Sister Act

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Patsy and Nadine Cordova win praise--and money--for standing up for academic freedom.

Three years ago, in an effort to connect with their students, Patsy and Nadine Cordova injected some Chicano history into the tiny junior and senior high school in Vaughn, New Mexico, where they both taught. The two sisters thought the lessons would resonate with the kids, nearly all of them Hispanic, and spur them to reach higher than they normally would. When the Cordovas were growing up in this small, dusty hamlet, about 100 miles east of Albuquerque, no one had taught them about their Mexican heritage. "There was a lot of shame in my generation, a lot of shame in being who you were," Patsy recalled. "You didn't want to be associated with being Mexican."

Despite their good intentions, the Cordovas touched a raw nerve in Vaughn, where some townspeople whose roots go back several centuries prefer to think of themselves as Spanish, not Mexican American. 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. And that's exactly what happened.

Superintendent Arthur Martinez ordered the Cordovas to stop using the Chicano curriculum, which he viewed as "racially divisive." Under threat of being fired, the sisters complied, but they decided instead to incorporate parts of a curriculum package called The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that fights discrimination. That, too, proved unacceptable to Martinez and members of the Vaughn school board. In February 1997, board members told Nadine and Patsy to stop using the materials or risk being fired. The sisters said they would comply but only if the order was in writing. With that, the board voted 3-2 to fire the longtime teachers, both of whom had previously received high marks on their evaluations.

The Cordova sisters fought back. With legal help from the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union, they filed a federal lawsuit against the district, claiming that their First Amendment rights had been violated. The case received national media coverage, and defenders of academic freedom showered the sisters with praise for taking a stand against censorship.

In November 1997, the school district decided to settle out of court for $520,000. As part of the deal, the teachers' personnel files were purged of any negative references stemming from the case.

Since then, Patsy and Nadine have traveled throughout the country telling their story and urging teachers to stand up for their rights. They've also won numerous awards, including the Pilgrimage for Peace Award from the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the Multicultural Educators of the Year Award from the National Association for Multicultural Education, and the Guardian of the Constitution Award from the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union. Recently, they were named recipients of the 1999 Defense of Academic Freedom Award, sponsored by the National Council for the Social Studies and SIRS Mandarin Inc., an educational publishing company.

"To tell you the truth," says Nadine, who now works as an administrative assistant in the Chicano Studies Department at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, "I don't think we deserve all these awards because we didn't do anything out of the ordinary. We were just teaching from the heart."

Nadine insists that she and Patsy, now retired, are not bitter about what happened in Vaughn. "Oh, no," she says. "I think it happened for a reason. A lot of good things have come out of this." For one thing, it has allowed the sisters to speak out about the importance of teaching Mexican American history to Hispanic children. "We have a right," she says, "to learn about our own history."

--David Hill

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Page 23

Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as Sister Act
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