LATINO VOICES
05/13/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Latino Activists Declare Victory Over Texas Ethnic Studies Law

Courtesy of Tony Diaz

They fought the law, and they won.

The Texas activist organization known as Librotraficante celebrated a victory last week over state lawmakers that wanted to put the squeeze on ethnic studies.

Conservative State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) raised a fury among Latino activists and professors with a proposal to exempt ethnic studies and other college classes from counting toward the fulfillment of state history requirements, but gained little support for the effort. With just two weeks to go before the Texas legislative session winds to a close, Senate Bill 1128 has yet to get voted out of the Senate High Education Committee.

“Logistically speaking, it would be very difficult for it to pass at this point," Logan Spence, a spokesman for Patrick's office, told The Huffington Post Monday.

Opponents had railed against the bill, likening it to a law in Arizona that was used to shut down a progressive Mexican American Studies class in Tucson.

“This is a warning to all far right legislators in any State of the Union, if you attack our History, our Culture, or our books, we will defy you,” Tony Diaz, one of the leaders behind the Librotraficante movement, said in a statement Thursday. “And we will win.”

Patrick filed SB 1128 in response to a report by the National Association of Scholars, a nonpartisan group that some Latino scholars describe as conservative, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

The NAS study, “Recasting History,” argued that U.S. history courses at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have shifted their focus toward race, gender and class rather than more traditional scholarly interests, like intellectual and military history.

The University of Texas at Austin opposed that interpretation when the bill was filed. In January, the university put out a statement saying the study “raises some important questions, but it also paints a narrowly defined and largely inaccurate picture of the quality, depth and breadth of history teaching and research at The University of Texas at Austin.”

The UT-Austin statement points out that scholars paid little attention to race, class and gender until the 1960s. “Rather than ‘diminish attention to other areas’ as the NAS report suggests, these areas of study have broadened the view on historical events and personalities,” the statement says.

Facing criticism for the bill, Patrick wrote a message on his Facebook in March, saying:

The reason I filed this bill is because last year the National Academy of Scholars wrote that both UT & A&M are not teaching a broad history of our nation, but rather singular topics on race, gender, and topics like the Culture of Alcohol and Drugs, the History of Popular Music, or even a narrow topic like the history of Sea Power. Those courses are fine and can be taken as an elective if students are interested, but they should be the make up of the credits needed to graduate with a degree in History in the view of the scholars and in my view as well.

Latino scholars tended to disagree.

"People in history departments have expressed concern, because the bills attempt to weaken faculty governance, academic freedom and history teaching in departments," Mexican American history professor Emilio Zamora told the San Antonio Express-News in March.

The Librotraficante, or "Book Smuggler," movement began as a protest against the banning of a controversial Mexican American Studies curriculum from Tucson public classrooms -- a move that effectively banned seven books, almost all by Latino authors, from classroom use.

Diaz, independent journalist Liana Lopez and multimedia artist Bryan Parras launched a caravan in March 2012 to start community libraries of "wetbooks," created from the prohibited curriculum in Tucson and other Southwestern cities.

Independent research found that the Mexican American Studies classes raised graduation rates and boosted performance on state exams. A state-commissioned audit said the classes fostered critical thinking and recommended expanding them.

Conservative lawmakers in Arizona, however, accused the teachers of politicizing the classroom and stirring racial resentment among Latino students by teaching them about the history and politics of racial oppression. The teachers deny the allegations.

The Tucson school board -- facing the possibility of losing 10 percent of its budget, representing some $14 million over the fiscal year -- voted four to one to shut the classes down on Jan. 10.

A legal challenge to the Arizona law is still making its way through the courts. A federal judge upheld most of the law in March. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

While activists have yet to strike the Arizona law from the books, Diaz remains hopeful for the future.

“As activists, it seems we are always on the defensive,” the Librotraficante statement says. “That has to stop. We are planning to run candidates this fall for offices that will change that.”

This post has been updated to add context about the Librotraficante movement.

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