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Putting Indigenous Knowledge on Trial

A Modern Day Auto de Fe in Arizona

by ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ

Justice. That’s a word not normally associated with Arizona. With Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his military tank still on the loose, this will not be changing anytime soon. In Arizona, Arpaio is colorful, but he is actually the least of them.

Just recently, Sen. John McCain decided to blame “illegal aliens” for the state’s forest fire outbreaks. Aided and abetted by the media, the senator’s irresponsible accusations, after touring the 500,000-acre Wallow fire, set off a contagion of wind-aided hate and fear. This month, two cousins were arrested for setting that fire. They were not aliens of any kind. The senator has issued no retractions.

This is the climate we live in. But it is actually worse. The borderlands are killing fields. That is not accidental or hyperbole, but U.S. policy since the 1990s. It is a policy that has resulted in thousands of deaths; migrants are intentionally funneled to the most dangerous deserts, mountains and rivers. Not just in Arizona, but the full expanse of the border.

So too brutality against detained migrants. It is widespread and not an aberration. The human rights organization, No More Deaths, is releasing a shocking study that won’t so much surprise, but simply confirm these widespread practices [thousands of abuses] at the hands of immigration agents. Here, the “migra” act as hunter battalions, always chasing down people the color of the earth.

The government refers to the funneling as policies of deterrence. Politicians in Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico and Washington have advocated even more direct forms of deterrence: shooting migrants or blowing them up as they cross the border.

Operation Streamline is also one of these deterrence policies. Every day, seventy brown men (and a few women) are herded into the 2nd floor of the federal court building in Tucson. They are all shackled to their wrists, waists and ankles, charged with illegal entry. If the judge spends more than a minute on each detainee, that might be an overestimation as the entire operation generally lasts but an hour. By the time this kangaroo court is done with, the judge will have criminalized them and ritualistically sentenced these men and women to private profit-making detention centers (Corrections Corporation of America).

What else can you call them but human sacrifices. The operation is designed not to mete out justice, but to enrich and to send a message (propaganda]. Prior to 9-11-2001, no one would have associated such an operation with the United States. Perhaps apartheid South Africa, but not the U.S.A. It is fitting that it operates in Arizona. It is also no coincidence that several of the governor’s closest advisors are implicated in this profit-making scheme.

The same day I go to witness this operation, I watch a movie, The Postville Raid: I shake my head. This can’t be happening in the land of freedom. The movie is about the infamous Postville, Iowa immigration raid of 2008. It is about the herding of 389 men women and children – mostly from Guatemala – into a cattle facility where they are processed, deported or forced to wear dehumanizing electronic ankle monitors. For 3 days, it’s their version of Operation Streamline. For us in Arizona, it’s 24/7/365.25.

The next day, a friend is visiting and wants to go to the border. As we cross from Nogales, Arizona into Nogales Mexico, we come upon a man from Central America. His eyes reveal not post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather, eyes of terror. He has been out in the summer desert, unsuccessfully trying to cross for a week.

Every time I am anywhere near the militarized border, my stomach turns. There is no justice there. Just scars, like the unnatural wall separating the two Nogaleses. It is the most visible sign of dehumanization.

Amidst all this, state senate president, Russell Pearce, who associates with known racial supremacists and who has been recalled and is facing election in November, is convinced that he can legislate the state back into the 19th century.

But none of this could have prepared anyone for the Tucson Unified School District’s appeal hearing in Phoenix. Despite the independently commissioned Cambium Study, which gave two thumbs up to the district’s Mexican American Studies program, State Schools’ superintendent John Huppenthal still found the district out of compliance with HB 2281 – the state’s anti-Ethnic Studies law. The district is appealing his ruling and the hearings are reminiscent of the 1500s-era Inquisition. At this surreal hearing, it is knowledge, a discipline and [brown] people that are on trial. Not surprisingly, even the student organization MEChA or Movimiento Estudiantli Chicana/Chicano de Aztlan is also under attack.

This six-year war against MAS is about what is permissible knowledge vs. banned knowledge. It is about banned books and about banned curriculums. In this instance, it is a war against Indigenous Knowledge, this in a state that is also engaged in Ethnic Cleansing.

The supposition here is that individualism is next to godliness… that to teach [Indigenous] culture is to somehow not to treat students as individuals and that do so is to be both, anti-American and anti-Western Civilization (Great Zeus!)

Today, this hearing is about Mexican American Studies and its maiz-based curriculum. But the state law itself actually covers all of Ethnic Studies. And yet, a closer inspection reveals that it is a war over education itself. The state here wants to make Swiss cheese out of what can be taught/learned, wants to be able to censor, and still be able to call it education. Short and simple, this is not simply a war against ethnic studies, but a civilizational war on the very idea of education.

What is bothersome is not so much the Inquisitorial questions or answers, but by the very fact that this hearing (a modern day Auto de Fe) is taking place at all. I check the calendar; it is 2011, not 1511. I check the map… and not so sure where Arizona belongs. The last hearting is scheduled for Oct 17, though we are not sure what the point of the charades is because as Huppenthal has already shown, regardless of the evidence, he does whatever he feels like.

By the way, the tremendous anti-Mexican rhetoric that has resulted from this conflict has also produced death threats against the students – threats that law enforcement has deemed “a joke.” Not coincidentally, I too have received a series of death threats. Normally, death threats seem to be ignored, but in this case, the person issuing the threats against me will be arraigned at the end of September. Stay tuned.

Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at: XColumn@gmail.com