The Fifth-Graders Who Put Mexican Repatriation Back Into History Books

When a California history class noticed the U.S. 1930s Mexican Repatriation had been left out of the curriculum, they decided to take it up with the state Legislature.
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A 1931 Mexican newspaper shows 1300 immigrants leaving Los Angeles for Mexico. Photo from University of Denver.

Leslie Hiatt’s fifth-graders are no strangers to politics.

Seeking to empower children as agents of change, Hiatt’s U.S. history class encompasses more than the Pilgrims and the Constitution. Through project-based learning, students also study the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusion Act, child labor laws, and Japanese internment camps.

And, just in time for the next school year, the 2016 presidential election.

“Considering the national political climate, my kids are very afraid of what will happen if Donald Trump becomes president, because they are scared to death for the future and security of their families,” said Hiatt, who teaches at Bell Gardens Elementary near southeast Los Angeles.

Until now, the newest addition to her history lessons was in 2014, when Hiatt looked through the history textbooks and saw something missing: Mexican Repatriation, the unconstitutional deportations of more than 1 million U.S. citizens and lawful residents of Mexican descent during the 1930s.

So Hiatt, along with her student teacher, Ana Ramos, designed a Mexican Repatriation unit to teach the class. The issue hit home for their students, which led to letter-writing campaigns, an audience with a state legislator, and, eventually, a change to state law.

“The kids felt a real personal connection to it because we had issues in the classroom with students and their families getting deported,” said Hiatt.

Ethnic studies looms large in education, and, in some cases, remains a subject of controversy.

Student Nicole Sandoval, along with her classmates, noticed right away the disconnect between what they were learning and what was in the state-issued textbooks. And they wondered why Mexican Americans had not received an apology for the injustices of the 1930s.

“My whole class felt that this is wrong,” Sandoval said. “It happened to kids like us who are Mexican Americans, and we do not want history to repeat itself.”

They launched a campaign that ultimately took them to the California State Assembly, where, late last year, a bill was passed to require the teaching of Mexican Repatriation. And as a new class joined this past year, the students’ effort has evolved to a push for a federal apology, just as other marginalized groups have received.

The story of the bill

Students started by writing persuasive letters to President Barack Obama, but his response did not address their specific questions—it only expressed encouragement. So they created PowerPoint presentations, poems, plays, and a movie, aiming to go viral on YouTube. They were further inspired by guest visits and interviews with survivor Emilia Castañeda, descendants, and experts on the topic, including Francisco Balderrama, author of Decade of Betrayal.

Then they shared their projects with their local state representative, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who suggested they enter her “There Ought to Be a Law” contest.

They won—a victory that meant representing Montebello Unified School District at the Capitol building in Sacramento and providing testimony in support of Garcia’s Assembly Bill 146, which calls for courses and history books in California schools to include the account of Mexican Repatriation. On Oct. 1, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law.

Ethnic studies emerged out of the 1960s civil rights movement and as a response by scholars and activists to Eurocentric disciplines. Half a century later, ethnic studies looms large in education, and, in some cases, remains a subject of controversy: While some states with conservative legislatures have outlawed courses—the Mexican American studies program in Tucson, Arizona—school districts in California, beginning with El Rancho Unified and Los Angeles Unified in 2014, have been creating ethnic studies courses and requiring them for graduation.

Employing new ethnic studies K-12 curriculum necessitates challenging the current narrative. In a 2011 National Education Association-sponsored analysis of current ethnic studies classes in textbooks, Christine Sleeter writes that “Whites continue to receive the most attention and appear in the widest variety of roles, dominating story lines and lists of accomplishments.” The analysis also reveals that other racial groups continue to remain underrepresented in history books, which also lack contemporary ethnic experiences. Indeed, AB 146 marks an important shift toward inclusive lessons and relevant education for students across California.

"Curriculum often goes through cycles of implementation then falls out of use until something new comes along."

“Curriculum often goes through cycles of implementation then falls out of use until something new comes along,” said Christine Valenciana, associate professor of Elementary Bilingual Education at California State University, Fullerton. AB 146 links to the new California History-Social Science Framework, which serves as a living resource of strategies and practices to guide effective planning, policy, funding, and instructional decisions at all schools and districts.

For districts like Montebello Unified, AB 146 has opened up discussions to develop curriculum that connects race, class, gender, and sexuality. “AB 146 is a significant step in the right direction, but much more work needs to be done so that Mexican Repatriation and other important subjects are interwoven throughout K-12 curriculum,” said Enrique Ochoa, a history professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and a key advisor in creating ethnic studies programs in Montebello Unified and San Bernardino City Unified.

Now, Hiatt’s students are building on the success of AB 146 to lobby for a federal apology for President Herbert Hoover’s Mexican Repatriation program and the indiscriminate deportation of Mexican American citizens to Mexico. “This year, my new students reacted the same way and wanted to know what could be done apart from what the class did last year,” Hiatt said.

The class analyzed interviews of survivors and evaluated resources, then created their own digital archive of historical narratives on the unconstitutional deportations. They also wrote letters to labor activist Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, and state Sen. Ricardo Lara to urge them to lobby for a federal apology—and to defeat racism. “You are never too young to change the world,” student Dayana Cruz said.