This Day in History

Feb. 28, 1997: Patsy and Nadine Córdova Suspended for Teaching Chicano Studies

Time Periods: Post-Civil Rights Era: 1975 - 2000
Themes: Education, Latinx

Teachers Patsy and Nadine Córdova. Credit Wendy Walsh

On Feb. 28, 1997, the Vaughn, New Mexico, chief of police hand-delivered suspension letters to two Vaughn Junior and Senior High School teachers, sisters Nadine and Patsy Córdova. They were the targets of a smear campaign on account of their teaching Chicano history, sponsoring a Chicano student organization, and asking their students to question their corporate textbooks.

Patsy and Nadine were considered outstanding teachers in the small town of Vaughn. But in June 1996 they helped students at Vaughn Junior and Senior High School organize a MEChA club, a common student group in the Southwest that stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. And that, they believe, is when their troubles began.

That fall, Vaughn Superintendent Arthur Martinez told the Córdova sisters they could not teach anything “that reflects the MEChA philosophy.” He accused Nadine of teaching “racial intolerance” and promoting “a militant attitude” in her students.

Under legal advice, the Córdova sisters asked that any further curriculum directives from Martinez be in writing. They believed that the superintendent’s directives not only violated their rights under the First Amendment but were counter to the district’s policies on handling complaints about the curriculum. Nonetheless, they sought to comply until their lawyers could resolve matters.

By January of 1997, relations between the sisters and the superintendent were strained. Martinez told the sisters in writing that they could not use the supplementary text “500 Years of Chicano History,” could not study Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, or hand out any materials that promote “la causa.” Nadine argues that agricultural interests in the area were particularly concerned that students learning about Chavez and the United Farm Workers union.

Patsy Córdova’s use of the widely respected photo collection, 500 Years of Chicano History, drew a stern rebuke from school officials. Credit Wendy Walsh

But the prohibitions went beyond the UFW. The sisters were also told to eliminate any reference to or discussion of Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Constitution, Dolores Huerta, justice, courage, or non-violence. The controversy escalated when an Albuquerque newspaper ran a front-page story on Feb. 15 titled, “Chicano Studies Out in Vaughn.” Martinez and his allies on the board were furious about the article. Superintendent Martinez began soliciting complaints from people who had ever had an issue, however long ago, with the Córdova sisters and started to put together a case against them.

On Feb. 21, 1997, the sisters informed Martinez in writing that they hoped to use materials from the group Teaching Tolerance (Learning for Justice). They enclosed the table of contents from the group’s curriculum package, “The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America,” copies of some articles, and the kit’s statement of purpose. Martinez did not immediately respond.

At a board meeting Feb. 26 allegedly set up to resolve the problems, however, Martinez asked the sisters if they would stop using the Teaching Tolerance materials. The sisters said they would do so only if the request were in writing. Two days later, on Feb. 28, the chief of police walked into the school and handed them a letter telling them they were suspended on grounds of insubordination. That July, the board fired them.

In their suit against the Vaughn School Board, a federal magistrate ruled in their favor in November 1998. They were awarded a half-million-dollar settlement.

The description above was adapted from an article on the case in Rethinking Schools. For in-depth reporting on the events that led to their dismissal and a successful lawsuit, see the article “Sisters in Arms” by David Hill, originally published September 1, 1997 in Teacher magazine (EdWeek).

This is part of a long history that continues to today of rightwing efforts to suppress teaching honestly about U.S. history. Read Right-Wing Campaign to Block Teaching for Social Justice.