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Big Culture Clash in a Small New Mexico Town

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People here still haven’t forgotten the day in August 1996, when 8th-grader Janice Ulibarri stood before a school assembly and shouted, “Que viva la Raza! Que viva Chicano!”

That was the cry that ripped this town apart, Nadine Cordova remembers. The ringing Chicano civil rights slogan started a train of events that led to Cordova and her sister, Patsy, being fired from their jobs as teachers at Vaughn High School amid charges they were teaching racism. Now Nadine Cordova is suing school officials alleging civil rights violations. Patsy is expected to follow with a suit of her own.

What unfolded in this plains village 100 miles southeast of Albuquerque, where most residents have Spanish surnames, underlines a deep ambivalence among New Mexico’s largest minority about their identity. The conflict also involves questions of class and authority in a small town where many are related.

“It’s a lot of arrogance and I think it’s a lot of racism within our own race,” says Nadine Cordova, a 40-year-old Vaughn native who was teaching English, language arts and “Skills for Living” when, in the spring of 1996, she helped organize a chapter of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan--the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan).

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Cordova says the group seeks to improve kids’ self-image by teaching them about their ethnic history. Patsy Cordova, 47, who taught upper-level English and seventh-grade New Mexico history, co-sponsored the group.

MEChA was popular with the students, Nadine Cordova says. Twenty-five of the high school’s 68 students joined. “Of all the extracurricular activities I’ve ever been involved with, this is probably the best,” she says, adding that then-school superintendent Art Martinez at first endorsed the organization.

All that changed at the opening assembly of the 1996-1997 school year. When the gathered students, parents and faculty heard the slogan made famous by the 1960s Chicano civil rights movement, some apparently took offense. Within a few weeks, according to Cordova, school officials told her no school funds or vehicles could be used for MEChA activities.

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Later, after a school board meeting, superintendent Martinez warned Cordova in writing not to engage in instruction or activity that reflected the MEChA philosophy.

Nadine Cordova says then-school board president Andy Cordova, her second cousin, was a driving force behind the crackdown. They said that teaching Chicano history was racist, she says. “They claimed it was anti-American and it was teaching stereotypes of Anglos.”

In the classroom, Nadine Cordova was teaching an integrated curriculum on a variety of subjects, including the Holocaust and Cesar Chavez’s drive to organize the United Farm Workers. Patsy Cordova was exploring the Chicano civil rights movement using excerpts from a book called “500 Years of Chicano History,” published by the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, which graphically presents instances of oppression by Spanish and Anglo colonizers.

Tensions between the sisters and the administration mounted as school officials demanded they stop teaching about Chicano subjects. Feeling their free-speech rights were being muffled, the Cordovas consulted with the New Mexico division of the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, who recommended that they ask school officials to specify in writing what it was they were objecting to. Nadine Cordova says that never happened.

“There had been ambiguity about what they could teach,” says their volunteer ACLU attorney, Richard Rosenstock of Santa Fe. “They were never given a prescribed curriculum. They were given three or four subjects to avoid.”

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The sisters were suspended last February after the Albuquerque Journal reported on the dispute. The board voted to discharge the sisters for insubordination at a heavily attended meeting in July.

New Mexico’s ethnic heritage has contributed to the opposition to the teachers. Next spring marks the 400th anniversary of the expedition of Don Juan de On~ate, who led Spanish settlers and Mexican Indians up the Rio Grande from New Spain to settle near San Juan Pueblo, north of present-day Santa Fe. During the next 250 years, thanks in part to vigorous Franciscan missionary efforts, a distinctive hybrid culture grew up in the isolated territory. Outwardly Spanish and Catholic, it drew from native traditions, its people for the most part mestizos of Spanish and Indian ancestry. After the United States seized the territory in 1846 at the outset of the Mexican War, many of the new Anglo arrivals were contemptuous of the natives and used the word Mexican as a slur. Many native New Mexicans came to identify themselves as Spanish, meaning European, Hispanic, a term that emphasized their unique history and distanced them from old Mexico.

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But during the 1960s, Chicano activists--using a name for themselves derived from Mexicano--emphasized the shared heritage of mestizo people from Texas to California on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, referring to this blended population as La Raza--the race.

“We all have a Spanish part of ourselves and an indigenous part of ourselves, and there’s an inherent conflict in this,” says Eduardo Hernandez Chavez, director of the Chicano Studies Program at the University of New Mexico, and an acknowledged supporter of the Cordova sisters. “There’s that tension within each of us inside our ethnic group,” he says. “That played itself out very strongly out there in Vaughn.”

Following the firings of Nadine and Patsy Cordova, New Mexico Civil Liberties Union lawyers sued the school board, president Andy Cordova, board member Art Dunlap, superintendent Art Martinez and board attorney Robert Castille. The federal complaint alleges violations of Nadine Cordova’s 1st and 14th Amendment rights and seeks both money damages and reinstatement. It will be heard in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque. A court date is not yet set.

Andy Cordova and the Cordova sisters grew up next door to one another. Prosperous by local standards, Andy Cordova, 45, is a rancher with two children in the local schools. “We knew we weren’t Anglo,” he says of his family. “I guess we referred to ourselves as Mexicans or Americans of Mexican descent.”

Cordova, who is still on the school board, acknowledges only a few parents complained about the “La Raza” slogan. But eventually, “The majority of the town was behind the school board. I would say 80% to 85% of the people were on our side.”

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Among parents who oppose the teachers is Sandra Ulibarri, whose 15-year-old son Albert attended a few MEChA meetings last year.

“He said he wasn’t that interested, that they just put people down,” Ulibarri says. She says people she knows were not so concerned about the teaching of Chicano history as that it was at the expense of English literature and other subjects of the Cordova sisters’ classes.

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Ethnic identity was never an issue, Andy Cordova insists. “That had nothing to do with it. The media picked that up and ran with it.” Instead, he says, “the board objected to the political ideology of the teachers--that they were trying to push on the students. They were going back and showing how the Anglo had persecuted and robbed and raped the Chicano. How the Spanish had done that.”

Robert Castille, the school board’s longtime attorney, declined to discuss the lawsuit, in which he was named for allegedly “directing” the board members in their dispute with the sisters about the classes. But he did have one comment: “They were supposed to teach English and a transitional class for life skills, and that seems to have been forgotten.”

Patsy and Nadine Cordova have been in limbo since July, waiting for the legal process to play itself out. Nadine spends weekdays at another sister’s home in Albuquerque, where her two sons have attended school since the firings. Patsy remains in Vaughn caring for their mother, Candiea, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The sisters are in financial straits after being denied unemployment benefits, a decision they are contesting.

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Their hometown is none too comfortable for the pair.

“There are people who try to talk to us,” Nadine Cordova says, “but if we know they were involved with this mess, we give them the cold shoulder. We have a lot of pride.”

High school valedictorian at Vaughn High School, Nadine Cordova says she knew nothing of the struggle for Chicano civil rights until she was in college.

“When I first found out what was going on in my history, I was already 25,” she says. Far from teaching racism, she was trying to teach tolerance and self-respect, she maintains. “I’m a fighter, and so is my sister. They have to give us a good reason why what we were teaching is wrong before we give in.”

Patsy Cordova says the charge of teaching racism was hurtful and unsupported. “Why would you think I’d become a racist at 47?” she asks. “I find it very hard to believe, over a year later, that it happened. I wasn’t angry at first. I was kind of taking it all in stride. I thought, ‘These men, they’ll wake up and smell the coffee.’ But they never did.”


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