Governor Newsome signed the historic Ethnic Studies bill this last Friday and Santa Monica has everything to do with it. Beginning in 2026, high school students will be required to take a course in Ethnic Studies in order to be more knowledgeable in the history and contributions of people of color in the state. Ethnic Studies curriculum is also proven to increase academic engagement and strengthen students’ critical thinking skills around systemic racism.
Santa Monica can boast helping to initiate this statewide movement and creating one of the first new Ethnic Studies classes in LA county in 2013, much the result of pressure from the local AMAE chapter and the Intercultural District Advisory council. After a racist incident at Samohi and gun violence near the school, Black and Brown parents and educators revitalized the intercultural IDAC and authored a proposal for an Ethnic Studies department. The district answered with a class, to be offered in the Fall semester of 2013.
Nevertheless, the accomplishment was featured on several LA Times articles, with an image of Samohi teacher Kitaro Webb and his students, and the class was cited in articles and state documents as an Ethnic Studies bill took shape in Sacramento. But the role of Santa Monica activists in the present Ethnic Studies movement goes even further back.
Beginning around 2009, members of the Pico Youth and Family Center began attending the Transformative Education summer conferences, sponsored by the Tucson high school Mexican American Studies Department (MAS). In conjunction with the Education department at the University of Arizona, the Tucson MAS teachers walked us through their pedagogy style and curriculum content – including Paulo Freire’s theories, critical race theory, Chicana/o/x Studies practices, authentic caring and Mesoamerican indigenous epistemologies.
They displayed power point slides demonstrating how they had closed the notorious “achievement gap” (the common g.p.a. discrepancy between Black/Brown and Anglo/Asian students). In fact, they had inverted it: MAS-enrolled students were scoring higher than all demographic groups at TUSD. During these conferences, it was not uncommon to hear education scholars of national stature – like Pablo Noguera, Christine Sleeter, Peter McLaren or Rudolfo Acuña – speak in the morning; and enter a Chicano-Lakota sweat lodge in the evening.
Most importantly, Tucson MAS teachers proved that well organized and authentic [email protected]/Ethnic Studies curriculum and a critical pedagogy could engage students in learning, improve g.p.a./graduation/attendance rates, increase critical thinking and civic engagement, produce a college-going identity, and inspire cultural self-esteem among students. The research studies soon followed verifying the results at Tucson. After farmworker leader Dolores Huerta stated “Republicans hate Latinos,” the conservative party picked the MAS program to attack and to prove her correct.
When Arizona signed a bill attempting to destroy the Mexican American Studies department in Tucson, Arizona in 2011, educators and students from Santa Monica traveled across states to attend their protests, and began rallying support in L.A. and Southern California. We organized under the banner Raza Studies Now and coordinated summer conferences beginning in 2012 (incidentally the year Arizona shut down MAS and their summer conferences). Raza Studies Now brought together Ethnic Studies educators, scholars, Tucson activists and inspired a community of education activists rallying for Ethnic Studies curriculums to be developed in K-12 and especially in high schools.
One of our mottos, quoting the Popol Vuh and Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, was, “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” In 2014, the Raza Studies Now conferences issued the “Plan de Los Angeles,” a manifesto designed from discussions at the previous two conferences. The plan called for building Chicana/o/x and Ethnic Studies courses and delineated education principals such as localizing programs, promoting a historical consciousness, indigenous and community connections, creating safe spaces for glbtq+ and Dreamers, building community college programs, and emphasizing the central role of students.
The Raza Studies Now conferences, held at SMC and the PYFC, brought together and informed a critical mass of educators and student activists who disseminated Ethnic Studies conversations and pushed the cause forward. Soon after the first three conferences, a wider Ethnic Studies Now group formed and rallied efforts in Southern California and statewide. Through their tech-savvy web page Ethnic Studies Now spurred a larger network, connecting statewide movements. In the fall of 2016, LAUSD and San Francisco Unified were the first mammoth school districts to pass an Ethnic Studies requirement. Again, they referenced the Santa Monica class in their arguments.
I attended the LAUSD rally the day the resolution passed. As president of the local Association of Mexican American Educators chapter at the time and Chicana/o Studies professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, I was joined by AMAE members and my students. We held up the Raza Studies Now banner prominently, which groups of students used as a backdrop for their selfies. A group of predominantly Black and Brown students chanted, “If my skin or my hoodie is probable cause, We need Ethnic Studies, not racist laws. With Black and Brown people under attack – We need to fight – fight – fight!” “Fight Back !!!” the crowd yelled in response.
It was an electric evening, an intergenerational and interracial struggle. The victory at LAUSD and San Francisco that week set off an earthquake in California and nationwide. And many of us Santeros were proud to be there.
The struggle for Ethnic Studies is not free of problems and shortcomings, statewide and locally, and the struggle is far from over. In 2019 the California legislative Jewish Caucus, led by Santa Monica senator Ben Allen (formerly on the SMMUSD school board), orchestrated a derailing and hijacking of the state model curriculum, fabricating “widespread” anti-Semitism in the original document, dismissing Ethnic Studies educators, and appointing non-specialists to oversee curriculum changes. Earlier this year the original authors demanded removal of their names from the watered down revision, and re-grouped as Liberated Ethnic Studies.
Locally, in 2017, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified hired former MAS director Sean Arce, but the superintendent tied his hands from building Ethnic Studies courses. Superintendent Drati promotes a non-existent “social justice” curriculum while dismissing Chicanx teachers. Locals protested. At the high school, three Latinx teachers sadly sided with a conservative teachers union leader for promotion and abandoned the Ethnic Studies cause. The class disappeared at Samohi this year.
In short the community support for [email protected] and Ethnic Studies is significant in Santa Monica and the Westside. But aside from a handful of teachers, the local schools not only lack enthusiasm for Ethnic Studies, they obstruct Ethnic Studies.
Growing up under the poverty line on 20th street most of my young life, I always admired the work ethic of my widowed mother and my older siblings. Early on, I felt in my bones the transformative power of literacy and education. When my older brother attended Santa Monica College in the 1980’s he brought home the first Chicano Studies books, including 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures by Betita Martinez. These books instilled in me a purpose and led me to pursue higher education. In 1999, after studying English and Chicanx Studies at UC Berkeley and with a masters from UCLA film school, I taught English at Samohi and revived the “[email protected]/Latinx Literature” class. I had come full circle.
I knew that when students see themselves in the texts and the teacher, they become interested in learning, and also begin to envision possibilities, perhaps a better and transformed world through the lens of the Ethnic Studies classroom. La lucha continúa … !
Elias Serna is the outgoing president of the local Association of Mexican American Educators – SM/WLA chapter, a founding member of Raza Studies Now, and board member of the Pico Youth & Family Center. He is a parent of two including a SMMUSD student. Last year he was an assistant professor in English at the University of Redlands and has taught writing, film and Chicana/o Studies at CSUDH, Long Beach high schools and CSU Northridge.