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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Assimilation plays no part in this history lesson

March 26, 2007|Bob Sipchen

The 400-foot-long mural decorating two outside walls at Theodore Roosevelt High presents a colorful depiction of the rape, slaughter and enslavement of North America's indigenous people by genocidal Europeans.

On the wall of a building inside the chain-link fence, an oversized image of the school's namesake monocled Roughrider waves a sword heroically.

It's an interesting clash of historical perspectives, and I'll use it to poke at the question of how we should be teaching history now that Los Angeles public schools are overwhelmingly Latino.

I stumbled on the beautifully painted call for the descendants of Aztecs and other native cultures to reclaim their continent while hiking around the well-secured Boyle Heights campus in search of an entrance. Now I stand drinking in its full effect with artist Nelyollotl Toltecatl and the man he credits with enlightening him to North America's true history, Olin Tezcatlipoca.

I tracked these two down through an odd little website, The massive mural -- it's more than 18 feet tall at its peak -- is a project of "the Mexica Movement," a small but disproportionately outraged cadre whose rhetoric pushes hard against the boundary between political expression and bigotry. A note to a "European," for example, proclaims: "Your people are ... inferior to us in your morals, ethics, and humanity -- by your collective actions of the last 500 years."

The mural, like the website, offers a blunt assessment of history. If the hundreds of students who swarm by each day looked up from their iPods and cellphones, they couldn't help but notice the churning stream of skulls in the wake of Columbus' Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. They would read that Europeans used smallpox like a WMD and that "Spaniards took babies from their mothers breast and smashed their heads against rocks." They would learn that the Aztecs and other civilizations of native North America were among the most successful on Earth but that "this greatness and wealth was stolen from us by Europeans."

Roosevelt High these days is 99.1% Latino. Not that the Mexica Movement has any patience with that term. "We reject the right of Europeans to define who we are," the website says. "We reject their occupation of our continent and their occupation of our DNA."

Roosevelt's principal, Cecilia Quemada, has not returned any of the messages I've left in many months of calling. Richard Chavez, with the local district office, was more polite. He said he had been an assistant principal at the school when a community member first floated the idea for a modestly scaled mural.

In 1996, Toltecatl, who then went by a name he now sees as a vestige of Spanish atrocities, set to work on an uncontroversial depiction of Chicano history, complete with a tribute to assimilation. He was perhaps a year and several dozen linear feet into the artwork when he attended a lecture by Tezcatlipoca, whose own views of history had changed late in life, when he began to read radical reinterpretations of the American conquest, including "American Holocaust."

That book, by David E. Stannard, teaches something most historians dismiss as egregious overstatement: that "95% of our people were killed by Europeans," Tezcatlipoca says. "I'm 57 years old. I grew up in East L.A. I didn't know any of this as a kid."

Under Tezcatlipoca's guidance, the artist spent the next several years working day and night to paint a less magnanimous vision of the past.

I tend to hear two types of complaints about how history is taught at this moment when Latinos (er, Mexicas?) are consolidating power in L.A.

On the one hand there's the father who called to say his son was humiliated when a teacher yanked down a map of North America and said any white students in the class should be ashamed of the atrocities their ancestors had inflicted on the continent.

Then there are the students, including many I met outside Roosevelt, who say that they've learned nothing in their years of public education about the accomplishments of people from Mexico or Central America.

Sal Castro helped lead the Los Angeles student walkouts of 1968, in part to protest the sense of inferiority schools instilled in non-white students. The retired teacher says history texts are barely more inclusive now than they were almost four decades back.

"We have no heroes," he says.

He rattles off dozens of Mexican Americans who deserve a place in America's official pantheon but remain largely ignored. He quotes the late Times reporter Ruben Salazar: "No man can find a true expression for living who is ashamed of himself or his people."

As my two strikingly pleasant Mexica guides and I buttonhole the high schoolers streaming by the mural, I'm struck by how few seem to have given it more than a glance, by how few demonstrate much grasp of any history -- Latino, U.S., world, whatever.

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