Bob Sipchen: Assimilation plays no part in this history lesson

Roundup: Talking About History

The 400-foot-long mural decorating two outside walls at Theodore Roosevelt High presents a colorful depiction of the rape, slaughter and enslavement of North America's indigenous people by genocidal Europeans.

On the wall of a building inside the chain-link fence, an oversized image of the school's namesake monocled Roughrider waves a sword heroically.

It's an interesting clash of historical perspectives, and I'll use it to poke at the question of how we should be teaching history now that Los Angeles public schools are overwhelmingly Latino.

I stumbled on the beautifully painted call for the descendants of Aztecs and other native cultures to reclaim their continent while hiking around the well-secured Boyle Heights campus in search of an entrance. Now I stand drinking in its full effect with artist Nelyollotl Toltecatl and the man he credits with enlightening him to North America's true history, Olin Tezcatlipoca.

I tracked these two down through an odd little website, . The massive mural — it's more than 18 feet tall at its peak — is a project of "the Mexica Movement," a small but disproportionately outraged cadre whose rhetoric pushes hard against the boundary between political expression and bigotry. A note to a "European," for example, proclaims: "Your people are … inferior to us in your morals, ethics, and humanity — by your collective actions of the last 500 years."...

As my two strikingly pleasant Mexica guides and I buttonhole the high schoolers streaming by the mural, I'm struck by how few seem to have given it more than a glance, by how few demonstrate much grasp of any history — Latino, U.S., world, whatever.

UCLA history professor emeritus Gary Nash, who directs the National Center for History in the Schools, is on an intellectual rampage to rectify this. He warns against teaching only "smiley face" view of the past.

"Do not try to skirt the dark, tragic episodes," he says. "If you do, you will only produce cynics. If you do, when [high school students] get to college and learn a more honest approach, they will say, 'Why did you tell all these lies?' "

He also warns, however, against teaching "victims' history … the story of people who are exploited…. We prefer to teach struggle and survival and getting American society to live up to its ideals, the agenda set down in the era of the American revolution. It's a much more honest and useful history."...

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