El Paso students, teachers and lawmakers react to bill that could prohibit civil rights education across Texas

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) —  Students in El Paso and the Borderland might not ever learn about the tragic history that took place at the Cielo Vista Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019.

The passage of Senate Bill 3 (S.B. 3) will eliminate civil rights education across public school curricula across Texas and repeal requirements to teach the history of white supremacy as morally wrong.

Senators in Texas voted last Friday to repeal stipulations to teach students in Texas about civil rights, including prominent social justice figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and other prominent minority figures.

The legislation is currently awaiting a vote in the state House of Representatives that, like the Senate, is led by Republicans.

The bill was included in legislation passed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott last month that tightened how current events and the country’s history of racism are taught in Texas schools.

The legislation has been misnomered as the “critical race theory bill,” although the term is not written into the bill. 

“Texans roundly reject ‘woke’ philosophies that espouse that one race or sex is better than another and that someone, by virtue of their race or sex, is innately racist, oppressive or sexist,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a statement. “Texas parents do not want their children to be taught these false ideas. Parents want their students to learn how to think critically, not be indoctrinated by the ridiculous leftist narrative that America and our Constitution are rooted in racism.”

For many in the Borderland, the passage of S.B. 3 is about a potential erasure of history, as many generations in the community have connections to efforts led by the likes of Chavez and Huerta. 

Figures like Chavez have been recognized for pioneering efforts for Latino and Chicano communities throughout the Borderland. For example, the I-10 Connect Project at the intersection of Interstate 10 and U.S. 54 in El Paso County was named the Cesar Chavez Border Highway, which symbolizes connections between and access to the binational communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez via the Bridge of the Americas.

For many, it’s personal.

“My great grandfather was massacred in Porvenir, Texas,” said Arlinda Valencia, president of the Ysleta Teachers Associations. Her great grandfather was among the victims lynched by the Texas Rangers almost 100 years ago. “We have really been trying to get the history out so that students can hear about the history that went on before them.” 

State Sen. Cesar Blanco opposed one of the bills that would restrict the reach of public education, saying omitting the experiences of African Americans and Latinos does not do away with the past.

“I opposed HB 3979 during the regular session because not discussing the experiences of African-Americans and Latinos does not erase the racial injustices of our past and present. It micromanages our teachers by telling them what they can and cannot talk about,” Blanco wrote. “Even though it became law, it was still included on the call for the special session. My opinion on the bill has not changed. With S.B. 3, we are robbing our children of the complete education they need to be informed and engaged citizens and to address the structural issues that remain today.”

KTSM 9 News spoke with three sisters who are students in the El Paso Independent School District who say it’s important for them to learn about civil rights education. 

“In my school, we’re really involved with learning about these issues and talking about them. As freshmen, most people read the book To Kill a Mockingbird to learn about race and we were discussing about how it might be performative,” said Aina Marzia, an incoming sophomore.

Her younger sister, National Spanish Spelling Bee winner, Marium Zahra, spells it out.

“As students, we deserve to know the mistakes that our ancestors in the past have made so we don’t repeat them,” she said.

S.B. 3 awaits a vote in the Texas House of Representatives, where it’s expected to pass. Once passed, the bill would restrict teachers from giving lessons on the Civil Rights Movement, Holocaust history, the Indian Removal Act and more. 

Students are concerned the bill would effectively erase a history that many of them and generations of their family are a part of, as well as limit them once they’re of age to vote. 

“It also affects who these people will vote for in the future, what these people are learning about our history and how they will proceed to become good Americans,” said Marzia.

Aside from informing students on the responsibilities of civic duty, students say civil rights and current events education is helping them cultivate a greater sense of empathy.

“Learning about history and current events, and seeing everyone else’s perspective is what helps us grow as people,” says Lajward Zahra, the eldest of the sisters.

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