Teach Local: UnidosUS’s Education Programmer Jose Rodriguez Shares His Best Ideas for Hispanic History Month

An image of the school mural blog post author Jose Rodriguez’s first Hispanic Heritage Month curriculum inspired.

By Jose Rodriguez, UnidosUS Regional Director of Education for Texas and the Southwest Region

Growing up in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s, my generation of school kids never had much in the way of formal Latino history lessons. In fact, by the time Hispanic Heritage Month became official in 1988, I’d already been teaching in San Antonio for seven years. It was, however, a great opportunity for me to begin to shape the multicultural curriculum in my community.

I was serving as a 4th and 5th grade fine arts teacher at Burleson Elementary in the Edgewood Independent School District that year, and because I was actively engaged in the San Antonio arts community, I was assigned the task of putting together a schoolwide Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. After school I went to the local teacher store to look for resources, where I found a pack of cardboard posters featuring Latino leaders such as Cuban American pop singer Gloria Estefan, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, and Cuban American baseball star Jose Canseco. I looked at the posters and wondered why other Mexican American or Mexican artists were not included in the pack, so I decided to ask the students in my class to name some Mexican Americans who they thought might be famous and that we should celebrate.

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“Henry Cisneros!” one student shouted, reminding his classmates that Cisneros was the mayor of San Antonio.

That made me very proud, so I began to look for other San Antonio leaders I felt needed to be highlighted. I then created a unit of study focused on the local Latino leaders of San Antonio. That unit served as the theme of our first Hispanic Heritage Month event, which also included songs from Mexican and Tex-Mex musicians.

Highlighting local Latino leaders caused the students to tap into their background knowledge to consider who they thought of as a leader within their community. Suddenly their history class felt more meaningful. It gave them a sense of purpose.

That first lesson highlighted just four leaders, all of them local Mexican Americans. Those were Mayor Cisneros; the soon-to-be-discovered-by-the-big-time Mexican American pop singer Selena Quintanilla; musician and stage actor Jesse Borrego; and labor leader Emma Tenayuca.

Without computers, most of the research was done in groups at the library or with local organizations such as The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the Centro Cultural Aztlan. The research and the creative brainstorming taught the students about the featured individuals, it also taught them the value of team building and community collaboration, traits all of those local Latino leaders had.

After a month-long unit of study, the students were ready to present to their parents and the community what they had learned during Hispanic Heritage Month. The program included stories, songs, dance, and poetry, and it was widely attended by the parents and members of the larger San Antonio community.

The students were so proud of the work they had done that by the close of the first event, they were already planning for the one they’d create the following year. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were merging their projects with San Antonio’s annual 16 de Septiembre parade to celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain.

A few years after launching this initiative, I moved on to other professional endeavors, but sometimes when I drive by and see a mural of local Latino leaders featured on the school’s outer wall, I feel proud. It’s not something my students and I can take credit for, but we can certainly say that our classroom activities inspired it.




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