by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Police attack student supporters of Mexican-American Studies outside the Tucson school board
A boy being wanded at the entrance to the school board meeting
A display of books that have been banned in Arizona schools
1933: Texas Rangers lynch Mexican-Americans (from Martinez: 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, 1991)
It’s not clear whether José Gonzalez and Sean Arce, two of the leading teachers in the now-defunct Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in Tucson, Arizona, purposely scheduled their appearance at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park for October 2. But both Gonzalez and the event’s MC, San Diego State University Chicano/Latino Studies professor Roberto Hernandez, pointed out the significance of the date: the 45th anniversary of the massacre of protesting students at Tlateloco Square in Mexico City in 1968. The students, Hernandez explained, “were protesting the millions of dollars spent on the Mexico City Olympics versus the lack of attention to Mexico’s poverty” — a situation he sees echoed in the U.S. today when you look at “which offices are open and which ones are closed” in the current federal government shutdown.
“How appropriate that we are having this talk on October 2,” Gonzalez said. He said the story of the Mexico City massacre was just one of many facts that are “being kept from our students in Arizona” now that the state legislature has banned virtually all ethnic studies programs.
The issue has been publicized in a film from 2011 called Precious Knowledge and an episode of the now-canceled PBS news program Need to Know in February 2013. But not many people outside Arizona know what happened to the state’s ethnic studies programs — even though Gonzalez and Arce both regard HR 2281, the bill that enacted the ban, as at least as significant an attack on the Chicano community as the far more famous SB 1070. That was the Arizona state law that required law enforcement officials to check anyone they arrested or stopped for their immigration status when there was “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be an undocumented immigrant.
Arce called the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona “a really critical issue” — which, since he got fired by TUSD after 17 years teaching in their schools and since hasn’t been able to find a teaching job again, is something he knows personally. “We taught a rigorous curriculum relating to our history as a colonized people, and academic achievement was one of the results,” he explained. “We thought we would be serving our students if we addressed their educational, social and cultural needs.”
The Arizona state legislature felt differently. They passed HR 2281, authored by Tom Horne — then Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction and now the state’s attorney general — and signed into law May 10, 2011. The law banned the teaching of any classes in Arizona public schools that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment towards a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
Though a broad-based coalition of teachers, students and parents mobilized to keep the Mexican-American Studies program at TUSD on the basis that it really didn’t do any of the things singled out in Horne’s bill, Arce and Gonzalez conceded that in some respects the program was guilty as charged. “We are trying to overthrow the schools — not violently, but to make our education for and about the children,” Arce explained. As for the charge that Mexican-American Studies promoted resentment towards a particular race or class, he said that it’s the standard curriculum, centered on the achievements of white Europeans, that promotes resentment among Mexican and Chicano students.
At one point during the talk Gonzalez noted the irony that their program was being bashed by people on the Right who often make the sorts of seditionist, anti-American statements of which his program and its teachers were accused. “Texas Governor Rick Perry has actually threatened to leave the United States, yet we get saddled” with the charge of promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government. “We’re just trying to get our kids to stay in school and go to college,” Gonzalez said.
And, according to Gonzalez and Arce, the Mexican-American Studies program did just that. “Our students have graduated at a rate of 97.5 percent, compared to a national average of 46.0 percent for Mexican-Americans and 52.0 percent for Latinos in TUSD,” said a slide they showed as part of a PowerPoint presentation that accompanied their talk. “Over the last six academic years, slightly more than 70 percent of our students have enrolled in post-secondary education after graduation, versus the national average for Mexican-American college enrollment at 26 percent and 28.0 percent for students in TUSD.”
Ironically, they added, much of the data supporting the program came from studies the state commissioned hoping to show the program was either useless or counterproductive to academic achievement. “They did an audit in the spring of 2011, and the auditors recommended expansion of the program,” Arce said. That study showed students in the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program scoring 20 to 30 percent higher on standardized reading and writing tests over students enrolled in the conventional curriculum. Another study, by Cabrera et al. in 2012, showed “a significant positive relationship” between participation in the program and passing the standardized reading test in two of the four years studied: students in MAS in 2008 were 168 percent more likely to pass the test and in 2011 were 101 percent more likely.
So if MAS helps students graduate, pass the standardized tests that have become the be-all and end-all of educational evaluation these days, and go on to college, what’s the problem with it? According to the Need to Know report, hosted by John Carlos Frey, the controversy began when Dolores Huerta, co-founder with César Chávez of the United Farm Workers, came to speak at an Arizona high-school assembly in 2006, in the middle of the controversy around the anti-immigrant bill SB 1070. “Republicans hate Latinos, O.K.? Republicans hate Latinos,” Huerta said, according to a recording of her speech.
Tom Horne heard about the Huerta incident and sent his top deputy, a conservative Republican Latina, to the same school to deliver a rebuttal speech. “She said that she was a proud Latina and a proud Republican and she didn’t hate herself,” Horne told Need to Know. “In the middle of the speech, the students in what they call the Raza studies program, the Latino part of ethnic studies, stood up, turned their backs on her and put their fists in the air. The principal asked them to sit down and listen, and they walked out on their principal. I’ve never seen kids be rude to a guest speaker before that incident or after.”
According to Horne, the response of the students to his attempt to present a Latina Republican speaker led him to investigate the course materials used by ethnic studies in general and programs like Tucson’s MAS in particular. “I was very shocked by what I saw,” Horne told Need to Know. “The materials are extremely racist. People would be very surprised to hear this.” He said the ethnic studies teachers are “very radical” in that “they are people to whom race is very important to self-identity. And they want to instill that in the kids. My view of what America is all about is the opposite. I believe that what’s important about us is that we’re individuals. What matters is what we know, what we can do, and what is our character — not what race we happen to have been born into.”
But Gonzalez and Arce say you can’t teach a standard curriculum to Mexican-American students and expect to reach them if you can’t relate it to what they and their ancestors have been through as a people. In the Need to Know report student Mayra Feliciano is presented as one of their success stories. The daughter of a gardener and a housekeeper, she regularly ditched school — “I didn’t feel I had a purpose there,” she told Need to Know — until she enrolled in MAS and her attendance, grades and test scores zoomed up. She particularly recalled a history class that taught her “there’s so many people’s histories — not just European-American, but African-American and Mexican. And they’re all tied into what has helped America grow.”
Likewise, the Chicano authors she was introduced to in MAS’s literature classes spoke to her in ways the white authors taught in the standard curriculum hadn’t. “I started reading all these stories of people who’ve had the struggles that I’ve had, too,” she told Need to Know. “I was just, like, ‘I’m not the only one who goes through this.’” Feliciano said that she “was never told [in MAS classes], ‘Oh, you have to hate America, because the government is totally trying to screw you over,’” but she gave the program credit for teaching her a different perspective from the mainstream view that “America never did anything bad.”
One of the most shocking slides in Gonzalez’ and Arce’s PowerPoint presentation shows a band of Texas Rangers lynching Mexican-Americans in 1933. It came from a book that was taught in the Tucson MAS and which was banned by the Tucson school district after the program was closed. “I don’t know if this picture promotes resentment against white people,” Arce said, “but it is a standard historical document. These are the types of things that were used as ‘evidence’ against the program.”
Arce also said the reason the Arizona legislature acted against MAS and other ethnic studies program is that they’ve been too successful. They’ve interfered, he argued, with what he called the “pipeline” that channels Chicano kids from poverty to poor schooling to dropping out to prison, all to benefit the big private prison companies that benefit from the U.S. having the highest percentage of its population behind bars of any country in the world. “Schools are set up to fail Black and Brown kids,” Arce said bluntly. “Administrators will say we’re crazy, but look at the results. Schools are set up to reproduce inequality.”
Needless to say, Gonzalez, Arce and the other teachers who had created MAS didn’t take its abolition lying down. Gonzalez vividly recalled the school board meeting at which that decision was made. It took place in a heavy-duty “security” atmosphere, with armed guards at the doors of the building and police snipers on nearby rooftops.
“They scheduled the meeting to kill our classes on Cinco de Mayo,” Gonzalez said. “Originally they were going to do it on April 11, but the students put chains on themselves and so they rescheduled it for May 3. Our students turned out in force. They demonstrated and were arrested. One of my students was literally thrown down by police.” Gonzalez included a picture of that incident in his slide show to underscore what he said was the brutality with which the people he’d taught were treated by law enforcement.
The MAS teachers tried to keep their program alive in the courts. Claiming that the elimination of MAS violated both Chicano students’ 14th Amendment rights and the federal desegregation order issued against TUSD in a previous case, Sean Arce and his daughter Maya became the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in 2012 against Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, after TUSD refused to challenge the Superintendent’s finding that MAS violated HR 2281.
Gonzalez and Arce were particularly incensed by an argument by the Superintendent’s attorney that said, “I would argue that the state has a legitimate interest in [ensuring] that the courses in our schools do not teach racist values. If what we were dealing with was a course designed by the Ku Klux Klan, everybody would see it’s obvious that the state has that legitimate interest. I think in this case we have shown that this is a course that promotes racist values that the legislature has a valid interest in preventing.”
Arce and the other teachers were told by the courts they didn’t have standing to sue because, as public employees, they were not allowed to challenge their bosses’ decisions in court. The case with Maya Arce as lead plaintiff was heard in court, but on March 8, 2013 a judge ruled that TUSD had a “legitimate pedagogical concern” over the content of MAS and therefore it was within their rights to eliminate it.
Unable to get MAS reinstated in the courts, its supporters fell back on the electoral route. “We worked hard to get a three-vote majority on the TUSD school board,” Gonzalez said. “The new board hired a Latino superintendent, H. T. Sanchez from Texas. Because TUSD was in violation of federal law, they had to reinstate the program, but they’re calling it ‘Culturally Relevant Curriculum for Latino Students,’ and they’ve also had to create a new department called ‘Culturally Relevant Curriculum for African-American Students.’”
Gonzalez and Arce have been hurt personally by the controversy. Arce hasn’t been able to land a teaching job in Arizona since TUSD fired him. He’s convinced he’s been blacklisted because his daughter is still the lead plaintiff in the case against Arizona’s school system, now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after the loss in the trial court. Gonzalez is still teaching in TUSD middle schools, but it’s clear that after his experience opening the hearts and minds of his students in MAS, having to teach the standard white-centered mainstream curriculum doesn’t give him the sense of pride and joy he had as an MAS teacher.
For more information on the fate of Mexican-American Studies [MAS] in the Tucson Unified School District [TUSD], visit the MAS supporters’ Web site at www.saveethnicstudies.org