Your NPR news source

Students Rally for Cinco de Mayo College Bowl

SHARE Students Rally for Cinco de Mayo College Bowl
Students Rally for Cinco de Mayo College Bowl

Ernesto Melchor, Jr. (second from left) and his family at their Highwood apartment.

Mexican-Americans have made a substantial impact on U.S. history, but you wouldn't know that from sitting in a typical U.S. history class. A few teachers at Highland Park High School have been on a mission to integrate Chicano history into their teaching. They're trying to reach the Latino students who attend this north suburban high school. But they've also made knowing that history into a highly competitive sport called the Cinco de Mayo College Bowl. 

ambi: Chicano history lesson on television...

Ernesto Melchor Jr. perches on the edge of his parent's bed with a DVD remote control in one hand and a pen in the other.

MELCOR, JR: A lot of Latino students don't get to learn about Chicano history. They just know they're here, but sometimes they don't know why they're here.

Ernesto is studying this PBS Chicano video series for his school's 11th annual Cinco De Mayo College Bowl. The videos chronicle the Mexican-American fight for equality.

In this process, he and his mother are learning from each other. She sits attentively at his side, answering questions about growing up in Mexico. And he teaches her a Mexican American history she never knew.

MELCHOR, JR.: And my mother, dropped out, 6th grade around 6th grade. Not because she wanted to, but for economic reasons.

MELCHOR JR.'S MOM: 12 kids in my house, so it was not possible to continue my education.
MELCHOR, JR.: It happens for a lot of families in Mexico, which is unfortunate. But for that same reason, I'm very fortunate that I can have the opportunity and I'm trying not to spoil it.

For the past two months, studying these videos has been his life. Same for Tatiana Alonso, Marco Alonso, Fani Garcia and Michael Angel Gonzales.
They are Highland Park's Cinco De Mayo College Bowl team and defending champions of this Chicago-area competition. They meet a few times a week before and after school to test each other's progress. 

ambi: students practicing competition...

They gather at a Latino learning center in Highwood, where most of them live. Highwood is the less affluent neighbor north of Highland Park. Both communities share the highly regarded Highland Park high school.

While many Latinos thrive at the school, on the whole they still under perform their Anglo peers.

ambi: students quiz each other for competition...

Although these students are now totally keyed into Chicano history – it took a little work to get them there.

WEILAND: I grab my students and I cajole them and harangue them until they give in and at least watch the videos. And usually if we can just get them to watch the videos once they can get pretty hooked.
That's science teacher and Hispanos Unidos club sponsor Jonathan Weiland. For years, Weiland and fellow teacher Luis Vazquez had tried to find a way to keep Latino kids interested in a curriculum that didn't include their story.

One day, Weiland stumbled across a historical series about Chicanos in America produced by public television. He admits it's not a straight academic way to teach this history, but it works.

WEILAND: I think the Chicano experience that the kids get is undoubtedly the first time they've been exposed in any sequential or substantial way to the history of modern Chicano movement issues.

The school is about 15 percent Latino – mostly kids with Mexican heritage. But Weiland feels all Latino students benefit from learning this history regardless of their roots. 

WIELAND: I just don't think it's done in any systematic way in any schools.
So he mailed letters inviting dozens of high schools in the Chicago area to study the videos, too. And the Cinco De Mayo College Bowl was born.
This year a dozen schools from the city and suburbs and a total of 60 students are slated to compete. Luis Vasquez is the bowl's co-sponsor:

LUIS VASQUEZ: This is fiercely competitive. People take it very seriously. They study a number of hours. Some schools are starting to practice in January.

And then in May, hundreds of Latino kids from competing schools show up to cheer on classmates.

College Bowl alum Jaime Barraza now coaches the Highland Park team. He studied Latin American history in college and became a community advocate. Other college bowl alums have done the same. Barraza credits the bowl.

BARRAZA: So it was definitely a defining moment for me in a time where I started to learn what I didn't know that I didn't knew - that there were leaders who were Mexican American, who spoke Spanish and who were doing great things and who really changed the course of history.

Of course not every student who watches the videos and competes in the bowl will become a Latino community leader.

Nationally, U.S. born Latino students go on to earn a bachelor's degree at only half the rate of their Anglo peers. So Hispanos Unidos sponsor Luis Vazquez wants to reach his students now.

VASQUEZ: For many of these students, the last 4 years in high school will be the last 4 years of their education. So hopefully if we plant a little seed – if it's not directly with them, it will be with their children.

MELCHOR, JR.: From watching these videos – there is this one quote that really stuck to me by Emiliano Zapata – a revolutionary from Mexico.
Student Ernesto Melchor, Jr. Melchor, Jr.

MELCHOR, JR.: And the quote says 'I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees.' I think it's very empowering. I've definitely internalized that quote. I live my life through that.

Melchor, Jr. says he's proof that history can change kids' lives. And tomorrow afternoon, hundreds of kids like him will gather to compete and make some history of their own. 

More From This Show