In January 2022, the California Board of Education settled a lawsuit with a group of parents and agreed to remove instructions related to the Aztec chants in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). The ESMC, which schools could voluntarily adopt or not, suggested that students participate in a “community chant” that included references to “tezkatlipoka” and “huitzilopochtli,” which were translated as “self reflection” and “the will to act,” respectively. Some historical accounts described those words as the names of gods to whom the Aztecs carried out human sacrifices. However Tezkatlipoca and huitzilopochtli were presented in the community chant not as gods of human sacrifice, but as the names of broad indigenous concepts that taught students self-reflection and action. Moreover, the ESMC did not contain references to, or advocate for, a “countergenocide” against white Christians.
After many years and thousands of comments from the public, California in late March 2021 adopted an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) for K-12 students across the state. The approved version was the fourth draft of a curriculum in development for over four years. While it is voluntary for schools to adopt, many argue it is necessary for students to learn about the histories and experiences of ethnic groups that include Black people, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Jewish and Arab Americans.
But partisan media outlets pulled segments of the curriculum out of context and shared misleading information about what was being taught to students. Christopher Rufo, a writer for the conservative think tank Discovery Institute, shared a tweet thread where he argued that — among other things — the curriculum taught "'Countergenocide' against white Christians" and called on students to appeal to the Aztec gods, “including the god of human sacrifice.”
In an article, Rufo pulled sections from R. Tolteka Cuauhtin’s book “Rethinking Ethnic Studies” and claimed his writings had directly influenced the contents of the ESMC. Cuauhtin was a co-chair of the ESMC and developed some of the program. Rufo wrote that Cuauhtin and the ESMC’s “ultimate goal is to “decolonize” American society and establish a new regime of “countergenocide” [...] which will displace white Christian culture.”
The Washington Times added to the debate with the headline, “California now wants to teach 'counter-genocide' to over [six million] students in its public schools.”
Rufo also appeared on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle,” where anchor Laura Ingraham echoed Rufo's tweets that alleged the chants would “honor the Aztec god of human sacrifice”:
We reviewed the curriculum and reached out to Rufo, Cuauhtin, and the California Department of Education to determine if there was any truth to these claims. In sum, we found the claims to be largely false and misleading representations of the curriculum.
Does the Curriculum Invoke ‘Countergenocide’?
Rufo highlighted the use of the term “countergenocide,” saying it had been used in Cuauhtin’s own writing and was being propagated by the ethnic studies program. But while it's true that Cuauhtin used the term in his book, we found no evidence of it being used in the ESMC, nor any language that advocated for a genocide against white Christians. Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, confirmed that the term and the concept were not in the curriculum.
Referencing Rufo’s tweets and Ingraham's show, Cuauhtin, an ethnic studies educator, explained the meaning of “countergenocide” to us: “Within my chapter, it does not in any way whatsoever mean genocide against white Christians. I would never encourage genocide against any group of people; on the contrary, ethnic studies is about the opposite of that; it is about healing, honest reconciliation, and life. Countergenocide, refers to anti-genocide, to go against genocide, and to stop genocide." Rufo, he said, took one term from his book completely out of context, “flipped it to fit his own racist narrative,” and "an onslaught of fake news right wing media ran with it."
In an email, Rufo disputed our characterization of his claims, as well as Cuauhtin's usage of the term. "[Every] modern scholarly reference to 'countergenocide' is to actual genocidal violence in Africa and elsewhere; it's not simply 'against genocide,' it's retributive genocide and can be interpreted as such," he said. Indeed, the term has been used in language surrounding the Rwandan genocide, to describe reprisal killings of the Hutu, though Cuauhtin's language does not use the term in the same way.
Cuauhtin added that part of the curriculum involved building "solidarity among communities including white people," adding that "Jesus himself would undoubtedly be against the racist oppression and dehumanization done in his name." He expressed the importance of “recognizing intersectionality” — a term used to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap — particularly the ways in which we can be privileged and oppressed simultaneously. “Empathy, love, mutual respect, knowledge of self, self actualization, community actualization, and humanization, that’s what is really important within these concepts and the curriculum,” he said.
Chants Honoring Gods of Human Sacrifice?
The “community chants” as outlined in the curriculum contain no mention of gods, per se, or of human sacrifice. The two offending deities highlighted by conservative outlets were “Tezkatlipoka” and “Huitzilopochtli.” Both words, however, were used as concepts, not references to actual deities, in the chant:
Tezkatlipoka, Tezkatlipoka, x2
smoking mirror, self-reflection
We must vigorously search within ourselves be reflective, introspective by silencing distractions and extensive comprehensive obstacles in our lives, (in our lives),
in order to be warriors of love, of love,
for our gente representin’ justice, (justice)
local to global global to local eco-logical, & social, (social), justice (justice).
Huitzilopochtli, huitzilopochtli, x2
hummingbird to the left, yollotl,
corazon, heart, ganas, the will to action as we grow in,
consciousness must be willing to be proactive,
not just thinkin' and talkin' but makin' things happen,
with agency, resiliency, & a revolutionary spirit
that’s positive, progressive, creative, native,
Passion everlasting work hard in action,
tap in, to the spark of our universal heart,
pulsating creation huitzilopochtli cause like sunlight, the light inside of us, in will to action’s
what brings ...
Cuauhtin told us that the word “tezkatlipoka” literally means “smoking mirror” and represents “self reflection” as a way to build character and self-determination, affirming who students are as human beings, with dignity. “Huitzilopochtli” literally translates to “hummingbird to the left, or to the concept of the will to act.” He added, “[It is] so frustrating how the legacies of white supremacist colonial lies continue to be weaponized by the right with their anti-Indigenous racism; their claims are false, and do not at all reflect the framing in [the curriculum].”
These terms come from indigenous Mexican traditions that affirm four broad concepts in the student community chant. According to a paper from the National Association for Multicultural Education, the four concepts are “[Tezkatlipoca] (self-reflection), Quetzalcoatl (precious and beautiful knowledge), Huitzilopochtli (the will to act), and Xipe Totec (transformation),” which the ESMC also refers to as the “In Lak Ech Affirmation” (love, unity and mutual respect). Chapter 5 "Lesson Resources" of the ESMC describes the chant as follows:
The following is also based on In Lak Ech (love, unity, mutual respect) and Panche Be (seeking the roots of the truth) as is elaborated by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez in Our Sacred Maiz is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas. However, this chant goes a level deeper into the Nahui Ollin (Four Movements), as taught by Tupac Enrique Acosta of Tonatierra, and integrated by ELA teacher Curtis Acosta formerly of the Mexican American Studies Department of Tucson Unified School District (before Arizona HB 2281). This is an adaption of the Nahui Ollin, into poetic, rhythmic, hip hop song form.
Nowhere do these chants reference honoring human sacrifice. Roark, conveying the responses of committee members who developed the curriculum, told us that the chant "adapts traditional Mayan/Aztecan concepts centering on love, unity, introspection and mutual respect into a poetic, rhythmic, hip hop song form. For example, the song begins with these sentences, first in Spanish, and then in English: 'You are my other me. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.'"
Roark added that media reports "used isolated word phrases out-of-context, and have misleadingly paired those out-of-context phrases with language that is simply not in the model curriculum to misrepresent what the model curriculum actually conveys." Furthermore, he said, the model curriculum is a "collection of ideas and samples" for districts across the state, and use of the materials is not mandated in any way. Each school district chooses materials that serve the demographics of its respective communities.
Conservative claims about school curricula do highlight historical narratives surrounding the Aztec deities. According to online resources like Encyclopedia Britannica, Tezkatlipoka was the god of the Great Bear constellation and the night sky, and under “his influence the practice of human sacrifice was introduced into central Mexico.” Huitzilopochtli was also the Aztec god of sun and war who received human sacrifices in the form of “human blood and hearts.”
Cuauhtin, however, said, “In different [indigenous] communities, we never believed that myth of mass human sacrifice,” he told us. “The original telling comes from colonizers' accounts.” While some interpretations are based on artistic works from the time, he argued that it was “propagated as a factual norm by a dominant white narrative.” Indeed, these arguments are echoed by Peter Hassler, an ethnologist at the University of Zurich, who said that he found “no sign of evidence of institutionalized mass human sacrifice among the Aztecs.”
Conversely, other archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice was indeed a part of Aztec religious practice, though the numbers of people killed in this manner are disputed. Some have argued that this was a military strategy involving war captives. If this did occur, the Aztecs certainly were not the only major civilization at the time with such practices.
Rufo argues that the historical record on human sacrifice is quite clear: "Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism, and specifically, Huitzilopachtli is the god of human sacrifice (among other things)," he wrote in an email response to this piece. "This is documented in dozens of books, including a recent study from Victor Davis Hanson that sifted through estimates of human sacrifice, with a modest estimate of 20,000 human sacrifices per year, and the Aztecs reigned for roughly a century — the math is in my favor."
Even though the curriculum does not tell students to honor the gods of human sacrifice, as claimed by conservatives including Ingraham, those figures have been associated with human sacrifice by some accounts.
We should note that Arizona’s Tucson school districts faced criticism from conservatives for their ethnic studies program back in 2010, which also used this chant. Public officials accused the districts of illegally promoting ideas of ethnic solidarity and overthrowing the U.S. government. Under pressure from the government, Tucson’s school board shut down the courses in 2011, even though a state audit that year found that students who took the prohibited courses performed better in statewide tests and graduated at higher rates. An Arizona law also banned the ethnic studies courses, a move that was found to be discriminatory in 2017 by a federal judge.
In sum, conservative claims regarding the ESMC are largely misleading and incorrect, given that the curriculum neither calls for students to honor gods of human sacrifice — the terms used are meant to illustrate concepts — nor for a "countergenocide" against white Christians. Even though debate exists about the prevalence of human sacrifice and its association with specific Aztec deities, students were not being made to honor these deities. We thus rate this claim as "Mostly False.”
On Jan.13, 2022, the California Board of Education settled a lawsuit with a group of parents and agreed to remove the instructions related to the Aztec chants in the ethnic studies curriculum. In a statement sent to us, Paul Jonna, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm, said: "The state agreed to do this while continuing to dispute any and all liability [...] Nonetheless, we’re pleased that the prayers have been officially removed from the ESMC. Our team of lawyers will aggressively pursue civil litigation against any local school district that violates the Constitution and incorporates these Aztec prayers in class – particularly now that the state has excised them from the ESMC."
The settlement agreement, shared by the Thomas More Society, states:
Contemporaneously with the deletion of the Affirmations, CDE and/or SBE shall notify all school districts, charter schools and county offices of education (Local Educational Agencies) that the Affirmations have been deleted from the ESMC. It is contemplated that the notification will also convey the following concepts, with the final language subject to alteration or revision in the CDE/SBE’s discretion: “No ESMC content should be used as prayer, or any other form of religious act, and any such use of the ESMC content would contravene the SBE’s longstanding policy and guidance. [...]"