Posted on October 22, 2004

Latino Identity

Linda Lou, The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Cal.), Oct. 22

RIVERSIDE — A new class at Norte Vista High School isn’t just teaching historical dates and famous events, it’s pushing students to tap into themselves.

The Chicano Studies class forces senior Yesenia Valdovinos to look at her heritage. The 17-year-old said she hardly ever speaks Spanish. She enrolled in the class for graduation credits.

“I wasn’t into my culture,” Yesenia said. “I was born here and I felt there was no reason to know my background.”

She is one of 11 Latino students enrolled in the new class, where English, Spanish or a mix of both languages can be heard. Most were born in Mexico but grew up in the area. The class is open to all students.

The Latino population is growing in the Inland area, but Chicano studies are rarely taught in schools.

Jesse Hernandez, 16, said it’s eye-opening to learn about the historical Mexican figures — Emilio Zapata and Pancho Villa — whose names or faces he wears on T-shirts. He now knows that Aztlan refers to when Mexico, California and Texas were one.

Humberto Suarez, a junior who was born in Mexico, said he relates more to Chicano studies than European history. Of his course load, the 16-year-old completes the most homework for this class.

“This is the one I care about,” Humberto said. “This is the one I like most.”

As part of the class, students are choosing labels that best describe their identity. Some like to be known as just Mexican, and others prefer Mexican-American or Chicano.

“I still consider myself Mexican even though I’m here,” said sophomore Angelica Sotelo, 16, who immigrated to the U.S. as an infant. “I only speak English at school.”

Chicano was a label created in the 1960s by Latino political activists who wanted to define their own identity, said teacher Richard Romero, 38, who also teaches English at Norte Vista.

Most Inland school districts do not offer ethnic studies classes, but said they would consider them if there’s enough interest.

“Those are always open for discussion,” said Steve Kennedy, Corona-Norco secondary administrative director of curriculum and instruction. “Lately, the trend is to focus on core curriculum.”

Riverside Unified School District offers Chicano studies as a social studies class. It also offers courses in African-American and Asian Pacific American studies, as well as a class ethnic diversity in America, said Dianne Pavia, district spokeswoman. Those courses are only taught if enough students sign up.

The pilot Chicano studies class at Norte Vista is offered as an elective this year, but the school hopes to get it approved by the University of California next year as a history or language-arts class, Romero said. He said more students would probably take the class if it applies to UC freshman admissions requirements.

Romero’s class will span ancient history from about 30,000 years ago to today. Reading literature written by Latino authors is also part of the class.

Romero, who lives in Murrieta, modeled his curriculum after similar courses in Los Angeles Unified School District, where Chicano studies are more common. He formerly taught in Los Angeles.

The increase of Latinos in the Inland area and Southwest United States make it even more important to teach Chicano studies classes, said Armando Navarro, an ethnic studies professor at UC Riverside.

Latinos make up about 43 percent of San Bernardino County and about 39 percent of Riverside County’s population, according to the U.S. Census.

“This is long overdue,” Navarro said. “We need to adjust so that our people have the opportunity to fully appreciate their heritage, culture and politics.”

Romero said his class has the most impact on Latinos born in the United States, who sometimes struggle with their identities and culture.

Students don’t have to pick one over the other, he said, “It’s OK to be both.”

Staff writers Steve Fetbrandt, Cadonna Peyton, Kim Trone and Bonnie Stewart contributed to this report.