The Fight to Save Mexican-American Studies in Tucson

As increasingly hi-tech military equipment continues to drastically shape the manner in which industrial powers wage war around the world, most modern “liberal democracies” must now frame cultural attacks in a way that is compatible with the prevailing democratic ideals that they purport to uphold. Hence the “civilizing” practice of sending young American Indians to boarding schools could not survive in the post-Civil Rights era, and so cultural warfare is now carried out under the cloak of a supposedly neutral policy of colorblindness. This has been the case with the Arizona legislature’s attempt to shut down the Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican American/Raza Studies (MAS) program.

Eyes on Arizona

Arizona is widely recognized as ground zero in the nation’s ongoing war on undocumented immigrants, with intense militarization of its border with the Mexican state of Sonora responsible for hundreds of migrant deaths in the desert each year. In urban areas, there is heightened police harassment of people who look like they might be undocumented. In practice this means that anyone with brown skin is suspect, and the state’s large Chican@, Mexican, Latin@ and indigenous communities have accordingly been the most visible targets of this widespread repression. Maricopa county’s infamous sheriff Joe Arpaio is known to terrorize the Phoenix area, but such persecution has been practically institutionalized statewide by 2010’s notoriously racist, controversial and corporate-funded Senate Bill 1070. Meanwhile, at a mere 60 miles from the border, the city of Tucson has been the main battleground for what has been termed a simultaneous “cultural, ethnic cleansing,” as exemplified by the attempt to dismantle MAS through House Bill 2281.

Governor Jan Brewer signed both SB 1070 and HB 2281 into law within three weeks of each other in the spring of 2010. While the former essentially sanctions the physical harassment of Arizona’s brown residents by facilitating unwarranted stops and raids by local law enforcement, the latter constitutes an attack on the very identity of these communities, manifested in the banning of culture-specific experiences and knowledge deemed threatening to the White-centric hegemonic historical narrative presented in classrooms throughout the nation.

It is only natural that Arizona would be a site where this dominant narrative is contested, as the state—along with most of the Southwest—was once part of Mexico until the United States annexed half of its land and 100,000 of its residents in the wake of the imperialistic U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-8. In 2010, ethnic Mexicans comprised a quarter of the state’s population, and over 60 percent of the student body in Tucson schools. With their community estimated at 400,000 strong, undocumented immigrants—many of whom are of Mexican descent—constituted six percent of the population.

An integral part of the TUSD’s larger Ethnic Studies program, the MAS component reflects the state’s—and indeed the country’s—rich history by acknowledging the “cultural and socio-historical experiences” of Mexican-American students and providing a pedagogical environment for program participants to attain “both a Latino academic identity and an enhanced level of academic proficiency” through a model of “critically compassionate intellectualism.” The roots of the program date back to 1969 and a student-led community demand for a more equitable education for Tucson’s youth, eventually resulting in a 1978 desegregation order and the establishment of the Department of Ethnic Studies in 1997, which also included Native American, African-American, and Pan Asian Studies programs.

The MAS program has been immensely popular in the community, welcoming students from all  backgrounds. The creation of the Social Justice Education Project (SJEP) and the Critically Compassionate Intellectualism Model of Transformative Education (CCI)  in 2002 helped Mexican-American youth in particular bridge the achievement gap with White students, drastically increasing their graduation and college matriculation rates. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—the program’s success, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne launched a campaign to shut it down in 2007 by mailing an open letter to the citizens of Tucson in the aftermath of a well-received speech by legendary labor and Chican@ organizer Dolores Huerta, in which she stated that “Republicans hate Latinos.”

In his letter, Horne attempted to co-opt the less radical elements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings by presenting his argument in colorblind terms and citing his belief that “people are individuals, not exemplars of racial groups.” Horne even went so far as to claim that MAS actually teaches children to be judged by the color of their skin, when it actually puts forth the proposition that much can be gleaned from considering the implications of race and ethnicity in both historical and contemporary U.S. society, and that this approach can be particularly empowering to those communities who continue to bear the brunt of such oppression. Coming from a White male in a State-sanctioned position of power, Horne’s co-optation of Dr. King’s is thus inherently problematic, and he failed to convince Tucsonans to vote pro-MAS legislators out of office.

The Legislative Battle

The first legal attempt to shut down MAS and the other Ethnic Studies programs appeared in 2008’s SB 1108, which was proposed as a Homeland Security Bill, yet included provisions that essentially prohibited school curricula centered around the experiences of people of color. The bill died on the Senate floor, but SB 1069 was introduced the following year, and prohibited classes advocating “ethnic solidarity.” Local organizing against the legislation included an SJEP-sponsored run from Tucson to Phoenix in the sizzling June heat, and the bill never even came to a final vote on the Senate floor.

HB 2281 thus represents the third try by elites from the state capital of Phoenix to shut down an extremely popular community-run program in Tucson. Dr. Richard A. Orozco has shown how “through steady allusion to words and phrases that have situated meanings consistent with an antagonistic discourse model of Mexican ethnics in Arizona, [HB 2281 architect Steve] Montenegro and Horne framed MAS as un-American and lacking in righteousness.”[i]  Yet as Orozco points out, “American” is simply a thinly disguised veil for “White”—despite the latter’s primarily European roots. In their eyes then, the real crime committed by MAS and Ethnic Studies was its nonconformity to a meticulously-constructed White and Euro-centric view of the United States through its emphasizing the role that Mexican, indigenous and other communities of color have played as protagonists in their own right in the forging of the nation.

Horne and Montenegro mustered up enough votes for the bill to pass the House, and the Senate Education Committee narrowly approved the measure when chairman John Huppenthal refused to allow MAS supporters present to testify in the program’s defense. Governor Brewer then signed the bill into law on May 12, 2010, sparking fierce resistance from students, some of whom were arrested protesting outside the state’s Department of Education offices. Nonetheless, HB 2281 became Arizona Revised Statute 15-112 on the last day of the year, and Horne declared MAS to be in violation of the statute before leaving his position for that of attorney general, only to be succeeded by Huppenthal. Upon assuming office, Huppenthal commissioned an audit of MAS, but when the resultant Cambium Report exonerated the program, he let Horne’s decision stand anyway, and threatened to withhold $14 million if the program was not disbanded.

Springing into action, courageous students positioned themselves at the forefront of local organizing efforts to save the MAS and Ethnic Studies programs, shutting down a school board meeting by chaining themselves to the chairs of the board members. When the rescheduled meeting was held the following week, the TUSD headquarters were swarming with officers from the Tucson Police Department and TUSD security. At one point, police in full riot gear barged into the boardroom and physically removed protestors, arresting and detaining seven and leaving some bloody and bruised.

The board eventually caved in to Huppenthal’s demands and voted to dismantle MAS in January of 2012. Nine directives were subsequently issued to MAS educators, including a ban on assignments that direct students to apply MAS perspectives and the use of curricula designed by MAS staff. Teachers have recounted stories of their computers being wiped clean, teaching materials and artwork being removed from their classrooms, and certain books packed away in boxes and labeled “banned.” Far from promoting “multiple perspectives and varied literature” as called for by “guiding principle” number four, such directives take their cues from the totalitarian societies described in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.

Dr. Roberto Cintli Rodriguez has drawn attention to Horne’s claim that aspects of the MAS curriculum—such as its emphasis on the Aztec calendar and maiz-based knowledge—place it outside of “Western civilization.” Having been domesticated thousands of years ago by the indigenous peoples from which modern-day Mexicans descend, maize (corn) has indeed been of tantamount importance to their sustenance and cultural heritage ever since. One of the country’s most famous dichos today is “sin maíz no hay país” (literally: “without corn there’s no country”).

Yet even in Mexico this culture is under attack in the form of the seemingly inevitable process of U.S.-led globalization. Although its roots like in the so-called “Green Revolution” begun in the second half of the twentieth century, the entry into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 famously led to heavily subsidized—and now largely genetically modified—corn grown by U.S. agribusiness being dumped in Mexico and sold for less than the actual cost of production, pushing many campesino farmers off of their land in the process.

What’s more, provisions facilitating the investment of large transnational corporations such as Walmart have forced many locally-owned small businesses and shops to close across the country. In the southern state of Chiapas, Coca-cola is now consumed by the tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula during their sacred rituals. Aside from representing a cultural attack on the nation’s very identity, the millions of jobs destroyed by NAFTA and neoliberal globalization have sparked a large wave of migration north to Aztlán—the ancestral homeland of the Aztecs and other Nahua peoples, today known as the U.S. Southwest—and beyond.

Turning the Tide

Such alternative perspectives are conspicuously absent from the “official” version of U.S. history, and Tucson’s MAS and Ethnic Studies programs should be applauded for filling in some of the gaps and encouraging students to think critically about the dominant Euro-centric narratives. This is why HB 2281—and its incarnation as A.R.S § 15-112—represents such a brazen cultural attack, and students and teachers have fought it so tenaciously. They have faced arrests, death threats and targeted firings, marching in the streets, challenging the constitutionality of the law in court and organizing a Tucson Freedom Summer.

Things appear to be looking up: last November another federal desegregation proposal was issued, a new TUSD board in favor of MAS was voted in, and three public forums were organized to debate a proposed “Unitary Status Plan.” Community youth played a large role in the drafting of the progressive Declaration of Intellectual Warriors, calling for the restoration of MAS and the expansion of Ethnic Studies. On January 8, the TUSD Governing Board voted in support of offering “culturally relevant” courses looking specifically at the experiences of Mexican-Americans and African-Americans.

The fight to save Ethnic Studies in Tucson is a remarkable story of the power of local organizing against institutionalized racism. However, it should also be viewed through a national—if not global—prism, and it would be a shame if liberals around the country responded to the neo-fascist elements in Arizona by simply viewing the state as an extreme anomaly and laying the blame squarely on the outlaw state’s “crazy Republicans.” Crafting the image of an “other” to look down upon disdainfully from a distance is unproductive when the fact of the matter is that teaching U.S. history from a White, Euro-centric perspective is still the norm around the country. A more progressive response would be to look to Tucson for inspiration and call for similar Ethnic Studies programs to be implemented locally, or for their themes to at least be incorporated into the general curriculum.

Meanwhile, there are 11 million undocumented immigrants living in every corner of the country, with a higher percentage of New Jersey’s population undocumented than Arizona’s. The Obama administration has been carrying out a deportation program far more draconian than that of its Republican predecessor, routinely breaking up families and deporting 400,000 people—or the equivalent of Arizona’s entire undocumented population—each year. Joe Arpaio certainly plays the part of the evil villain well, but in reality the Secure Communities and 287(g) programs essentially deputize local police forces around the nation as immigration officers and increase their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). What we are witnessing is a massive strengthening of the interior enforcement apparatus.

So while the cultural cleansing might be most apparent in Arizona, let’s not forget that in many respects the border is everywhere.

Dave Feldman is a graduate student based in Paris, where he is active in the Comité en solidarité avec les peuples du Chiapas en lutte. He has spent the last two summers in southern Arizona and Sonora, México with the Tucson-based No More Deaths collective. His work has appeared in Dissident Voice, Spectrezine, and Upside Down World.

[i]    Richard A. Orozco, “Racism and Power: Arizona Politicians’ Use of the Discourse of Anti-Americanism Against Mexican American Studies,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 34:1 (2012): 55-56.