How Hispanic and Latino Students Can See More of Themselves in the Current Social Studies Curriculum

It’s not a stretch to say that Hispanic/Latino students have an ancestral background in the subjects we teach.

We can see that there are thousands of Latino students out there and in our classrooms, but their histories are not always studied in depth in your average U.S. or World History curriculum. When students see themselves in the curriculum, this can fortify their interest in the topic.

Taking back the U.S. demographically

In 2014, Hispanic students were 20% of all students in the Northeast region of the U.S., 12% in the Midwest, 25% in the South, and 42% in the West. If Mexico lost in 1848 because so many American settlers had occupied what is now Texas in the two decades before the war, 169 years later Mexican and other Latin American immigrants and their descendants have settled much of not only Texas, but New Mexico, Arizona and California, and settled in almost all of the other 47 states. Thank goodness they only want to find a job, work, and feed their families, in the process strengthening and enriching the country economically and culturally. If there was such as thing as a Latino Manifest Destiny with ambitions to take someone else’s land and get rich off the backs of others, or a Latino Reconquista with visions of colonization and religious conversion, the U.S. would be in trouble.

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The content standards don’t always cover Hispanic/Latino influences in history

The standards demand study of events which show only one side of Hispanic/Latino culture. They describe events that boil down to differences of race and ethnicity, socioeconomic level, language, and immigrant status. While there is some truth to each of these indicators, there are two dimensions setting Hispanics/Latinos apart that have not been considered within most curricula, and ignorance about which has led students to an incomplete understanding of this population.

A superficial look at the content standards

We can only cover some of the far-reaching implications of these differences in this short post. We can start with the California content standards that specifically mention Hispanics/Latinos, or their ancestral backgrounds or countries of origin.


Elementary standards that relate to the Hispanic and Latino experience:


Kindergarten Columbus Day holiday (optional)
1st grade None
2nd grade None
3rd grade None
4th grade California—Spanish exploration and colonization of California, effect on Latin America,
Mexican rule, settlement in California, Mexican American War
5th grade U.S.—Early Spanish explorers and Spanish Reconquista as a justification, continued
migration of Mexican settlers to West and Southwest, Mexican-American War

While the elementary grades do not specifically mention Hispanics/Latinos until the fourth and fifth grade, H/L students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum from Kindergarten on. In the first grade students are to study aspects of the diversity of American citizens and residents, understanding ways in which immigrants have helped define Californian and American culture, and comparing the beliefs, customs, ceremonies, traditions, and social practices of diverse cultures. In the second grade, students compare their lives with those of their immediate and ancient ancestors. In the third grade, one unit involves an in-depth study of their home community, researching its explorers and other newcomers, individuals and families, and how it has changed over time.

The fourth and fifth grades highlight the Mexican presence and influence in California and the American Southwest. The seventh grade world history perspective on Spain and Latin America then, at least in theory, add to that fourth and fifth grade foundation to further study the Mexican and Latin American experience, both domestically and abroad, in grades eight through twelve.


Middle school standards that relate to the Hispanic and Latino experience:


6th grade  World History and Geography: none
7th grade World History and Geography: Spanish Reconquista, Meso-American and Andean civilizations, interaction between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries
8th grade  U.S. History and Geography: U.S. relationship with Mexico and Latin America, Mexican settlement in U.S., the Mexican American War, effects on Mexican Americans of today


High School standards that relate to the Hispanic and Latino experience


9th grade None in any area—there are no content standards for this grade.
10th grade World History, Culture and Geography: New Imperialism and nation building in Mexico and Latin America (optional)
11th grade U.S. History and Geography: The United Farm Workers in California, Mexican immigration and
the agricultural economy in California, consequences of American foreign policy and the Cold War on Latin America, and U.S.-Mexico relations
12th grade U.S. Government: 20th century Latin American dictators; Mexican, Central American
and South American revolutions; and new democracies

The problem I see here is continuing to see Hispanics/Latinos only through the typical, traditional lenses of race, ethnicity, class or socioeconomic status, language, and immigration status. In other words, Hispanics/Latinos are seen as a color or a nationality, an income level, a language, and an immigrant status. If you consider just these categories, then the standards identified above might cover the subject adequately.


We need to teach about religion and self-reliance

If you apply these lenses of individuality and self-reliance, and religious background and history, this uncovers much more content standards that may be relevant to Hispanic/Latino students. There is much potential here to engage and sustain the interest of Hispanic/Latino students in the history or social studies curriculum.

While these categories are real and explain much about Hispanics/Latinos, there are two dimensions setting Latinos apart that are never considered in the national conversation about this population. The first is that many Latinos have different attitudes and orientations toward the ideas of self-reliance and individualism, two central elements of what we might call an “American” ethic that is different from that of other countries and cultures.

The second dimension setting Latinos apart is that most Latinos are descendants of Latin American Catholicism who live and work in a historically and still majority Protestant Christian country. Lack of awareness of these two areas of difference, and ignorance about their manifold implications, has been the root of the incomplete understanding of Latinos in the U.S. for decades. 

Very briefly, as my colleague at CSU Northridge, Professor Carrie Rothstein-Fisch, and her collaborators have shown, a predominant feature of U.S. society and culture is a focus on individual achievement. But other societies such as those of Mexico and other parts of Latin America that send a large number of immigrants to the U.S. are more collaborative and group-oriented. Another difference is that of the legacy of Latin American Catholicism among its descendants who live and work in a country founded by Protestant Christians. While the numbers are changing, it is still true that a majority of Hispanic/Latino students are Catholic. Even if they are among the growing numbers of H/L persons who identify as Protestant Christian or unaffiliated, they are still affected by the legacy of 525 years of Roman Catholicism in Latin America.

How to broaden the content standards

Applying those two lenses should make you reconsider the content standards above and consider many new ones. Here are some examples from just the first few grades of how to broaden the content standards.

Kindergarten Responsibility
Individual responsibility (K.1.2) means something different when you grow up in a collaborative, group- and family-oriented home characterized by interdependency, as opposed to an individualistic one in which independence and self-reliance are the chief values.Columbus Day
That encounter was more than just a search for a new route to India, and seeking gold and wealth. It was about religious conversion, and it is the reason that a majority of H/L students are Catholic.
1st grade Democracy
Direct and representative democracy (1.1.1) may mean something different to students who have been raised in consensus-seeking families and communities. 
2nd grade Laws and punishment
Students whose families come from countries with fewer or weaker democratic traditions have different prior knowledge about how a country makes and enforces laws and punishes wrongdoers (2.3.1).Economics
Students whose families immigrated because they had little to no options as undereducated farmworkers in Latin America, and who are primarily consumers, come to understand basic economic concepts differently (2.4.1, 2 & 3).
3rd grade U.S. history/Government
The U.S. government is a legacy of a Protestant Christianity, both Puritan in the northern colonies and Anglican in the southern. Our government emphasized the separation between autocratic mother churches and individual, autonomous, independent individuals. But H/L students and their families operate under a different legacy, that of a colonial experience featuring royal government, with landowner/merchants and a church working together to strip indigenous peoples of their autonomy. Comparing these experiences helps students, and their teachers, use ancestral backgrounds and personal legacies to better understand the history of the United States.
4th grade  State history
California history—we have students build missions and draw posters, but do we have them connect their family’s and ancestors’ experience with Latin American Catholicism to the California missions? If you are not in California, is there a way that you can have students do some research on the presence and history of Latinos in your state that allows students to make connections to Latin American Catholicism?

That is just a sample in the first few school grades of how the lenses of self-reliance and religion can inform your teaching of the history/social studies content standards to Hispanic/Latino students. The curriculum opens up when you consider these dimensions.

In the 6th grade, the ideas and laws of the ancient Hebrews who gave rise to Catholicism take on added significance. In the 6th and 7th grade, the Romans may have been the first Latinos, creating the foundation of the Spanish language, the idea that the state is primarily responsible for driving the economy, and helping spread Christianity throughout the world, principally in Spain. Islam spread the Arabic language and because of its influence in Spain, further developed a Spanish language in which many words are Arabic in origin, notably almost any word that begins with “al” (a derivative of Allah), such as “almohada” (pillow), and “alabanza” (prayer).

Later in the 7th grade, we can do better than covering the Middle Ages in Europe as a time several hundred years ago when the continent died with the Black Death and was reborn with the Renaissance, partly because of the Protestant Reformation’s effect on literacy and education. We should add the perspective that medieval systems of European land ownership were transferred by the Spanish to the New World. This created Latin American versions of manors and serfs. The Renaissance did not quite happen in Latin America the same way it did in Europe. This is partly because the dominance of the Catholic Church ensured that only an elite received an education, and that the education was more about indoctrination and the reading of fewer texts than it was about the free reading and interpretation of a variety of texts. Catholic orthodoxy stunted skills of deliberation and discussion that are the foundation of a strong democracy, where Christian Protestantism enabled those skills to flourish. Medieval Europe is actually the reason Latin American democracy has been weaker and slower to develop than in North America.

With a foundation of study on the effects of Medieval Europe, the curricula of grades eight through twelve can take on a more personal meaning to Hispanic/Latino students. H/L students should be able to see themselves in much, much more of the history/social studies curriculum than is evident from a superficial treatment of the content standards. I envy the opportunity you have to show them the many places they, their families, and their ancestral backgrounds occupy in the history of their countries of origin, and more than ever before, in their native country.

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David L. Moguel is a professor of teacher education at the Michael D. Eisner College of Education, CSU Northridge. He holds degrees from Stanford University, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and UCLA.  David served as a John Gardner Public Service Fellow with Ramon C. Cortines, school superintendent, and as a presidential management intern for the U.S. Department of Education.  He is the co-author, with Ron Sima, of Teach Me, I Dare You:  Taking Up the Challenge of Teaching Social Studies, published in 2011 by the Social Studies School Service.

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