Sisters in Arms
Veteran educators Patsy and Nadine Cordova believed they were teaching Hispanic students about the history of their people and the fight for civil rights. To local school officials, they were preaching the gospel of hate.
Vaughn, New Mexico, is a dry, dusty hamlet on the high plains about 100 miles east of Albuquerque. Once a thriving railroad junction, Vaughn now has the faded look of a town that's barely hanging on. It has eight motels, seven gas stations, two convenience stores, one hardware store, and not much else. The cars on Highway 285 hardly slow down as they pass through on their way to Santa Rosa or Roswell. According to a historical marker on the edge of town, Vaughn has a population of 737, but locals say it's more like 600, at most. It comes as no surprise to learn that Diamond Rio, a popular country band, filmed the video for their song "Nowhere Bound" on one of Vaughn's more run-down streets.
Until last winter, few people outside of New Mexico had ever heard of Vaughn. But that all changed in February, when two of the town's schoolteachers were suspended from their jobs. Vaughn was suddenly thrown into the spotlight, and the quiet little town in the middle of nowhere hasn't been the same since.
On Friday, February 28, at 3 in the afternoon, Patsy and Nadine Cordova--sisters and longtime teachers at Vaughn Junior and Senior High School--were in Patsy's classroom when the town's chief of police, J.R. Romo, walked in and handed them each a letter from Arthur Martinez, the school superintendent, informing them that they had been suspended, effective immediately. Romo waited until the Cordovas had finished reading the letters and then said, "Mr. Martinez has directed me to stay here until you give me your keys."
Months later, the sisters are still shaken by what happened that day. Sitting at the dining room table in Nadine's small house, which rests about 50 feet from the busy railroad tracks that run through Vaughn, they can't hide their bitterness. "After teaching at the school for 17 years," Patsy says, "I had 10 minutes to gather my belongings and leave. I was floored." But she stayed calm. "I didn't fall apart, because I knew I had done nothing wrong."
Chief Romo, Patsy recalls, seemed uncomfortable with the task he had been given. "He said, `Look, do you think you can give the keys to the secretary?' And I said, `Of course I can give them to the secretary.' So he left, and when I walked out to my car with some of my books, the secretary stopped me and said, `Patsy, you have to give me your keys!' So I took out a few more things, gave her the keys, and walked out of there for the last time."
Nadine, who had taught at the school for 12 years, followed her sister out the door.
"It's been a nightmare," says Patsy, 47, who was also head teacher at the school, which has no principal. "Like I'm on the outside looking in at something that I can't even believe happened."
Nadine, 40, shakes her head in disgust. "I gave so much," she says, "and now for them to treat me this way..." She doesn't bother to complete the sentence.
Indeed, the Cordova sisters were considered outstanding teachers at the tiny school, which has fewer than 70 students and only eight teachers. In the spring of 1996, superintendent Martinez gave both instructors high marks on their annual evaluations. He called Patsy--who taught 7th grade New Mexico history and 10th, 11th, and 12th grade language arts--"a very dedicated staff member," and he called her sister--who taught 7th grade math, 7th grade "Skills for Living," 8th grade language arts, and drama--" a hard-working staff member" who "produces positive results with her students."
But according to court documents, the Cordova sisters were suspended "for insubordination for refusing to teach the prescribed curriculum." Specifically, they were told to stop using, in the words of superintendent Martinez, "racially divisive" materials in their classes. He and several school board members accused the Cordovas of injecting their own political views into their teaching of Chicano history. "They created racism and promoted stereotypes," Martinez told a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. "They divided our school, and morale went down to the bottom. I heard complaints from staff, students, board and community members. They completely destroyed the educational atmosphere."
But Patsy and Nadine Cordova, who were born and raised in Vaughn, say they were only trying to connect with their students, nearly all of whom are Hispanic. They deny using divisive materials.
Back when they were in high school, the sisters say, no one bothered to teach them about the history of their own people. "There was a lot of shame in my generation, a lot of shame in being who you were," Patsy says. "You didn't want to be associated with being Mexican."
"It makes me so mad when I look back," Nadine adds. "Why didn't anybody teach me about Chicano history? I don't want my students to walk away and say, `No one ever tried to teach me.' At least they know I tried to teach them something relevant. Students today do not have the same kind of attitudes that the older generation has. I mean, they're really proud to learn about Cesar Chavez and the people who took part in the civil rights movement."
"They taught us stuff that was going on in the world," says 14-year-old Naomi Chavez, a 9th grader at the school. "And they asked us what we thought. The other teachers, whatever they tell us, that's how we're supposed to think about it. They don't tell us different views."
Under threat of being fired, the Cordovas stopped using the disputed materials. Instead, they decided to incorporate parts of a curriculum package called The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America, published by Teaching Tolerance, the education arm of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. This, apparently, was the last straw for Martinez and the school board members. At a special board meeting, they told the sisters to stop using the new materials, but the Cordovas said they would do so only if the order were put in writing. Two days later, they were suspended with pay. In July, the board voted 3-2 to fire the teachers.
Now, with the help of the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union, the sisters are fighting back. Nadine Cordova has filed a federal lawsuit against the Vaughn Municipal School District, alleging that her First Amendment rights were violated and that she was unjustly fired from her teaching position. She wants her job back, along with unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Patsy Cordova plans to file a similar complaint.
Meanwhile, the people of Vaughn are bitterly divided over the matter. Patsy and Nadine are no longer on speaking terms with their cousin Andrew Cordova, a local sheep rancher and school board member who, as they see it, orchestrated their removal. "There have been many relationships that have been damaged because of this," Patsy says. "Absolutely. Because it's a small town, and everybody knows each other."
Leandro Abeyta, the mayor of Vaughn, concurs. "It's a bad situation," he says from behind his desk at City Hall, a white stucco building in desperate need of a paint job. "I don't like it. It's not good for anybody."
The Cordovas say it all started with the MEChA club. In June 1996, Nadine offered to sponsor a MEChA club for junior and senior high school students. The fledgling group already had 23 members, but they wanted it to be officially recognized by the school administration.
MEChA, which stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, is a national student organization founded in 1969, at the height of the Chicano civil rights movement. Although some local chapters still espouse radical political rhetoric, most MEChA clubs have joined the mainstream, and they are common at many high schools and universities, particularly in the Southwest. The goal of the Vaughn club, according to a mission statement, was to promote "an understanding through knowledge, awareness of, and sensitivity to culture, tradition, history, and issues of the Chicano people and our communities." Organizers hoped to provide "a positive, sensitive, and supportive environment in which Chicano youth can network and learn about each other."
Superintendent Martinez approved the club for the 1996-97 school year. On August 19, the first day of school, MEChA's two student leaders--Naomi Chavez and Daniel Ayala, who is Nadine's son--spoke at a school assembly and urged more students to join the organization. When they finished, a girl in the audience raised her fist up in the air and shouted, "Viva la Raza!" ("Viva la Raza," or "Long Live the People," has long been the rallying cry of Chicano activists.)
"I don't remember anybody responding to her," Patsy says. "We didn't know she was going to do that. It just came out. But pretty much from that point on, we never heard the end of it."
According to Nadine, Andrew Cordova, who at the time was president of the school board, complained about the student's behavior--and about MEChA--to superintendent Martinez, who passed on the information to Nadine. The next day, Nadine and several MEChA members met with Cordova and explained to him why they wanted the club to be recognized by the school district. But Cordova was unconvinced. "He said that we were making the students forget that they were Americans first," Nadine says. "And that if they wanted to say `Viva la Raza!' it should be behind closed doors at their own meeting, and not in public."
Two weeks later, according to Nadine, Andrew Cordova met with Martinez and told him that no school funds or equipment were to be used for or by MEChA, even though all other approved student organizations were given such privileges. When Nadine protested that Cordova was acting beyond the scope of his authority as a school board member, Martinez allegedly told the teacher that he did not want "to go against Andy's wishes." Subsequently, Martinez ordered that MEChA--which had become the school's largest student club--could no longer use the school bulletin boards or hallways to post announcements of its meetings. In a letter to Nadine, he said that there could not be "any instruction nor activity involving students that reflects the MEChA philosophy during the school days."
"Our MEChA kids couldn't even talk about MEChA in the halls--that's how bad it got," says Patsy, who had become co-sponsor of the club.
"And who decided that MEChA was not going to be officially sanctioned?" Nadine asks. "They never had a board meeting where they decided that. Everything they did was done behind closed doors. Everything they did went against school policy."
(Martinez, Cordova, and the other school board members declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Nadine says she was unaware of any complaints about her teaching, so she was baffled by Martinez's order to cease "any instruction...that reflects the MEChA philosophy." She sent the superintendent a letter asking him to spell out exactly what she could and could not teach in her classes, but she never got a reply. However, on October 4, she and her sister met with Andrew Cordova, who, they say, accused both teachers of trying to build up their students' self-esteem by "tearing down the white race." He also allegedly told them that if they wanted to teach Chicano history, they should use books written from "an Anglo point of view."
Virginia Dugan, a lawyer for the school board, says that Martinez had, in fact, been getting complaints from members of the community about the materials being used in Patsy and Nadine's classes. But the sisters say they were only doing what they had always done: integrating Mexican-American history in their regular classes in an attempt to motivate their students. And yes, self-esteem was part of the reason. "We thought this would make our students want to reach higher than maybe they normally would," Patsy says.
During the 1995-96 school year, for example, Nadine had shown the acclaimed PBS documentary Chicano! History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement to several of her classes. Martinez, she says, had approved the use of the video. Further, during the spring of 1996, Nadine had submitted proposed curriculum outlines for the 1996-97 school year. Certain classes, she said, would include materials on Mexican-American history, racism, and discrimination. Martinez approved the outlines.
The sisters also say that Martinez had always given them a great deal of latitude in choosing what materials to use in their classes. Indeed, Nadine says that when she began teaching 7th grade Skills for Living--the purpose of which she describes as "how to get along in this world, how to deal with social problems like drugs and violence, things like that"--she was allowed to create her own curriculum. For their language arts classes, the Cordovas say they were given copies of the New Mexico "Content Standards With Benchmarks," which outlines exactly what is expected of students. (For example: "Students will speak clearly and write effectively for a variety of audiences and purposes.") But the benchmarks list outcomes, not methods. The sisters say they had long used an integrated curriculum to achieve those goals, incorporating materials from a variety of sources.
They must have been doing something right, for at the end of the 1995-96 school year, Martinez gave them outstanding scores on their annual evaluations. Both teachers received a score of four--the highest mark--in the following categories: "The teacher accurately demonstrates knowledge of the content area and approved curriculum" and "The teacher appropriately utilizes a variety of teaching methods and resources for each area taught."
Nonetheless, throughout the fall of 1996, the Cordova sisters--Nadine in particular--found themselves increasingly under fire for their teaching methods. On October 22, Martinez sent a letter to Nadine in which he explained that he and the school board members had concluded that she was teaching "racial intolerance," advocating "a biased political agenda," and promoting "a militant attitude" in her students. He warned her that if she did not "delete the MEChA philosophy" from her classes, she risked being charged with insubordination and fired.
However, two weeks later, on November 5, when Martinez met with Nadine and Patsy, the superintendent was apparently less strident. According to Nadine, Martinez admitted that he had no evidence that either teacher was promoting racial intolerance or militancy, and he told them that they could continue to use the same materials provided they were presented in an unbiased manner. But he reiterated his demand that the Cordovas remove "the MEChA philosophy" from their teaching.
Meanwhile, the embattled MEChA club disbanded. "We had a few meetings," Nadine says, "but we were under so much attack that we really couldn't get it together."
Enter the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union, the state chapter of the ACLU. In October, the organization had agreed to represent Nadine in her dispute with the school administration. "It seemed like such a clear First Amendment case," says Richard Rosenstock, one of the NMCLU lawyers. In mid-November, Rosenstock's colleague, Andrew Vallejos, sent a letter to superintendent Martinez asking for more specific information about what Nadine could or could not teach in her classes. (It was still unclear whether Patsy's teaching was also being scrutinized.)
Martinez responded on January 8, 1997. He sent virtually identical letters to both Nadine and Patsy, in which he detailed his specific objections to their teaching methods and materials. "You do not have the authority to continue to teach matters that are judged by the board and myself to be ethnically divisive and demeaning and using derogatory stereotypes that are racist in describing majority populations," he wrote. "This must stop immediately."
Martinez told the teachers that he had received "many complaints from the community, staff, and students, and the complaints deal with objections to the racism and the preoccupation with colonizers and other matters related to the `movement.'" Students in their classes, he continued, "had received literature that refers to Anglos as racist empire builders. In such literature, the Vietnam War is described as one in which the rich and powerful Anglos used the Communist threat to make young Hispanics fight and die. The children are taught that Mexicans are noble and honorable while Spanish and Anglos are greedy and hurtful people." The material, he added, uses such phrases as "the gringos" and "Anglo Colonizers."
"To teach [students] that `Anglo Colonizers' are their enemy is to place a giant chip on their fragile shoulders," he wrote.
The superintendent was apparently referring to 500 Years of Chicano History, a textbook edited by Chicano activist Elizabeth Martinez and published by the SouthWest Organizing Project, described in the book as "a multi-racial, multi-issue community organization that seeks to empower the disenfranchised in the Southwest so that they may realize racial and gender equality and social and economic justice."
In her introduction to the book, which contains mostly photographs and captions, Martinez does indeed assert that the Vietnam War "benefited no one except the rich and powerful, who used `the Communist threat' to make our youth fight and die." The book purports to tell "the real story of La Raza and other truths so long denied," but it is so tendentious that high school students might have a hard time separating the propaganda from the facts.
Nonetheless, Patsy decided to use the book as a supplementary text in both her 7th grade New Mexico history class and her 10th, 11th, and 12th grade language arts classes. She insists, however, that she never presented the material in the book as the absolute truth, but rather used it to show her students an alternative point of view. She encouraged her students to compare the book with other, more mainstream, textbooks. "That's how we used it," she said. "I never told them what to think. They have to do it on their own." Nadine says she never used the book in any of her classes. (Copies of the book, incidentally, had been purchased by the Vaughn school district for use in other classes.)
Superintendent Martinez, Nadine says, "just picked out phrases from the book, took them out of context, and used them against us."
The superintendent told both teachers to stop using the textbook, and he told them to eliminate from their language arts classes "any run-off sheets copied from different sources that promote `La Causa,' any further study of the Farm Workers Movement with Cesar Chavez, [and] the bulletin board displays depicting the `movement.'..." ("La Causa," or The Cause, and the "movement" both refer to the struggles of Mexican Americans.)
To Nadine, he included a copy of a previously approved outline for her Skills for Living class on which he had circled several discussion topics that were now to be eliminated from the curriculum, including "Racism," "Discrimination," "Oppression," and "Militia Groups." He did not, however, circle "Chicano Civil Rights" or "Chicano or Mexican-American Heroes," but he did tell Nadine to eliminate one of her objectives for teaching Chicano Civil Rights: "Provide a missing element from our students' lives, that is, a knowledge about their own history."
Martinez also directed Nadine to stop teaching her students about, among other subjects, Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. Constitution, Chicano activist Dolores Huerta, and the concept of justice.
The Cordovas were outraged by the letters. They and their lawyers--the NMCLU was now representing both teachers--believed that the superintendent's directives violated the teachers' rights under the First Amendment, and they also believed the directives were in violation of the district's written policies and procedures regarding complaints about teachers. Still, Patsy and Nadine decided to comply with the orders until the matter could be resolved.
On February 15, the Albuquerque Journal published a front-page article, headlined "Chicano Studies Out in Vaughn," about the controversy. The article quoted NMCLU lawyer Andrew Vallejos, who said, "Initially, we hoped we could work out a compromise with the superintendent, but I think there's a strong likelihood that this could go to court." It also quoted a former school board member, Jude Gallegos, who objected to the Cordovas' teaching. "If these classes were being offered as electives," he said, "then it wouldn't bother me. But those classes are necessary for graduation, and the kids are bringing home stuff that has nothing to do with grammar or literature." Another parent, Sandra Ulibarri, joked that MEChA stood for "Mexicans Educating Chicanos Against Americans."
The article, Nadine and Patsy allege, angered Martinez and the board members, who blamed the teachers for putting Vaughn in a negative light. The dispute, the sisters say, was turning into a witch hunt. After the article appeared, they allege, Martinez began soliciting complaints about them, including information about incidents that had occurred years earlier and that had never been brought to the attention of either teacher. "I knew there was some conspiracy going on," Patsy says. "There had to be. Someone at the top did not want us here." That person, they say, was their cousin Andrew Cordova. They now accuse him of putting pressure on Martinez to fire them.
Nadine had heard about the curriculum package published by Teaching Tolerance of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The curriculum, called The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America, includes a 40-minute video, a booklet titled "Us and Them," and a teacher's guide. Teaching Tolerance provides one free copy of the kit to any school that requests it. According to Jim Carnes, editor of Teaching Tolerance magazine and author of the "Us and Them" text, the package has been sent to more than 55,000 schools.
Nadine ordered a copy of the curriculum, and after she and her sister examined it, they decided that they wanted to use some of the materials in their classes. Their students, they say, had become "bored" with the traditional curriculum; the Shadow of Hate video and the accompanying booklet, they believed, would captivate their students in the same way that the now-banned materials had. They felt certain that Martinez would go along with their plan. After all, he had accused them of teaching " racial intolerance." How, then, could he object to a curriculum whose stated goal is to encourage teachers "to educate students about the importance of tolerance in a democracy"?
On February 21, Nadine and Patsy sent Martinez a letter stating their intention to use some of the Teaching Tolerance materials in their classes. They enclosed the table of contents from "Us and Them," the kit's statement of purpose, and a copy of one of the booklet's articles, a discussion of violence along the border between the United States and Mexico in the early part of the century. The Cordovas say Martinez never responded to their letter, so on February 24, they began using the materials. Patsy had her students read and discuss the article that had been submitted to Martinez, while Nadine used a section on the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Cherokee Indians from Georgia in 1838. They both showed their students the Shadow of Hate video.
The next day, Martinez told Patsy that he and the school board wanted to meet with her and Nadine to, as Patsy remembers the conversation, "resolve the whole problem peacefully." She says he promised that the board members would conduct themselves "in a gentlemanly fashion." The Cordovas agreed to attend the closed meeting, to be held on the evening of February 26 in the district's boardroom, without their NMCLU lawyers.
The meeting, however, was anything but civil. According to Nadine's federal lawsuit, Andrew Cordova began the encounter by addressing the sisters "in a confrontational and hostile manner, demanding to know whether they intended to use the Teaching Tolerance project materials again." Nadine answered yes, and as Patsy attempted to explain what the curriculum was all about, board member Art Dunlap "angrily got up and walked out of the meeting," according to Nadine's complaint. Another board member, Ernest Aragon, told the Cordovas that he was getting pressure from certain members of the community to resolve the dispute. Nadine and Patsy then accused the board of ignoring the desires of the poorer parents in the district and responding only to some of the wealthier ones, particularly a local rancher named Joe Vicente, who, they believed, had told the board that if the Cordovas were not fired from their teaching positions, he would remove his three children from the school district. (In sworn testimony, Vicente denied saying this to the board, but he admitted telling "various people" that if the Cordovas continued teaching in Vaughn, "my kids won't go to school here because they're scared of them.")
Martinez asked Patsy and Nadine if they would agree to stop using the Teaching Tolerance materials, but the teachers said they would only do so if the request were put in writing. They say they never got an answer. When the meeting ended, about an hour and a half after it began, it seemed as if nothing had been resolved. Still, the teachers were hopeful about their future.
"We walked away thinking that a couple of school board members understood our point of view," Patsy says. "Well, they never sent us a letter, they never put their demand in writing." Indeed, she believes Martinez had already made up his mind to suspend them. "I think that meeting was a trap. I believe they planned to fire us long before that meeting."
"It was a setup," adds Nadine. "They were looking for a reason to fire us."
Two days later, on February 28, Richard Rosenstock of the NMCLU sent a letter to Art Martinez in which he acknowledged, in his words, the board's "apparent" decision on February 26 to disallow Patsy and Nadine from using the Teaching Tolerance curriculum, even though the Cordovas had provided the superintendent "with notice of their intent and even submitted sample articles."
"Unfortunately," the letter continued, "you chose to extend the pall of orthodoxy and banned the use of these materials. Although neither of them believes the Teaching Tolerance curriculum in any way violates your previous directives to them, under threat of losing their jobs, Nadine Cordova and Patsy Cordova will cease using this acclaimed program."
But it was too late. Martinez had already decided to suspend the teachers for insubordination. On the very day that Rosenstock mailed his letter, Martinez directed police chief Romo to personally deliver his letters of suspension to each teacher and to make sure they handed over their keys to the building before leaving. In the letters, the superintendent told the teachers that he was recommending to the school board that they be discharged for "willful refusal" to follow a prescribed curriculum and for replacing that curriculum "with a course of instruction which is racist, inappropriate, [and] disruptive within the school." He quoted from New Mexico State Department of Education Regulation No. 70-13, which states, "No material shall be introduced into public elementary or secondary school curricula by any individual or organized group to promote a biased attitude on religious, racial, or political issues."
He also accused the Cordovas of: ridiculing the prescribed curriculum in front of students and staff; referring to Martinez as "Smurf"; encouraging the students to lobby against the prescribed curriculum; and calling a schoolwide assembly on a day that Martinez was out of town, at which they allegedly encouraged students to meet with the media to express their opinions on the prescribed curriculum.
(The sisters deny the allegations, although Patsy does admit that she, in her capacity as head teacher, called an assembly to try to ease some of the tension at the school. "I called it to tell the students that we have to respect each other's opinions. I wanted Mr. Martinez to be there, but he was at a three-day conference. I never encouraged anyone to go to the media.")
Martinez informed Patsy and Nadine that they had a right to a hearing on the matter before the school board, which would then vote on whether to uphold the superintendent's recommendation.
The Cordova sisters were out of work, but their legal battle was just getting started.
On March 4, 1997, Patsy and Nadine formally requested a hearing before the school board. But because three members--Andrew Cordova, Ernest Aragon, and Leopoldo Gutierrez--had witnessed the "act of insubordination" that led to the Cordovas' discharge, lawyers for the board argued that a hearing would be inappropriate. The dispute, they argued, should be decided by a neutral arbitrator. But the Cordovas would have none of that. " We want them to be accountable for their actions in front of the community ," Nadine said in May. "We think it's too easy to say, `Go to an arbitrator and let him make the decision.'"
A state judge in Las Vegas, New Mexico, agreed, and after several delays, a hearing was set for the end of June.
Meanwhile, thanks to the Albuquerque Journal and the Associated Press, among other news organizations, the Cordova sisters were becoming known far and wide. Hispanic leaders from all over the country praised the teachers for taking a stand against censorship. A number of organizations--including the University of New Mexico's department of Chicano studies, the National Association of Chicano Studies, and the National Council of Teachers of English--sent letters of support. The SouthWest Organizing Project, which publishes 500 Years of Chicano History, paid for Patsy and Nadine to attend a national conference on Chicano studies in Sacramento. In Albuquerque, four state senators sponsored a resolution requesting that the teachers be reinstated. Even Lowrider Magazine published an article about the dispute. More recently, Dateline NBC came calling.
Ironically, the debate in Vaughn comes at a time when Hispanics are finally seeing their history being included in the curricula at a number of school districts around the country. "Hispanics have traditionally been left out of the mainstream curriculum," says Kathy Escamilla, an associate professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Colorado at Denver. But that's changing.
"What the Cordova sisters were trying to do is really part of a much larger movement," says Luis Torres, chairman of the Chicano studies department at Metropolitan State College in Denver. Torres is helping to develop a curriculum--called Alma de la Raza, or Soul of the People--that will be used in the Denver public schools, where 47 percent of the students are Hispanic. Supporters of the program, which will cut across a number of different disciplines, hope it will boost the academic performance of Hispanic students while promoting cultural awareness. "This kind of curricula is now beginning to be taught," he says, "and in most cases, it's not that controversial." He adds: "It's not just reserved for Chicano students. All students should learn about this."
Torres calls Patsy and Nadine Cordova pioneers. "And pioneers often have to suffer so that others can follow in their footsteps," he says. "It's discouraging. We always have to fight. The Cordova sisters' story is not unique. This kind of thing happens all the time."
But what makes the Cordovas' story unusual is that it is taking place in a town that is nearly all Hispanic. It would seem that teaching Chicano history in a place like Vaughn would be no big deal. But as Torres points out, "The Hispanic community is not monolithic. No community is. And most administrators tend to adhere to a traditional curriculum."
Then there's New Mexico's jumbled history. Valerie Santillanes, who has covered the dispute for the Albuquerque Journal, notes, "There is a schism in New Mexico between people who consider themselves Spanish and people who consider themselves Mexican."
The Cordovas, who have deep roots in New Mexico, refer to themselves as Mexican Americans. Joe Vicente, one of their chief accusers, calls himself a Spaniard. "My grandparents are direct descendants from Spain," he said in his deposition.
Chicano history, which tends to be told from the point of view of the conquered and not the conquerors, is bound to ruffle the feathers of those who claim Spanish ancestry. In 500 Years of Chicano History, for instance, Elizabeth Martinez portrays pre-colonial Mexico as a kind of Eden, where "private property did not exist" and "people respected cooperation--not competition." Then came "the Spaniard to grab gold and enslave the Indians."
In one of her articles for the Journal, Santillanes quoted an unidentified Vaughn resident, who said, "If [the Cordovas] want to teach that stuff, they should go to Mexico. Most of us here are Spanish. We're not Mexicans, and our kids don't need to be taught all that bad stuff about our people."
On June 18, a few days before the discharge hearing was scheduled, the Cordovas had a change of heart. After spending the better part of a month taking depositions from school board members, parents, and students, their lawyers had concluded that the cards were stacked against the teachers. "It became clear that the hearing was going to be a farce," says Richard Rosenstock. Besides, Leandro Abeyta, the mayor of Vaughn, had contacted the National Guard and asked that it be put on alert during the hearing. This, according to Rosenstock's colleague, Daniel Yohalem, had created an "intimidating and fearful atmosphere." In a letter to Art Martinez, Yohalem accused the superintendent, the board, and the board's lawyer of listening only to those who had an ax to grind with the Cordovas and ignoring "the many other students and parents who approved of their work."
"Like the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy accusations of 40 years ago," he added, "it is striking and quite frightening that the teachers' accusers, yourself in particular, had no direct knowledge of the facts underlying the accusations they made--accusations which we will show were based on rumor and gossip and have no basis in reality." He concluded the letter by withdrawing the Cordovas' request for a hearing.
Six days later, the NMCLU lawyers filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Nadine against the superintendent and the school board.
But the hearing went on as planned. Robert Castille, a lawyer for the school board, argued that the board was still obligated to act on the superintendent's recommendation, with or without the participation of Patsy and Nadine Cordova. So, on Saturday, June 28, in the Vaughn High School gymnasium, the board held its hearing, which, as it turned out, took place mostly behind closed doors. But before the members went into executive session, Martinez made an impassioned defense of his actions. Before a crowd of about 50 townspeople, he said that recommending to the board that the Cordovas be fired "will be one of the hardest things that I will ever do in my life."
The superintendent painted a picture of two exemplary teachers who had gotten carried away by their own political ideals. "Maybe MEChA is the best thing in the world," he said. "But the way it was implemented in Vaughn, New Mexico--maybe the people that were implementing it did not know what they were doing--it came across in a very negative way. It was racist, politically divisive, and it just didn't work."
He said that he tried to resolve the dispute, but the Cordovas "refused to work" with him. "I noticed that we were losing communication with these two people. I had always had good communication with Patsy Cordova. I appointed her to head teacher. I felt that confident in her disciplinary method. But when these other ideas came into play, we started losing communication. They didn't want to talk to me." When the Cordova sisters decided to fight back, Martinez and the board took it as a threat. "We found this to be insubordination from the very beginning."
(Martinez, it turned out, was speaking as superintendent of the Vaughn Municipal School District for the last time. Back in February, he had announced he was resigning from his post in June, one year before his contract expired. He denied that he was quitting because of the dispute with the Cordova sisters.)
According to reporter Valerie Santillanes, who attended the meeting, the superintendent's remarks drew a long round of applause from the audience. Then the board members went into executive session, where for two hours they examined the evidence against the teachers, including: letters exchanged by Martinez and the sisters; the superintendent's handwritten notes; depositions of students, parents, and teachers; and two student-drawn political cartoons that had been taken from Patsy's classroom walls. One drawing shows the barrel of a gun pointed at a government official, who is holding a piece of paper that says, "Manifest Destiny." The person behind the gun is saying, "Oye, Gringito! You're taking who's [sic] land?" The other cartoon shows a comedian onstage telling the following "joke": "What do you call a million dead black people? Planet redecoration."
Patsy insists the cartoons were part of a Newsweek magazine curriculum lesson on political cartoons. She had told her students to create satirical drawings based on material they had covered in class, including the loss of land grants in New Mexico and the burning of black churches in the South. "I was trying to teach them how to use irony to get their point across," she told Santillanes. "This is just nonsense."
Unable to reach a decision Saturday night, the school board scheduled another meeting for Monday, July 7. This time, about 70 people showed up. Many of them had come from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas to show support for the embattled teachers.
In the end, the board voted 3-2 to fire Patsy and Nadine Cordova. The vote was met with applause and boos. Some students cried. And when the meeting adjourned, many in the audience raised their fists in the air and shouted, "Viva la Raza!" The story that began on August 19, 1996, at the school assembly had come full circle.
Ultimately, a federal judge will decide whether Martinez and the Vaughn school board acted properly when they decided to suspend and then fire the Cordovas. But despite Richard Rosenstock's claim that the dispute is "a clear First Amendment case," the outcome of the pending lawsuit is far from certain.
For one thing, teachers have never had an absolute right to academic freedom. Local school boards and state departments of education have always had the authority to set the curriculum for public schools, and teachers have long been discouraged from pushing their own political beliefs on students. "Since public school teachers work for the government, they are expected to teach from specified curricula and to present controversial issues in such a way that each student can make informed and individualized decisions concerning what conclusions should be drawn," advises legal scholar Fred Hartmeister in his book Surviving as a Teacher: The Legal Dimension.
If Patsy and Nadine Cordova were indeed advocating their own political beliefs to their students, or if they were teaching subject matter that was beyond the scope of the prescribed curriculum, then the Vaughn school board may well have been right to fire them.
On the other hand, if the sisters were, as they assert, teaching their students different points of view without biasing students, then their claims against the school district may be valid. As Patsy puts it, "The people of Vaughn have to understand that teaching Chicano history does not mean we're being militant."
"School districts have a great deal of authority to define what is taught in the classroom," says Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel for the National Education Association. "But they can't impose a 'pall of orthodoxy,' in the words of a famous Supreme Court decision." (In that case, Epperson vs. State of Arkansas, the court ruled unconstitutional an Arkansas statute that made it illegal to teach about evolution in the state's public schools. "The First Amendment does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom," the court wrote.)
As the legal wheels slowly turn, Patsy and Nadine are moving on with their lives. Patsy is looking for another teaching job, while Nadine is planning on going back to school for her master's degree, probably at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. But they say it won't be easy leaving Vaughn, despite the tension that still lingers in the town. For one thing, they both take turns caring for their 79-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease and lives with Nadine and her family. "But we'll make our changes as we have to," Nadine says philosophically. "We don't live and die for these jobs. There are other options."
The sisters, however, are certain about one thing: They have no doubt that they will win their lawsuits against the Vaughn public schools. "These men ," Patsy says, "did not believe they were ever going to have to prove these things against us. I think somewhere along the line they thought they were going to scare us off, and that was going to be it."
"That we were just going to agree to leave," Nadine adds, "with them not ever having to prove what they accused us of."
"And now they have to prove it," Patsy says. "And they can't."
Vol. 09, Issue 01, Page 28-34