Talking EDs: Academia Cuauhtli

July 14, 2021

Angela Valenzuela, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, also serves as the director of Academia Cuauhtli, an academy that helps Mexican American elementary students connect with their indigenous roots and culture.

According to Valenzuela, Academia Cuauhtli, which means Eagle Academy in Nahuati, is a language and cultural revitalization program that elevates a culture that has been disparaged and maligned while heightening student’s consciousness to injustices in society. The goal is to help students feel pride about being descendants of peoples who are native to this continent.

The work of Academia Cuauhtli is even more urgent due to the effects of COVID-19 on Indigenous, Mexican American and Latino communities. These communities have similar rates of infection and death largely due to the same occupational and socio-economic circumstances, such as being essential workers, that when combined with underlying health conditions and a lack of insurance and access to health care, makes them especially vulnerable to Covid.

Listen as Valenzuela discusses the academy’s vision and purpose.


Yvonne Taylor: Hi, and welcome to Talking Eds, the podcast about all things education at the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm Yvonne Taylor, and today we're with Dr. Angela Valenzuela who will be talking to us about an innovative educational program called Academia Cuauhtli. Dr, Valenzuela, welcome.

Angela Valenzuela: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

Taylor: It's always a pleasure to talk to you, and I love spending time with you.

Valenzuela: Same here.

Taylor: Before we begin, will you talk just a little bit about your roles here at the college and your research interests?

Valenzuela: Yeah, most certainly. I'm faculty in education policy and planning with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy and I have a courtesy appointment in Cultural Studies, which is in curriculum and instruction and I have affiliations as well with Native American and Indigenous Studies and also Mexican American Studies on campus.

Taylor: Can you talk to us a little bit about Academia Cuauhtli and how it began and how its grown over time?

Valenzuela: Yeah. The Saturday Academy, Academia Cuauhtli, it means Eagle Academy in Nahuati. It began on September 20, 2013, in a conversation organized by, also a center that I direct, the Texas Center for Education Policy at the Mexican-American Culture Center. At play at that moment, what were issues of literacy in both English and Spanish, particularly among the Latino Mexican-American community in a context where, according to the Austin Independent School District, we were rolling out a robust dual-language program district-wide? And so, concerns were that we weren't really meeting it; the goals are philosophical intent of dual-language, and that, on the one hand, in some of the schools in the district and on the other there weren't enough curricula, there weren't enough materials and there was so much mobility among the teachers; I mean, teachers move and a lot of [inaudible 00:02:02] invested in them and they invest in themselves in terms of curriculum and whatever pedagogical practices that were being used in their classrooms and then it's gone. It evaporates. And so there was that lack of sustainability even if people were generally interested in these areas that we ended up co-constructing in terms of a curriculum. And, real quickly, those areas are local history, the cultural arts, immigration and migrations, and also indigenous epistemologies.

Taylor: When you say "We," who is that? Who are the people involved?

Valenzuela: So, out of the September 20, 2013 meeting, that meeting consisted of children's book activists, archivists, historians, bilingual education teachers, and members of the community that included people from the Mexican-American Culture Center, which is our primary cultural arts institution in East-Austin, which is by the river, adjacent to-- across the road from Sanchez Elementary and close to Metz and Sanchez and Zavala, and so people from those schools were there and we were wanting to imagine, "Well, what would be a next step to elevate the Spanish language and to elevate in the process the teaching of dual-language practices in our schools?" We never stopped meeting after that. We had that meeting, and it's like, "What do we do? Why don't we develop a curriculum? Why don't we have a Saturday Academy?" is what actually came up in that meeting. And so, we started having weekly meetings on Wednesdays. We became a community-based organization called Nuestro Grupo, which means "Our Group." We always joke that we were so busy that we didn't have time to name ourselves.

[Both Laughing]

Because we would always say, "Pos Nuestro Grupo, we're going to get together, we're going to meet." Yeah, "Nuestro Grupo, Nuestro Grupo," so, at some point, a colleague, Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez said, "Well, you’re 'Nuestro Grupo,' that's what you are."

[Both Laughing]

And so-- And then from there came, in 2014, our inauguration, and between 2013 and 2014 is when we brought in the Maestra, Rosa Tupina Yaotonalcuauhtli, and she's the teacher of the Danza Meshika, or the Aztec dance curriculum that is a big part of the indigenous epistemologies and that component of what we do at Academia Cuauhtli.

Taylor: Can you talk a little bit about the indigenous name for the academy and its significance to the project?

Valenzuela; I just mentioned Rosa, and so Rosa, as she heard in 2013 about what we were trying to accomplish, she basically said, "You're Cuauhtli," that's the Eagle's vision. And so, the Eagle's vision, and it was really, again, what she picked up from what I shared is an eagle's--the bird's eye view, you know, from the highest part of the atmosphere. And, of course, the eagle is revered in many cultures across places and time. It's the cousin to the condor in South America and it's really cultivating a sensibility and awareness in children that allows them to get the big picture but to not get lost in the clouds. And kids are so distracted these days and it's incredible with Facebook, just social media, and I think it's really, really easy to get lost in the clouds. And so, we don't want that.

We want children to be analytical and to be focused, to be strategic, and to have an awareness of their surroundings in ways that are also respectful and honoring of their own ancestral identities and heritages and community, and so the eagle is very, very important to the Meshika. The last emperor was Cuauhtemōc, and he's revered as a figure in indigenous and Mexican history and heritage because he basically gave his life for the people when Cortes came and destroyed it and took him away, and he could have tried to fight, but it was all gone. It was all destroyed. And so he's viewed in very reverential terms, kind of like a Jesus Christ and also symbolic of the eagle vision that we want ourselves to have. The eagle also inspires because eagles molt and they transform and that's why they're also symbols of resurrection, and so we are not a bilingual education program. We didn't even want to use that discourse, even if we're about bilingual and dual-language education.

We are really about personal and social transformation and revitalization. So, a sort of resurrecting from what really is an ongoing project of colonization that is about eviscerating-- or, unfortunately, and through curriculum, through assimilation, our cultures, our languages, our identities, our ways of knowing and being in the world that are of this land.

Taylor: So, you've touched on what I was going to ask with my next question, is: Why is this curriculum necessary and who is it serving? Which students is it serving? What ages are they and tell me a little bit more about them?

Valenzuela: The Academia, Academia Cuauhtli, has different components. It serves fourth and fifth-grade children from Sanchez, Metz, Zavala, Houston, and Perez Elementary, and it is a formal legal contract that we have with the Austin Independent School District and the city of Austin through the Mexican-American Culture Center and "Nuestro Grupo." So, it's a partnership, so that we bring bilingually-certified teachers to teach the curriculum every Saturday and so we're also always preparing teachers to teach the curriculum and to teach according to pedagogies that really resonate with children and that will also professionalize their teaching in ways that-- You know, we all need help and support in these ways. So, a real strength of this program is the teachers, without a doubt.

But the students are also benefiting, and how it's evolved, because of the feedback that we've gotten from the parents who are also getting a curriculum through Cameron Allen, who teaches ESL to the parents in some meetings when they meet on Saturdays during the year, and then he also teaches them through his nonprofit called the SEED Project at Houston Elementary, so there's overlap with Houston through the parents. But because of all of this activity, it's moving in the direction of community professional development, so it's not just teacher professional development, but it's also teacher and parent professional development as a community.

And so, we're very excited about this direction. It's organic. It's evolved. And a piece of that too that is really so delightful is that now the siblings, the younger siblings, are part of the curriculum and so teachers are doing most high-age teaching and breaking up into different centers and different very well-structured units. They do planning over the summer. They develop a curriculum map, so that by fall, when the school starts in September, everything is already prearranged and the teachers are teaching in the curriculum according to a schedule that they themselves have agreed to. And so then it's just a question of making sure that, in working with the district, that the children get picked up at their bus stops and that they arrive on time. We bring them breakfast. Then we offer the curriculum. The Danza Meshika begins in January and that's through the termination of the year, of the-- You know, when we have the graduation ceremony that you saw,

Taylor: Yes.

Valenzuela: That's when we finish not only the curriculum but also the school year as far as the Danza part of it. Danza doesn't mean "Dance." Danza means "Ceremony." And so we think of our work as bringing the sacred into the teaching experience. What we know is happening, and we designed it this way, is that many of the teachers at the school district are also teaching it in the regular classrooms, probably mostly the dual-language and bilingual education teachers. We have probably about, maybe 40% of the curriculum that we've con-constructed available district-wide in grades three, four, five, six, seven, and eleventh in English and in Spanish. TEKS-aligned, age-appropriate with arts, kinds of activities associated with the curriculum. Another area we're branching out into is the nepohualtzitzin. We need to do more work on that, but it's generating a lot of interest and excitement and that's the Mayan abacus, so it's mathematics-- It's Mayan mathematics with an abacus that they used to build their pyramids and all Meso-American people used as their technology to do everything that they did and so we're excited about beginning to bring that into the curriculum.

Taylor: That's really exciting. And I know that you've done a lot of work related to curriculum development having to do with identity and in the school system in Texas and also in the legislature in, not only in Texas but in Arizona, can you talk a little bit about that and how what you're doing here aligns with that?

Valenzuela: Well, yeah, thank you for asking that question. So, the curriculum development is-- because it's so grassroots, it's grounded in really what relationships with our different partners are calling for, it's very, very organically evolving into a reindigenizing of the Mexican-American experience and so that is what's happening in Arizona and they've been an inspiration to all of us and what Arizona got in trouble for was exactly that, right? But we had a court case that was a seven-year struggle. We won the court case. Thankfully, which means that—

Taylor: And can you talk just a little bit about, if our audience doesn't know, what that court case was about?

Valenzuela: Yeah, absolutely. So, what happened was that they were teaching this-- And this curriculum came out of a desegregation struggle that was over 25 years old there in Tucson Unified School District and they were able to set up a Mexican-American Studies curriculum and also Native American and African American studies came out of that and it was taught at different grade levels throughout the Tucson Unified School District for probably about 10 years, I would say. I think it was in 2000 when there was a state law passed against it and then the district was threatened that if they didn't terminate the program that it would cost them 10% of their funding and around that same time period was when the plaintiffs, who were teachers and students, they filed a suit against the state of Arizona, arguing that it was discriminatory against them. And so I was called in as an expert witness to testify specifically on the legitimacy of the curriculum and it was more than legitimate. It was actually yielding results, and the students were going to-- Many of them were on the verge of dropping out, this was not the honor's crowd. This was the regular crowd. Many of them were in very difficult situations with a vexed relationship to their high schools that they were attending, but when they got the curriculum it was so transformative to them that some, in the evidence, are reported to have decided not to drop out specifically because of the curriculum. Others just decided to take it further and go to college.

And so, this is consistent with research that we have from other places like in the San Francisco Unified School District where students that are marginal to the curriculum because now the curriculum is telling them, "You're a part of American history too and this grand American narrative that has otherwise historically, unfortunately, albeit systematically, excluded you. You know, you already feel enhanced. You have a sense of belonging. You have a sense of possibility and I think another component aside from the emotional and psychological, which we know is very, very important, but another component is when you have a curriculum that aligns to what two fields of study, like what we're doing at the university, like I'm in Mexican-American Studies, I'm in Native American and Indigenous Studies, and these are research-based curricula, and you're doing the stuff of college-- you're developing research questions, you're collecting data, you're analyzing data, you're making presentations to stake hold your communities on concerns that are germane to the students that affect policy, maybe at the school level, and you're reading critical race theory; you're reading Bell Hooks, teaching to transgress, you're reading a history, you're reading awesome literature that actually, for the first time, it's like you're looking at yourself and your own experience in the mirror because you too are undocumented or you too are-- you're just part of a community that has been marginalized, then all of a sudden you have an analysis. That's the eagle's vision. The eagle's vision is an analysis rather than just living.

Taylor: Right, right.

Valenzuela: Which most of us are just living.

Taylor: Consuming. You're living and just consuming the information. 

Valenzuela: Right.

Taylor: Yeah.

Valenzuela: Yeah, C. Wright Mills calls it that sociological imagination and that's that point where you realize, and this is what we do at the university, right, when you realize that the concerns and matters of the individual are mirrored and are a part of the collective, right? When you realize that my story is like his story and her story and actually it's our story, well then, as a group, we're situated as groups against certain structures like higher education to either be advantaged or actually not advantaged or disadvantaged relative to these structures of opportunity that weren't built for you, right? Or a curriculum that was built for another people, for another time that is being preserved primarily because it advantages some over others even if it's not generally recognized as such, but I can tell you the state board of education political battles that we have and have had about inclusion of our knowledge in the curriculum is a fierce battle, and fortunately at the state board of education level, now beginning this fall as a result of our efforts, we're going to have Mexican American studies in the curriculum state-wide. The first state in the country to have it as an official course, as an elective course, state-wide. There's a lot to say about that, but there's not enough time.

We're also the first district in the state of Texas to-- Austin I.S.D.-- to implement an ethnic studies curriculum and I was on the curriculum committee, my husband as well, from Nuestro Grupo, he's a history professor, Emilio Zamora, he's also the president of the Texas State Historical Association, very proud of him, and he's our curriculum guru. He writes-- History's so important, so we have a really wonderful curriculum in the Austin Independent School District right now that's being taught in almost every high school district-wide already. We don't need a law to do this; no district needs a law to do this, but you need leadership, and so Nuestro Grupo, we went and testified. We went and testified to the state board two years ago and we had one pilot year and now we have this implementation year and I think it's really going wonderfully. 

Taylor: That's terrific. That's terrific news. And is that ethnic studies course in high school an elective as well or is it part of--

Valenzuela: It is. It is. Yeah, and so that curriculum has an A and B part to it. It's one full unit, and so the-- it roughly aligns to Hispanic heritage, African American heritage-- I mean, it roughly aligns to that, but it's also-- I call it comparative thematic, so it's not necessarily a field of study, but it draws from fields of study to develop a comparative focus and the B part, what's really nice about the curriculum is through the special projects part of it, if you haven't been exactly mirrored in the curriculum, you have that opportunity to-- Maybe if you're from Africa or the Caribbean or from Asia, that would be the space in which you can delve more deeply into your own identity.

Taylor: Nice.

Valenzuela: Yeah, so it's really nice. It can be done very well, and I think this is-- I mean, we can always improve. We need much more work on it and it's a work in progress, but I think this next month in June is when they have their professional development as a district and that's where they're always trying to upgrade and expand to other campuses.

Taylor: And so back to Academia Cuauhtli, can you talk a little bit about Danza and what actually happens? What the students-- it was a wonderful, wonderful ceremony. Very exciting and emotional. Can you talk about what the students learn and what that ceremony means?

Valenzuela: Yeah, I think what you have to understand about the community that we're working with is that this is the community that many of them are immigrants. Many of them are the target, either of ICE or gentrification, so you're talking about a very vulnerable community that doesn't want to be vulnerable, obviously. And that also has its own indigenous roots, its own indigeneity and some actually identify as indigenous and so when you're doing a curriculum that is culturally responsive and resonant, that's what you discover-- the process of doing it is that people bring their own wishes and desires that come from their own identities and experiences and so when we first got started with Danza, we were anxious about that at the very beginning, because we were concerned about other heritages not being recognized, other indigeneities. At the end of the day, though, it's the people that are willing to do the work that get, you know, and so Rosa came into the picture early on and was already a willing participant.

We also have another teacher who you might remember. He led the group in the snake movement which was just so magical, and he's a really gifted teacher along with Rosa who offers this instruction that precedes Danza, or it's concomitant with it, but you don't have one without the other. It's not like you're just going to learn dance steps. It's not-- that comes with it, but that's superficial. The profound is the identity work and the idea that indigenous people, and Mexicans are basically indigenous people, there's no gene for Mexican, there's no gene for Caribbean, for Puerto Rican-- no, you're either of this land or you're from another place and so even if our genes traveled all over the world, our people stayed, so it's really developing that sense and awareness of history and peoplehood. It wasn't a conquest. It was an invasion. And we've all suffered from that. Other places have had their invasions throughout the world, right? And indigenous people have been destroyed in those invasions from throughout the world.

And so, this is an idea of wholeness that comes through indigeneity that is about this deep awareness that I think is not attached to any particular tribal affiliation or cultural affiliation but that recognizes that the smallest part of our history is 1848 to the present. It's like the slice of a fingernail against the larger, much deeper, longer-- at least a hundred-thousand-year history according to the recent D.N.A. analysis that's being done by this-- by scholars that suggest that that's a deeper heritage. That's an enduring one, and even if we speak Spanish, we can rescue from the Spanish language and from the Mexican identity those core values and principles that are, in fact, of this land. And it's the stuff that-- It's community. It's respect, right? This is an indigenous epistemology. It's the basic stuff of how we live in and work and cooperate peacefully in the spirit of mutuality and love in the context of our communities without being embarrassed about that or being ashamed of that, but saying, "No, this is how we roll. This is what inspires. This is what motivates." It's a very, very deep commitment and it's for everyone. It's not just for us, and we want it to be for everyone.

But there are shifts that have to be made. We don't put policy on the shelf, we have to always be fixing the plane while flying it. So, the plane we're flying is the public education system. It's the state board of education and it's the Texas State Legislature. And so we have to tweak policies there, like high stakes testing which is something I've been addressing for quite some time in my professional career- in my advocacy. We also have to address assessment generally and think of holistic forms of assessment that take a whole human person into the equation rather than just their number as represented on a test that they take, right? And even a school needs to be treated respectfully and not reduce a school to a number. So, we need a new social architecture. At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to create. A new social architecture for public education. We want to grow our own educators, which means not just creating pathways into higher ed so that they can go back into their communities to be out community teachers but in the process to grow consciousness. And so, in these specific ways. And so, you can only do it by-- I mean, no one's going to teach you this. This is part of the stuff that is experienced in and with community in the process of doing it.

Taylor: And so, can you tell me, how did you feel watching Danza?

Valenzuela: It was so joyful. And I've observed it evolve over the years, and it's always joyful. It's always joyful, and I love Danza myself, personally, because it's so democratic and it's so inclusive anywhere you go, right? And so, I'm not good at it, because I haven't dedicated my time to it, but philosophically, because I know it equates to a pedagogy that is about concentric circles of being, meaning a wholeness that we can derive from belonging to our families, from belonging to our churches and our community-based institutions, from belonging to Academia Cuauhtli and ultimately from belonging to the wider society. So, it's a real cultural sense of citizenship, right. So, it's like, even if on the official level, it's vexed, because, as we know, there's an attack on our communities, to know and to see the transformation and the light in children's eyes, I promise that one lesson that Alejandro gives where all of a sudden their eyes light up and they realize, "I'm not a foreigner. I'm not a stranger. I am actually the descendant of people that are original people of this continent. I am an ancestor. I am someone that precedes these modern constructions--" They're very modern, "of nation-state, race--" It didn't even exist before; it didn't exist. I mean, black, white, nation-- didn't exist. These are all modern constructions, right, and so it's so liberating to think that all of these categories that we live and die by are actually imposed, right?

And in children, they're so young that they don't have to suffer the weight of those impositions. As adults, it's harder, because there's layer after layer after layer on us. We get beat up about out language, we get beat up about our culture, our identities. You know, we don't really even feel that there's anything really worth developing a pedagogy around when it finds expression among many teachers. In fact, the teacher work that we're doing reveals that they don't even know that they can teach the curriculum that is research-based, that is historical, that is factual because they feel so marginal in their schools. They feel that they can't even speak Spanish, just going to the water fountain, that it's a sin. Well, let me tell you, if your culture, your language, your dialect, your identity is in jail, well, you're in jail, right? And so, this is about lifting those things that oppress and that imprison to create a space for creativity, to create a space for-- I mean, once you have that sense of belonging, the sky's the limit, right?

Taylor: Right. Right. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for the work that you do, and thank you for spending time with us today.

Valenzuela: Oh. It was such a pleasure. Any time.

Taylor: This was absolutely wonderful.

Valenzuela: Thank you so much.

Taylor: Thank you.