As America Grapples With Who Writes History, Kansas City Schools Add Classes To Tell Black And Latino Stories
Textbooks have historically glossed over the contributions of nonwhite Americans. Now some teachers are trying to uplift Black and Latino voices.
Jackie Madrigal’s grandfather used to tell her stories about coming to Kansas City, Kansas, from a tiny town in Mexico, Tangancícuaro.
“This was like Mexican Revolution, coming up on the railroads, which brought a lot of Mexican immigrants to Argentine in particular,” said Madrigal, who teaches at Shawnee Mission North High School.
In their new neighborhood, there were water fountains for whites and water fountains for Mexicans. People looked down on them for speaking Spanish. In the 1960s, Madrigal’s family moved to Midtown. At Westport High School, her dad got in fights because he spoke Spanish.
“I grew up hearing all these stories about how Mexicans were always kind of like on the outskirts of society,” Madrigal said. “If you wanted to make your way in, there were a lot of concessions that you had to make. There was a lot of giving up of your own culture and your language that you had to do.”
Because Madrigal’s parents felt assimilation was their only option, they didn’t teach their children Spanish. At school, she learned white history from white teachers. By the time Madrigal got to high school, she was yearning to connect with her Mexican heritage.
“And so I would go outside of this formal education and search for those stories,” Madrigal said. “It was at the library ... where I was able to discover my own history, my background, my stories.”
Now Madrigal helps students understand the contributions of indigenous people in a class she designed, U.S. Latino Literature. It’s part of a growing push toward more accurate representation — and a chance for students of color to see their history and heritage reflected.
More than an elective
Madrigal describes her Shawnee Mission North classroom as “wild and crazy.” It’s draped with flags from Latin American countries and fairy lights. There are knickknacks and piñatas and big, bright paper flowers common at Mexican festivals and celebrations. It makes some people uncomfortable, but she said it makes sense if you’re Latino.
“I intentionally wanted people to feel that way,” Madrigal said. “Because I want, when my Latino students come in there, I want them to feel like this is where their home is. They can go throughout the whole entire building, and they don’t feel that way.”
Madrigal teaches just one section of U.S. Latino Literature each semester. The class is taught in English, and it’s always small, only about 15 students. The majority of students are Latino, but she’s had students of every race enroll. The semester always starts with “Bendíceme, América,” an essay on colonization from contemporary Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya.
We know that in 1492, the Old World met the New. And at once began the exploitation and colonization of these lands, which became a battleground for the souls and bodies of the Native Americans. We know, too, that the Eurocentric view has always been challenged by the indigenous cultures on which it was imposed — as it is being challenged today. ... We must demand an active role in determining the direction this hemisphere will take in our generation and in the future.
“One of the unifying themes in Latino literature is that colonization has never left us,” Madrigal said. “It shows itself in so many ways. When we start off, I do a lot of background work on indigenous populations, their lives, their contributions, how they were thriving and successful and civilized before anybody else showed up.”
Madrigal knew she wanted to teach the class when the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature was published in 2010. She talks about the editor, Ilan Stavans, like an old friend. Her copy is dog-eared and water-logged from a summer spent reading Junot Diaz by the pool.
“I get embarrassed showing people this,” Madrigal admitted. “It’s held together with hot pink duct tape.”
It’s the collection she wishes had existed when she was in high school.
Madrigal has been teaching U.S. Latino Literature since 2015. Even after she had approval to teach the class, she couldn’t believe it was really happening.
“The bell rang. Class had started. I just — oh, I wept. I was trying to get out my words, but I was like ugly crying at the same time. I was like, ‘You guys have no idea how important this is to me.’ But some of them got it. ... And they were excited that they (had) a teacher who looks like them, talks like them, has the same stories.”
Until recently, U.S. Latino Literature was an elective. But last semester, Madrigal successfully argued that her students should get English language arts credit for reading Gloria Anzaldúa, Isabel Allende and José Martí, just as they do for Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain.
“She went through the work to make sure that by expanding it to a full year, we would meet the requirements and cover all of the state standards in grades 11 and 12,” Darren Dennis, Shawnee Mission’s director of curriculum, told the school board in December.
But asked if Shawnee Mission would offer U.S. Latino Literature at the other four high schools, Dennis replied that the district would need the right teacher with the right experience.
And finding that teacher could be difficult, given just 1% of Kansas City’s teacher workforce identifies as Latino, according to a new analysis from the Latinx Education Collaborative. Teachers of color are spread out unevenly across districts, and a third of schools in metropolitan Kansas City don’t have any educators of color.
“You want to look at inequity?” Madrigal said. “How many Latino or Latina teachers do you have?”
She said schools aren’t doing enough to produce a workforce that’s knowledgeable about Latino culture.
“I mean, even today, nobody really knows what the hell I do. A lot of people think that I teach Spanish,” Madrigal said. “There's still that misconception constantly. I feel like I'm always educating people over and over and over and over again about what it means to be Latino. And I'm definitely not the authority.”
KCPS to add classes
The pace of change has been slow, but more districts are trying to center the experiences of people of color. This fall, Kansas City Public Schools will offer Black history and Latino heritage classes for the first time.
Sophia Herrera is a sophomore at Lincoln College Prep who likes going to school in a really diverse district. At KCPS, 92% of students and 36% of teachers identify as something other than white.
“Schools tend to teach Latinx and African American students that we were just always there in our society, but we weren't really taught how Latinos arrived in the Americas or even how without native peoples, we wouldn't have a lot of the basic materials that we use every day,” said Herrera, who is Mexican American.
She said having mostly students of color influences how KCPS teachers teach. Her white history teacher “hasn’t sugar-coated anything.” Still, Herrera plans to take the new Latino history class.
Both the Latino class and the Black history class will emphasize local, Kansas City history.
“African Americans have been here since the start,” said Paul Turner, the secondary social studies coordinator for KCPS. “We played a big hand in the Battle of Westport, basically the creation of Kansas City.”
Turner, who is African American, said Black history wasn’t talked about when he was in school — and the American Black experience certainly wasn’t celebrated. But the new classes KCPS is developing will feature art and music from Black and Latino creators. Though the classes will be open to all, the goal is to give Black and Latino students a chance to write their own stories. They’ll explore how the things they learn about in class affect their lives, and over time, these narratives could be taught to future students.
Turner said current high school students — Gen Z — are already good at standing up for themselves.
“They have technology that we didn’t have. They can look up anything. That’s one thing I love about this generation.” Turner said. “They want to question your knowledge, your credentials. Do you have a right to be up there?”
As schools in Kansas City and across the country become more diverse, who should be teaching students of color is a central question. Turner said that teachers of color are developing the new Black and Latinx history classes, and he hopes they’ll teach them, too. If not, the district provides good diversity and inclusion training, he said.
“When I was taught American history by a white teacher, she kept it real,” said Ja’Keya Jackson, a senior at Southeast High School in KCPS. “She even told us, you know, Christopher Columbus Day should not be celebrated.”
But Jackson, who is African American, said she’s appreciated the Black teachers she has had.
“They teach history through the perspective of a Black person. It’s more genuine when we’re taught from someone who looks like us.”