White Lies and Arizona’s Culture of Fear


When I was a kid there was what we used to call white lies.  You distinguished them from lies that were untrue. You told white lies because you did not want to reveal a secret or hurt someone’s feelings. Children would easily get caught telling lies – we were not too good at it. However, we got better as we marched into adulthood often believing our own lies.

I guess I never grew up, a lie remained a lie. When I started to write commentaries in the 1980s this got me into trouble with many of my politico friends. They told me that what they said were not lies but political judgments. The first rule in politics, they said, was to get re-elected.

In L.A., I began to lose friends not only because I had to tell it like I saw it, but because as a writer and historian if I got caught in a lie, my moral authority suffered and this undermined the purpose for writing. At first it was easy because I concentrated in exposing the injustices in the system. But as Mexican Americans and Latinos became part of the system I found myself criticizing my friends.

The issues that caused me the most anguish were police brutality, education and Latino politicians taking large sums of campaign funds from the likes of Downtown Real Estate Attorney  Richard Riordan and developer Eli Broad. When I criticized them mutual friends would say that they were making “political judgments” and that to be successful and remain players that they had to make these sorts of compromises.

I could not live with the contradictions so I distanced myself — unwilling to make a complete break because there were issues where they got it right and benefited the community.

I literally got sucked into the controversies in Arizona. I have been interested in the abuse of immigrants there since the 1970s with the Hanigan Case where a well-connected rancher and owner of a Dairy Queen and his two sons tortured three undocumented Mexican workers. It infuriated me that the state court would not convict them.

My interest peaked in the 1980s with the sanctuary movement and the trial of my friend and poet Demetria Martínez for transporting two Salvadoran undocumented workers. Demetria was acquitted but a 25-year sentence hung over her head and that bothered me.

The persecution of undocumented workers picked up in the late 1990s as the government closed the corridors carrying drugs and poor Latin Americans into the United States from Baja California and points south.  The tactic was inhumane, forcing immigrants to travel through the badlands of Southern Arizona, which was dominated by right wing ranchers who would hunt down the Mexican workers and their families.

What they could not “roundup,” the boiling sun would kill. To date way over a thousand Mexicans and Latin Americans have died on the hot sands of southern Arizona—a thousand fold more than died trying to get across the Berlin Wall.

SB 1070 was passed in 2010.  It brought an immediate reaction both inside and outside Arizona. A boycott was called, which quickly dissipated. For a time, unions and progressives outside of Arizona held rallies in Phoenix. However, Arizona’s anti-racist campaign was quickly eclipsed as struggles in Wisconsin and Ohio took center stage. Not wanting to offend local contributors the Democratic Party turned the other way and allowed Blue Dogs and others to make their arrangements as political judgments dictated their choices.

A few progressive writers uncovered the motivations behind 1070 for which many people claim credit. Kansas attorney general Kris Kobach who considers his anti-immigrant crusade a substitute for military service was one of the hooded authors.  Most claim that the impeached Senator Russell Pearce was the author of 1070, which was signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in April 2010.

Meanwhile, other than the legal strategy – from my perspective – much of the outrage over the law leaked from the punctured balloon. More and more political judgments were made. Politicians of all stripes hardly mentioned that Pearce was only a bag man. The mainstream media forgot that the authors of the bill were the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA),and  the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); they drafted SB1070 “to protect the profitability of private prisons funded with taxpayer dollars.”

Special interests made a killing on the hate Mexican campaign.  Hate was and is profitable.

As an early blogger commented “SB1070 cannot be separated from its drafters, whose sole mission is to craft profitable legislation. The purpose of a state criminal designation for undocumented people is the diversion of immigrants into for-profit prisons and a tax-subsidized holding period before federal immigration proceedings can proceed. Not only was the law never about Arizona, it wasn’t even written by or for Arizonans.”

ALEC must be remembered controls at least 50 Republicans in the Arizona State Legislature and has ties with elites throughout the country and state including the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. Its drive to privatize Arizona was made possible by a culture of fear.

HB 2281 was passed shortly after SB 1070; from the beginning from the beginning it has been eclipsed by the latter.  Unfortunately most if not all politicians make political judgments, which are not necessarily made to improve society. In the case of education they are certainly not based on sound pedagogical considerations.

I have been an educator for almost sixty years and my first question is, how does this improve the education of Mexican American, Latinos and other students? Education is my vocation.

If Arizona had made a good faith effort to educate Mexican American and other students I would have given them the benefit of the doubt. However, Arizona is 50th in per capita spending per child in the nation. It has been under a court order to desegregate for over thirty-five years. The highly respected Tucson Unified School District Mexican American Studies Program was created in 1997 and was funded by a Federal Desegregation order and the product of decades of struggle.

Despite this and the closing the Rincon and Palo Verde high schools, the firing of more than 100 teachers and a low approval rating,  the TUSD Board of Education last month renewed Superintendent of Schools John Pedicone’s contract through June 30, 2014, which will pay him  $211,000 a year plus benefits and allowances plus a $35,000 bonus. This is in a city where the cost of living is very low.

This is the same Pedicone that dismantled the MAS program, which Latino politicos have sacrificed on the altar of political judgments. The lives of several MAS teachers have been destroyed, which makes it all the more tragic because those making the political judgments were supposedly friends of the fired teachers who had worked on their campaigns.

This mendacious political judgment was predictable.  The Board was stacked just after Democratic pro-MAS board member Democrat Judy Burns died and was replaced by Republican anti-MAS Alexandre Borges Sugiyama. There are rumors of fraud: Sugiyama had not shown previous interest in education – he unqualified.

A five member committee made up of all white Republicans recommended his appointment. His only qualification was that he was a part time instructor in the same Department as Board President Mark Stegeman and he was approved by Pedicone. The latter two have ties to the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. The Pima superintendent who is part of the Tucson Ring made the appointment.

If this was not enough, Pedicone had ordered excessive force against community activists.  Professor Guadalupe Castillo, a longtime friend of many of the Latino politicos, who qas approaching 70 years old was thrown to the ground by police and arrested.  So much for familial and fraternal ties and loyalties.  I guess it was a political judgment because it was certainly not a pedagogical one.

This abuse of power has turned off some of the best students who now have become cynical about government.  It is difficult for them to distinguish a political judgment from a lie.

In speaking to students and parents they are dismayed at the numerous instances of abuse of power. For example, in January there was a White House summit for Latino education. Sean Arce, the coordinator of MAS, attended and testified. Normally this conduct is protected by the whistleblower statute. However, Arce was admonished by his superiors and shortly afterwards fired for criticizing the system.

Students and parents also criticized the TUSD’s infamous censorship of books. At the forefront of these abuses were Stegeman and Pedicone who were licensed by state and local elites.  Thus they make no pretense at fairness or explaining their actions in pedagogical terms. Rather Stegeman like Tom Horne and John Huppenthal sees MAS a conspiracy to reconquer Arizona. Stegeman made the outlandish claim that he knew MAS was a cult when he heard them use farmworker handclap.

I wonder what significance he gives to white students clapping to Freddie Mercury’s “We Will Rock You!” at a University of Arizona football game.

However, with this said those concerned about HB 2281 have to accept some of the blame for the political judgments. As I have said before Arizona ushers in a new era. To deal with this new reality we must adopt new strategies:

We have known for some time that Arizona was coming, and we should have adapted. Places like Tucson are isolated and do not have the internal structure that Los Angeles, for instance, has. If a national organization is not going to help, it should at least hold workshops for potential plaintiffs. Having gone a large discrimination suit, a rule of thumb is that the plaintiff(s) control the case, not the attorneys.

Nothing is gained by calling a politico a vendido (sellout). This cuts communication. The important objective is to win or make your case. Palo dado ni díos lo quita. People remember what they perceive as insults.

We must always keep in mind that the case is not personal but represents the interests of the community.

Working with Salvadoran groups in the 1980s I found them much more focused than Mexican American organizations. Run mostly by women they insisted that the meeting begin on time. No drinking or smoking was allowed and you could only speak if recognized. They had a purpose which was the liberation of El Salvador.

We have to learn and constantly reassess our tactics.

As I have often mentioned, my mother did not complete the first grade, she was legally blind and anemic. Because of the Mexican Revolution my father completed the fourth grade. When I went out they would tell me never to soil the family name –that’s all we really had.

People can make mistakes but when it comes to education, I hold myself to a higher standard.  It is my professional judgment that kids are being hurt by Pedicone, Stegeman and company. However, to be effective I have to stay focused and continually ask myself what I am fighting for?

Arizona should be ashamed of itself and so should professionals such as myself who have not learned from the past.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution. 


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RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

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