powerful. The other thing is our community is waking up and learning they can implement this.