A man dressed in gold and black blows a trumpet shell. A teenage boy beats on a drum. They’re part of a group that performs traditional Aztec dances.
On Saturday morning, they’re inside the gym at the Wesley-Rankin Community Center in West Dallas. Some of the kids watching may have seen these colorfully dressed dancers before, but few of them know what the dances mean.
The performance was the first lesson of spring break. A group of West Dallas teenagers is spending the time off from school learning about history – specifically, Mexican-American history.
The kids left Dallas over the weekend to travel across Texas from Austin to San Antonio, from the Rio Grande Valley to Houston and towns in between to experience history many haven’t learned in school.
Before climbing onto the bus, they tried out a few dance steps with the members of Mitotiliztli Yaoyollohtli. They also learned about how their neighborhood has changed in the past few years, as new homes and business have popped up.
Luis Sepulveda, a community activist and former Justice of the Peace, tells the students about a lead smelting plant that once polluted West Dallas.
“I want development, but I want...what’s your name, mijo?”
“Alex,” answers a student.
“Alex? That’s my son’s name. I want Alex to be able to come in and open up his own business here in West Dallas. That’s what I call economic development.”
Sepulveda and others helped make sure the government declared the area contaminated and launched a cleanup.
“You are the next generation,” he says. “You’re the ones that have to come in and make sure we come in and get all the recycling programs going."
Mitotiliztli Yaoyollohtli performs at Wesley Rankin
Before hitting the road Saturday, performers showed the teenagers traditional dances and told them about the historical significance of these dances as part of a lesson in Mexican-American history.
Teaching kids how to speak up is one of the goals of this trip. Last year, some of these kids went on an African-American civil rights bus tour across the deep South. They got to walk on the famous Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, where hundreds of civil rights marchers were violently confronted.
It was remarkable, says Shellie Ross, executive director of Wesley-Rankin Community Center.
“But what we learned in that trip was when we were trying to draw similarities in history, many of our students did not know their own history,” she says. “And when we asked if their parents knew their history, they said 'no.' So there’s seems to be a lost story here for kids, and it doesn’t seem like they’re learning it in textbooks or schools either.”
Ross says if kids don’t understand their own history, it’ll be hard for them to fight for justice.
Some of the speakers the students will meet on the trip include people who fought for civil rights in their communities — places like Crystal City, near the border, where students walked out in 1969 over rules that limited how many Mexican Americans could be on the cheerleading squad.
That kind of story is what 12-year-old Ashley Rojas wants to hear. She’s a sixth-grader at Thomas A. Edison middle school.
“I feel like if you don’t know your history, you don’t know what happened in the past,” she says. “You don’t know why you’re Mexican — why we did the things we did.”
Planned route of the spring break road trip
The teenagers traveled to Austin and San Antonio over the weekend. The itinerary Monday had them hitting Crystal City, Alice and McAllen. They'll go on to Hidalgo, Edinburg, Harlingen, Palo Alto, Corpus Christi, Victoria, Edna and Houston before finally returning to Dallas on Thursday. Click the locations on the map to see what stops they'll make.
Alexandra Lopez is a Spanish and Hispanic studies major at Earlham College. She’s determined to learn things that weren’t covered in high school.
“First of all, I am Mexican, and so I thought it was interesting that studying here in the States, we don’t get to learn a lot about Mexican history, and I think that’s a disgrace, honestly,” she says.
For Carla Mendiola, a history professor at Texas A&M-San Antonio, putting together this itinerary was challenging.
There’s so much Mexican-American history in this state – a week’s not nearly enough time.
“We were trying to help students learn about the Chicano movement – that’s the core, the 1960s, ‘70s movements — but within the broader context of history, events that show the students why that was even necessary. So the decades and centuries leading up to that, but in addition to that, we’re trying to show how those issues are still relevant today,” she says.
Mendiola hopes a spring break loaded with history will inspire this generation to forge its own path.