At a young age, Dulcinea Lara observed two very different realities: a well-funded school in a Midwest college town and a poorer school in rural southern New Mexico, where many were, like herself, students of color. She attended schools in the Gadsden Independent School District for all but her eighth-grade year, when her family moved to East Lansing, Mich., where she vividly remembers an orchestra, swimming pool and history classes that taught about people around the world.
To her, the students in Gadsden and East Lansing “were the same in terms of dreams, intelligence and talents. The difference was the number of resources afforded to each school.” It was then that she witnessed what she calls “windows of opportunity.” For students, the windows could be wide open or barely discernible, depending on who they were and where they lived.
Currently, Lara is in the process of building an ethnic studies department at New Mexico State University, where she is a professor. As a member of an advisory board that helped draft the latest revisions to New Mexico’s social studies standards, she’s had a close-up view of the controversies surrounding the process. With a background in ethnic studies, Lara has long advocated for culturally relevant education and, in terms of social studies, a curriculum that not only teaches names, dates and historical events, but also “how society functions” — or who has advantages and who doesn’t.
Searchlight caught up with Lara to talk about what’s missing in the current standards, the addition of ethnic studies in the latest revisions, and who is most harmed when social studies don’t reflect the real world.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Searchlight New Mexico:
I’d like to start by asking you to describe a common term that’s creating so much controversy today. What do you mean when you say “culturally relevant?”
My education is in ethnic studies, which is really about highlighting knowledge that’s relevant to students’ lives and bringing those realities into the classroom. For the longest time, the education curriculum was meant to assimilate all students, and all people, to one standard — and that standard was a more European and Anglo way of thinking and being. Education, so far, hasn’t been culturally relevant to the majority of people of color.
I use a local mountain as an example. Most people in Las Cruces know that mountain as “A” Mountain because NMSU students painted a huge A on it in the early 1900s. But the local Indigenous tribes know it as Turtle Mountain in their Indigenous languages.
Another example: In New Mexico, our constitution honors that we’re a bilingual place, so all of our policies, laws and official government documents are supposed to be in Spanish and English. But this of course leaves out Pueblo languages, Diné, Apache languages and all other languages spoken by the residents of our state. Cultural relevancy means to me that there is this complexity in how we learn and in what language we learn.
You conducted a pilot study with teachers that showed how challenging it’s been to teach history, political science, geography and other social studies. What were some of their stories?
In the summer of 2020, which was also a summer of social agitation for racial equity, I was really fortunate to partner with the New Mexico Public Education Department to pilot the study. We worked with 13 teachers from southern New Mexico who were from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds and roughly reflected the teacher demographics of the state.
They all shared that there is a real lack of support. For one, teachers felt like social studies and geography were taken less seriously than STEM or language arts. And second, teachers shared that a lot of them spent money from their own pockets to purchase materials that they felt were more inclusive — to purchase books that they could share with their students. And some were even purchasing lessons online. For a lot of the teachers who care about being culturally relevant, it’s a tax on them and on their time. And financially they’re burdened.
One teacher went so far as to translate a textbook into Spanish, after being in the classroom all day. Why was this happening?
Some teachers were working to translate their books and materials into Spanish so ELL students [English language learners] could understand and follow along. Other teachers just really felt lost, stressed out and anxious. They were asking, “Where do we start to make the curriculum reflect my students’ realities?” There was a lot of frustration. The teachers knew that their students were feeling less engaged when the materials didn’t resonate with what they knew — with their history, their culture, their language.
Did any of the teachers use their school’s textbooks at all?
I was shocked to hear that out of all those teachers in the pilot study, none of them used the textbook. The reasons are that the teachers felt that the books were inadequate, incomplete or biased.
Some teachers struggled to find any mention of women in history textbooks. What else was missing?
I have my hands on an elementary, middle school and high school book from Las Cruces Public Schools, and it’s hard to tell where the problems are unless you’ve been educated to think critically, read between the lines, and look for what’s missing. If you don’t recognize that 50 percent of the population more or less identifies as woman or female and you see that the book is 90 percent about men or male, then you wouldn’t necessarily look for that. You would take it as a given.
The Yazzie-Martinez ruling mandated that Native and ELL students receive a culturally relevant education, among other provisions. Is it just those students who suffer when a full understanding of history isn’t taught?
Everyone suffers. I have students at the college level from all race, class, gender and sexual orientation backgrounds. And as they’ve learned about how society works to offer rewards and dole out punishments, they’ve felt angry, ashamed, guilty and somehow deficient because they’ve realized they were indoctrinated with a very simplistic, stripped down, lopsided education for at least 13 years.
So when people talk about who is harmed, we often say, “Oh, it’s students of color and marginalized communities.” But I would say all students are harmed when they realize that educators have either intentionally or unintentionally been misguiding them.
How does the controversy over critical race theory fit into this?
What we’re seeing in the debates around CRT is that you have a lot of adults feeling anxiety and fear, and all of these emotions are coming out because they themselves were never exposed to understanding racial inequity and how it’s embedded in society.
My parents are teachers, my aunts and uncles are teachers, my siblings are teachers, so I have nothing but love for educators. But all of us who were educated in New Mexico and in the U.S. to a large extent were educated to have a huge blind spot about how society functions.
What are your thoughts about the addition of ethnic, cultural and identity studies in the new standards?
I’m pleased that ethnic studies is taken seriously. Taking ethnic studies courses is proven empirically to boost students’ scores in every other academic subject. But ethnic studies isn’t just about including dates or people that have been left out. It’s about expanding our ways of thinking.
… There aren’t “right” answers to every question. In fact, most of our lives are lived like essays and not multiple-choice tests — full of complexity and ambiguity. So when we teach young students that there are only right and wrong answers, this can lead to anxiety and discomfort later on when they become adults.
We just don’t want to raise another generation with this same incapacity to think and act equitably. As we know, equitable societies are healthier, more enjoyable places to live.
We’re in 2022. Why has it taken so long to recognize the need for a culturally relevant curriculum?
We’re currently living in this very uncomfortable and transitory moment where we all know that New Mexico ranks at the bottom of the educational charts nationally. I get really frustrated when people say we’re living in a crisis moment. I say, “No, we’re living out what a few people in power designed hundreds of years ago.” This is not a crisis: This is the intended result.
As last place, there’s nothing to lose and only to gain, so why not try something radically different than what we’ve been doing? My observations show that the majority of people aren’t ferociously opposed to changing how we think, how we act, how we relate to each other.
Most people in the state are people of color, so if we package [the standards] in the right way and say, “This is going to tell the story of your abuelita — people would be like, “Yeah, sign me up.”