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Teaching History: Why Multiculturalism Is So Important

I started teaching with a multicultural perspective at a small Catholic girl's high school (San Gabriel Mission) in suburban Los Angeles in September, 1973. The principal hired me to teach the US history survey courses and US Government. She also asked me to create two one-semester 12th grade electives classes. Given the demographics of the campus, I chose to teach U.S.Women's History and Chicano History. Women's and Ethnic Studies were just emerging at universities and there existed very few materials published at that time.

In 1978, I began teaching at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. The background of the community begins with the Gabrielino Indians and by the late 19th century Boyle Heights was a wealthy white community. In the early part of the 20th century, some of the original settlers in Boyle Heights moved to the Westside of Los Angeles. Then came the first of many waves of immigrants and native-born people coming to the community. By the 1920's, the social fabric of Boyle Heights was transformed with the influx of Japanese-American, Jewish-American, Mexican-American, Molakans and other ethnic groups in the community. Like immigrants in the rest of the country, each of these groups established their own ethnic identity within a polyglot community.

The Great Depression was a difficult time for the residents of Boyle Heights but World War Two changed that area forever. This tiny community of six square miles had every person of Japanese-American background removed under Executive Order 9066. After World War Two, Jewish-Americans started leaving Boyle Heights as a sign of upward mobility. The 1950 census shows the community in flux with a growing Mexican-American population. The 1960 census indicated that Mexican-Americans had become the majority there and in 2006 the area is 95% Latinos.

When I began teaching at Roosevelt High School, Boyle Heights had been a "point of entry" community for nearly 75 years with an estimated population of 90,000. Most of the residents were renters and nearby there were three public housing projects. In addition, five freeways criss-crossed the community. When I arrived on campus in 1978, the school was 98% Latino and overcrowded with 3,500 students on a small campus. A large percentage of my students were immigrants or children of immigrants from Mexico with a small Japanese-American population.

A few years ago, I retired from high school teaching and started writing about my years at Roosevelt High School. In this essay, I want to focus on my classes for the 1979-1980 school year. 

My students were born in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. They were 11 years old when the US left South Vietnam and 12 when Nixon resigned. In their junior year at Roosevelt High School, two events shaped their future lives. The first was Proposition 13 in California that lowered property taxes, which in turned brought less money to public education. Secondly, the United States Supreme Court decision Bakke v. Regents of the University of California would alter their lives, if they chose to attend a higher education institution. Another important issue for some of my students was the unresolved issue of undocumented workers and INS raids in the community.
Their views about national and world politics were shaped by the events of 1979. For example, the Shah of Iran resigned in January and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Knomeni took over the country. In March, there was the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident and in May Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of Britain. In June, the SALT 2 agreement was signed and a month later the Sandinistas formed a government in Nicaragua. A week before classes started, the Chrysler Corporation asked the US government for one billion dollars to avoid bankruptcy.

I expressed on the first day of class in September that they had to meet high classroom standards, have good critical thinking skills with a desire to always want to learn more in class and in life. One of the cornerstones of my classes was to connect the local, state, national and international multicultural perspectives. I emphasized that events occurring in their community could have consequences beyond the borders of their world.

The fall term was going smoothly until November 4, 1979. On that day, a small group of Iranian citizens took control of the US Embassy in Tehran and Americans were taken hostage. This was shown on television and President Jimmy Carter asked for the hostages to be released. The future of the hostages and American Foreign Policy were in doubt. I "seized" on this time as a "teaching moment" for my students.

For the “Iranian Hostage Crisis” my students were assigned to read every story about the crisis as the events unfolded. I started to read about the history, geography, languages, ethnic groups and religions of the region. Also I read the Book of Koran and prepared new lessons about the Middle East and American Foreign Policy.  I gave the student's primary and secondary sources to read and answer questions. It was important for my students to connect the many issues at the local, state, national and international levels.

As with any political crisis, the events quickly changed and it was important to stay on top of the ongoing information. It was important for the students not to just learn the American point of view on the events but have a "world vision" of events. At the same time, I still had to teach the mandated curriculum. This has never been an easy task and I have learned to balance the curriculum by including current events with the assigned material.

During the 1979-1980 school year, I relied on TV news and local newspapers. I copied newspaper articles for my students since most of their families didn't subscribe to one. As we ended the school for the winter break in December the "hostage crisis" as it was called then had endured for over 40 days with no end in sight. Everything would change during our winter break when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 27. As American-Russian Relations became very chilling again, I started a quick read about Afghanistan so I could be a more effective teacher when my students returned.

When my students came back to school, they wanted to know more about the Soviet Union foreign policy and Afghanistan. The students embraced the new curriculum with enthusiasm. The mood in the classroom changed as the world looked like a more serious place to live. This was their first experience dealing with world tension at such a high level.

A few short weeks later on January 23, 1980, President Carter announced that men and women must register for the Selective Service Draft. This announcement sent shockwaves around America especially with people who opposed the draft. The Vietnam War had ended seven years earlier and there were many people who still had very strong feelings about the draft and the war. Once again at many college campuses there were student demonstrations against the draft. Clearly the collective historical memories of the Vietnam War and the military draft were still very powerful in 1980.

My students who were seniors would turn 18 that year and the draft would affect them, family members or a friend. A high percentage of Latinos had been killed in the Vietnam War and students remembered the anti-war movement in their community. Their memories of the war overseas and the war at home were very vivid in 1980.

For many of us who lived or worked in East Los Angeles, we always believed the local news media had consistently focused on the negative aspects of the community without addressing the many positive things that went on there. I tried to combat the news media's lack of understanding. After Carter's draft announcement and college student demonstrations, I contacted Joy Horowitz, a View Section staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. I suggested that she speak to my students since they were 18 or almost that age. Her newspaper had left out the opinions of high school students about the draft and I hoped she would come and hear my students. Horowitz liked the idea and later her editor approved the article.

She attended one of my government classes a few days later. I asked my students questions and they did most of the talking. Horowitz took notes and told me that we might appear in a paragraph in a story. Later there occurred more student demonstrations at universities around Los Angeles against the draft. Her editor decided to make us the entire story and it appeared on the front page of the newspaper on January 30, 1980.

I was proud to have my students representing themselves, the school and the community in a positive article. The title of the article was "Cynical Students Ponder a New Draft." I asked them about national honor and pride. Monica Flores said, "It's just about money and oil they want." Armando Zumaya was quoted as saying, American pride equals greed." Everado Aguilar said, "We just don't trust the government anymore."

Some of the students feared Soviet expansion into Iran and Sergio Aguilar declared, "It would be a complete chaos--all out nuclear war." Diane Carillo reminded her classmates that the Shah of Iran, "...was an American puppet." Finally Rene Santiago explained, "Our attitudes have changed since Vietnam."

The reaction to the article was mostly positive. There were many letters to the editor and I also received letters about it. A Vietnam vet wrote, "As one who suffered though the draft of the 60's, it was heartening to read a new generation of students was not ready to march off to manufactured wars." A woman with a draft age son wrote, "It was difficult to read because of the tears, but those kids expressed themselves very well and also the feelings we mothers are going through when we hear the word draft." But a woman from Orange County wrote, "It is my suggestion that in the future that you get the facts straight before you seek publicity for you do us all a great injustice and the silent majority is beginning to get tired of your obviously uninformed attitudes." The school administration and most teachers felt the article positive about the students, the school and the community.

During the spring term on March 21st, President Carter announced the American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics to be held in Moscow. Three days later Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in El Salvador as American involvement in the region deepened. An uncertain future loomed in America and in parts of the world in 1980. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union entered a deep freeze and President Carter came under attack for failing to secure the release of the American hostages in Iran. Ronald Reagan was winning the Republican primaries and constantly attacked Carter’s foreign policy. On April 7th, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran and imposed economic sanctions. A few weeks later on April 25th, Carter ordered a military mission to free the hostages in Iran. Eight Americans were killed in this failed operation.

These events were a great opportunity to discuss American foreign policy, the 1980 presidential elections and learn about other nations. My students told me they now felt a vested interest in their community, the United States and the world.

In 2002, I served as an historical advisor for the "History of Boyle Heights" exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum. I decided to "reconnect" with my former students at Roosevelt High School.

One of the first student e-mails I received stated, "The heated discussions. observations, political critique and certainly our daily lives were like living out of a hostage crisis. East Los Angeles symbolizes an entire group of people living in a state of siege. It was true then as it is now!"

Another student wrote,” When it comes right down to it, the foundations of who I am today were formed during my years at Roosevelt, especially my senior year." 

I tried to give my students a “world vision” of their daily lives. This vision showed the connections around the world, the nation, the state and how it affected their lives.  The students learned to understand the unfolding events as something important to their lives. They began to address the complex aspects of modern life from multicultural perspectives and increased their confidence in themselves. It was the best of times to be a classroom teacher and many of my teaching methods worked because of my amazing students!

These teaching methods are still valid today.

James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Educators must face the importance of making global multiculturalism a cornerstone of their classes

This essay is dedicated to my former students.