Arizona’s War on Mexican-American Studies

by ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ

Early on the morning of the 7th day, God wrote HB 2281; then he rested.

That’s the way conservative Arizonans view this clearly unconstitutional and immoral anti-Ethnic Studies measure.

The opponents of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) department – who act as though this state measure was also inscribed on the original tablets God handed to Moses – use this circular logic. An administrative law judge, Lewis D. Koval, also weighed in on the embattled MAS department, with a 37-page finding last week with the same twisted logic. He opined that MAS-TUSD is out of compliance and that HB 2281 is legal because it has not been ruled unconstitutional. If affirmed, the finding can cost TUSD 10 percent of its monthly state budget, totaling up to $15 million per year. That HB 2281 has not been found to be unconstitutional is true… only because the measure has yet to be actually implemented and the 2010 Acosta federal lawsuit has not yet reached the trial stage. Not only that, the legal process, as established by the state measure, has not yet fully played out. Within a few days, state schools’ superintendent John Huppenthal, who campaigned with the vow to “stop La Raza,” is expected to affirm Koval’s non-binding ruling. TUSD can now petition the Superior Court to reject Koval’s finding, though TUSD superintendent, John Pedicone, has already indicated he wants the district to comply with the ruling.

On paper, MAS-TUSD detractors oppose the department because it violates HB 2281, seemingly not cognizant that the only reason this state measure exists is because the former state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne, crafted it to ensure that the department would be deemed out of compliance, with the only remedy being elimination. Horne incidentally, has long-claimed that his effort to eliminate MAS-TUSD was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I have a Dream” speech. Bernard Lafayette Jr., a colleague of MLK Jr. and a freedom rider, along with virtually the entire civil rights community nationwide, begs to differ with Horne. Ironically, along with the racial profiling SB 1070, his animus toward MAS is what has unleashed an unprecedented amount of hate toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans in this state, a clue that Horne has no business invoking MLK’s name for any reason.

Only four things have stood in Horne’s way: the truth, the facts, the independent Cambium Report, which was commissioned by his successor, John Huppenthal, and the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, none of that has stopped Huppenthal either; despite the independent $110,000 Cambium report finding MAS-TUSD in compliance with HB 2281, and recommending that it be expanded, he still managed to rule that the department was out-of-compliance. Huppenthal’s ruling triggered an [weak] appeal by TUSD before judge Koval. Within days, Huppenthal of course is expected to affirm his own decision.

Even though Huppenthal will affirm his own decision, the courts have yet to actually weigh in on the matter. To call HB 2281 a law is premature. The reason Horne, who is now state attorney general, initiated this measure is that he has always claimed that the philosophical foundation for MAS-TUSD is outside of Western Civilization. In effect, Horne is correct; MAS is founded not upon Greco-Roman culture, but upon a maiz-based philosophy, which is many thousands of years old and Indigenous to this continent. Yet, Horne, along with other opponents, also claim that MAS is un-American. The state measure implies that MAS-TUSD: promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government; that it promotes racial resentment, that it is designed primarily for one group (Mexican Americans), and that it advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating people as individuals (This last provision is a seeming attempt to codify individualism, while attempting to destroy culture, which has always been collective).

The department was cleared of all these charges by Cambium. Not satisfied with the report, Huppenthal then overruled it, claiming, on the basis of his own “investigation,” that MAS-TUSD was in violation of three of the four provisions, excluding the charge that it promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government. In affirming Huppenthal’s June decision, Koval, an expert in liquor law, relied on the state’s principal star witness, Dr. Sandra Stotzky. This hired gun, who admittedly is not an expert in either Ethnic or Mexican American Studies, actually witnessed nothing; she never set foot in any classroom, never spoke to one MAS teacher or student. This is the opposite of Cambium. Yet in Koval’s ruling, the results of the Cambium audit are diminished, while favoring Stotzky’s assessment. This points to what has been further unleashed; a torrent of people who seem to confuse the idea that opposing MAS somehow confers expert status upon them.

The hearings, which I attended, very much resembled an Inquisition into what is acceptable and permissible teaching, learning and thinking. It was the epitome of attempts at thought control within a cultural context. The supposition is that because Mexican American Studies is critical, contestational and oppositional – in its quest to teach the truth (Panche Be) – that it is therefore un-American. Words such as Raza or Chicano, conflated with militancy by Horne, Huppenthal and Koval, are viewed as evidence of that assumption. Even the favorable Cambium report recommended that the term Raza be stricken from the curriculum. At best, the ruling assumes that challenging oppression and racial supremacy and asserting Indigeneity, makes MAS “racist,” anti-American and breeds resentment. Arguably, what MAS actually breeds is a desire for peace, dignity, equality and justice.

In its appeal, TUSD arguably put up a less-than-stellar defense, this as representatives of a district that is upwards of 60 percent Mexican American (approaching 80 per cent in the elementary grades). Their lawyers did not aggressively question the two TUSD school board members, Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks, who have never hidden their disdain for the department. They did not aggressively question anyone. Worse, they could have made the Cambium report the centerpiece of their appeal, but they did not. Of the many dozens of Arizona university scholars who teach Ethnic Studies, or who have been inside MAS-TUSD classes, none were called to testify. No one from the National Association of Chicana/Chicano Scholars or the National Association of Ethnic Scholars were called to testify, even though both organizations have affirmed their support for MAS-TUSD. This is the same district, led by Superintendent Pedicone, that has treated MAS supporters with contempt, actually militarizing its school board meetings, having elders and students arrested and even beaten (April 26 and May 3, 2011), this while proclaiming support for the MAS program.

In effect, Koval, Huppenthal, the state and even TUSD envision permitting the teaching of a neutered MAS, through antiseptic microscopic lenses, as a phenomenon of the past, and not ever bringing to light  unjust laws and unequal treatment today. If the state emerges victorious, the teaching of HB 2281and the role of MAS students in defending their own program, will conceivably also be prohibited.

Judge Koval cherry picked passages from books, articles (including my own) and even lyrics and artwork and posters, to “prove” that MAS is out of compliance. The only thing the judge managed to prove is that Mexican Americans have not accepted land theft, lynchings, brutality, segregation, discriminatory laws, inequality, inferior education, mass deportations and dehumanization sitting down. He also managed to infer that maiz-based values such as In Lak Ech (You are my other self) and Panche Be (To seek the root of the truth) are un-American.

Truthfully, the department shouldn’t have to be in compliance with a clearly immoral and unconstitutional law, whose primary aim seems to be a return to the 1950s policies of forced assimilation. During the colonial era, it would have been referred to as a reduccion – an attempt to obliterate peoples’ Indigenous history, knowledge, culture and memory. Five hundred years later and HB 2281 appears to be an attempt at implementing the final reduccion.

Yet 500 years later, international law is actually now on the side of MAS: virtually every human rights treaty, charter and convention protects the culture, history, identity, language and education of all peoples. These human rights charters exist to prevent cultural genocide. This attack against MAS is actually an attack on all education, not just Ethnic Studies. The notion of censoring and banning the teaching of certain materials – making Swiss cheese out of what can be taught – is antithetical to the very precept of education.

Ironically, the movement against MAS is having an unintended opposite effect; it is “re-Indigenizing” the Mexican American and Latino/Latina communities nationwide. People who formerly sneered at things Indian, or who viewed them as part of the past, are now coming to understand that the reason MAS is fiercely opposed is precisely because of the Indigenous roots of the peoples and their cultures.

In Arizona, one could deem this effort to eliminate MAS, along with the anti-immigrant SB 1070, as a form of Indian Removal – an effort to exterminate or capture or possess the mind, body and spirit [of Mexicans]. Removal in 2012 translates into mass incarceration and mass deportations via racial profiling measures and discriminatory practices. And for those that can’t be deported or incarcerated, this translates into de-Indigenization, de-Mexicanization and forced assimilation. The American Dream.

While TUSD has the option to appeal the Koval/Huppenthal decision in state court, there is no assurance that it will do so (it is possible that other parties may do the appealing in state court). As Horne designed the measure, TUSD, with another turn to the right with the addition of another conservative school board member, may not be willing to risk $15 million to save a department that it barely supports. His design had but one goal: to eliminate MAS.

After the legal recourses have been exhausted at the state level, there is still the matter of the Acosta federal lawsuit; U.S. 9th Circuit Judge, A. Wallace Tashima, is scheduled to first rule on a temporary injunction and other procedural matters, then examine the constitutionality of the measure.

What actually stands in the way of implementation of HB 2281 and MAS-TUSD is the student group UNIDOS, Social Justice and MEChA students, along with the thousands of supporters, youths and elders who have braved arrests, the unnecessary use of force and death threats, affirming that they will never accept HB 2281 as a law. Not lost on them is the knowledge that the effort to dismantle the department, by what appears to be apartheid forces, including the TUSD school board, is due, not because it is failing, but the exact opposite; it eliminates the dropout problem. It is highly successful, graduating virtually 100 percent of its students and sending more than 70 percent to college.

Apparently, that’s both a problem and a threat.

* The 37-page Koval ruling can be found at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/76617576/ALJ-ruling-against-Ethnic-Studies-in-TUSD#source:facebook

Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and a member of the MAS-TUSD community advisory board, can be reached at:XColumn@gmail.com. The column is also posted at: http://drcintli.blogspot.com/

 

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