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UTSA enrolls high schoolers in Mexican American Studies to grow college graduation rates

UTSA enrolls high schoolers in Mexican American Studies to grow college graduation rates

The class will help students look at the question of who gets the right to tell history, including by gathering first-hand accounts of Hondurans who survived dictatorships.

SEPTEMBER 17, 2020 — UTSA takes bold steps as a model Hispanic-thriving university by introducing local high school students to a new dual credit course. This fall semester the seminar Latino Cultural Expressions is the latest offering in the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

The course is part of the Texas Mexican American Studies curriculum. With 15 Brackenridge High School juniors enrolled, course offerings like these enable two goals: early access to higher level learning and the ability to understand the maxim “To know one's self is the beginning of all wisdom.”

“We will explore knowing but call it conocimiento—the Spanish-language equivalent to exploring the self,” said associate professor Liliana Saldaña, who is co-director of the MAS program and leads the class. Saldaña is an activist-scholar but also part of a group of educational reformers who recently won the right to include MAS as part of the statewide curriculum. “I never thought in a million years I would really teach this class!”

“The approach we use in the class is to understand people through culture and history—it’s our lens.”

If the next generation of Latino graduates are to embrace Aristotle’s famous advice on self-discovery, then Mexican-American scholars such as Saldaña argue that this path must include the history and roots of the Mesoamerican traditions. UTSA MAS students will learn from primary sources such as the Boturini Codex—the account of the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan, now present-day Mexico City.

In the Codex

Saldaña’s students learn from primary sources such as the Boturini Codex, about the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan, now present-day Mexico City.

“The approach we use in the class is to understand people through culture and history—it’s our lens,”added Saldaña.

The dual credit MAS course is taught in Spanish, to meet the high school’s language requirement, and it dives into complex topics, such colonialism and U.S. intervention in areas, including Puerto Rico and Central America.

Later in the semester there will be discussions on who has the right to tell a country’s history, such as in the case of Honduras. This is done by exploring Paul Ramirez Jonas’ novel project in which over the course of 24 hours local typists gathered first-hand accounts of Hondurans that survived several dictatorships. The seminar also addresses current U.S. social justice concepts and the roots of anti-Blackness, which are based on the Spanish colonialism principle known as sangre pura.

“This course constantly changes to make it relevant for San Antonio’s high school students but also works to meet the curriculum requirements,” stated Saldaña.

Beyond primary and in-culture historical records, the art work of Tejano artists Santa Barraza and Carmen Lomas Garza, whose illustrations of the Mexican American experience are housed in the famous Smithsonian American Art Museum, are explored.

“I want the San Antonio students to also see themselves in the curriculum” is her mantra, Saldaña said.

Saldaña also uses the Mesoamerican culinary record to help establish self-awareness. She connects the history of corn as part of the foundation for the Latino experience. Maize, within the indigenous tradition, helped form the society beyond sustenance. For example, in Maya history this staple diet guided the cosmos, established a foundation for Mesoamerican philosophy and assisted in the development of mathematics.

According to Saldaña, from a bicultural historical perspective, the introduction of the American colonial diet eventually is one of the factors that fuels diabetes and hypertension that many U.S. Hispanics face today.

“If we learn about the Mesoamerican diet, we begin to understand how our food nurtured our survival. Yes! Una olla de frijoles [‘a pot of beans’] is an act of resistance,” said Saldaña.

The Mexican American Studies curriculum was originally offered as a workshop in the MAS Teachers’ Academy and part of the College of Education and Human Development, which experiments in new teacher-training programs to prepare future K–12 teachers.

Moreover, the interest of the Hispanic student population to enroll in dual credit exists. Latino students form about half of all Texas students enrolled in dual credit courses according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2018 report. With earned dual credit, the students find it easier to stay in college.

UTSA’s latest course facilitates college retention which then translates into economic success. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census, over 70% of adults 25 and older who have completed a bachelor’s degree continue to become part of the American labor force.

And the direction of Hispanics’ college completion rate is on the upward trend. The Excelencia in Education nonprofit analysis shows that the U.S. educational system has grown the Latino four-year degree attainment rate.

The state of Texas has one of the largest concentrations of Hispanics with higher educational degrees, yet the state lags the national average. It’s for this reason that UTSA joins in this mission to help solve the state’s educational challenge and help Hispanics thrive.

Milady Nazir

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The University of Texas at San Antonio is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research and discovery, teaching and learning, community engagement and public service. As an institution of access and excellence, UTSA embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property - for Texas, the nation and the world.

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UTSA is a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) as designated by the U.S. Department of Education.

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The University of Texas at San Antonio, a Hispanic Serving Institution situated in a global city that has been a crossroads of peoples and cultures for centuries, values diversity and inclusion in all aspects of university life. As an institution expressly founded to advance the education of Mexican Americans and other underserved communities, our university is committed to ending generations of discrimination and inequity. UTSA, a premier public research university, fosters academic excellence through a community of dialogue, discovery and innovation that embraces the uniqueness of each voice.