When Naomi Molina de Wood was in school she remembers being told she would never set foot on a college campus.

“I heard from several different teachers …to my face…‘Naomi is not college material’,” Molina de Wood said. “Other teachers said I should not be in the college bound program.”

Even though Molina de Wood was criticized by teachers who thought she should drop out of school and “learn a skill” instead, she persevered. She went to college, became a high school teacher and went on to teach the first Mexican-American studies class in the Houston Independent School District.

Inspired by the courses she took at the University of Houston, Molina de Wood envisioned a high school class that offered a rich background in history and research. She wanted to change the negative perception and racial tensions surrounding the Hispanic community she experienced as a child.

“When I was growing up there was no pride in the culture; there was embarrassment.,” she said. “I learned that there’s so much in Mexican culture to be proud of — wonderful accomplishments, incredible achievements.”

Molina de Wood created a Mexican-American studies curriculum that gave an overview of ancient civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs. She exposed students to cultural music and foods; she also challenged them to explore the significance of Mexican-American history in the U.S. and contrast it with mainstream media.

“I made them look at television…because there was nothing on TV for Hispanics, and there were so few Latinos…in media,” she said.

Molina de Wood went before the school board and in 2004 got the course approved to be taught in Charles H. Milby High School, one of 40 high schools in HISD. Originally, the Mexican-American studies class was approved as a semester course but can now be offered all year.

The class was approved as a special topics course, which meant if a student moved out of the district they might not receive credit for it, according to school officials. In the spring of 2015, the class became an “innovative course,” which meant that any high school in Texas could teach the Mexican-American studies curriculum created in Houston and offer graduation credit.

After all these years, Molina de Wood has still kept the flyer advertising her first Mexican-American studies class. (Provided by Naomi Molina de Wood)

“From the very beginning, Naomi had that vision to say, ‘we don’t want to just teach it there at Milby. We want to be able to teach it to our kids if they transfer from one school to another,’” said Jorge Luis Arredondo, a Houston ISD official who was the assistant principal at Milby when Molina de Wood first introduced the class in 2004.

Molina de Wood overcame many obstacles as an educator to bring the Mexican-American studies program into her classroom.

Molina de Wood said her Mexican-American studies class was very important to her at-risk students. “Because of that class they were gonna finish high school and they were gonna go to college,” she said. (Provided by Naomi Molina de Wood)

“There was always a lot of controversy over it; it was part of teaching the class,” Molina de Wood said. “You were being accused of being a racist…or inciting division. They took instilling cultural pride with inciting to be radical and militant.”

Molina de Wood was familiar with facing opposition and overcoming adversity. Nothing about her childhood was typical. She didn’t have a stable home because her dad moved from town to town to work in the produce industry.

She was often overlooked in class because she struggled to read and was never in school long enough for teachers to assess her academic ability. For this reason, in her work she gravitated towards at-risk kids. She wanted to make sure they had a teacher who believed in their futures.

“When I taught those kids, even if they failed my class it was so important to for me to make sure they knew they were not a failure — that they knew just because they got a bad grade in my class or any other class, that did not define them,” Molina de Wood said. “The grades in school did not define who they were.”

More than a decade after Molina de Wood first taught the Mexican-American studies class that began in one classroom on the east side of Houston, the course has now expanded across the district. Last year it was offered in five Houston high schools.

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