Raza StudiesPosted: October 10, 2012
In a lecture at the University of Arizona as part of Ethnic Studies Week, renowned geographer Ruth Gilmore told us that one of the goals of ethnic studies is to rewrite and challenge the mythic geographies, ancient and contemporary, that characterize the way we are taught to see the world. Her lecture, “The Birth of Ethnic Studies,” dealt with the history of the epistemological question of who are we and who does what–the history of describing difference–tracing it from the Greek historian Herodotus to the banning of Mexican American Studies in Tucson. The lecture laid an interesting context for the rest of our week, which we spent learning about Mexican American Studies (MAS), its history in Tucson, and the resistance and organizing surrounding it. We watched the documentary “Precious Knowledge,” met with teacher José Gonzalez, and hung out with four representatives from UNIDOS, a group of former Ethnic Studies students and their allies who are fighting for autonomous education, political analysis, and outreach surrounding Ethnic Studies in Tucson. It was a wonderful opportunity to dedicate a short but intense amount of time to a big topic.
The Ethnic Studies Program was created in the late 1990s in order to counter devastatingly high dropout rates among Latino students in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). During its 10-year tenure, the program was incredibly successful, lowering dropout rates from around 56% nationwide to 2.5 % in Tucson.
We had the privilege of meeting with former TUSD Ethnic Studies teacher José Gonzalez. José spoke to us about the content of the classes, and why they were so successful in engaging students. First and foremost, González told us, MAS classes are based on philosophy that humanizes students and teachers. Rather than ignoring the differences in background that make up the TUSD student body and instead following a deficit model of teaching, MAS classes teach identity – teach students to know, respect, and love who they are. A lot of Latino students have never been encouraged in school, so intentional spaces must be created for them to share and to make mistakes. This is because, González says, “as teachers you have the ability to build or destroy. And Frederick Douglass says that it is easier to build a child than to repair a broken man.”
José also spoke about the influence of Paolo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in MAS classes. Freire emphasizes the important of critical thinking. Critical thinking, as opposed to magical thinking (“put it all in God’s hands,” or “She is a lucky person and I am not”) or naïve thinking (“there is an achievement gap because some students are lazier than others”), teaches students to look at systems with a critical consciousness, and to think about their thinking.
MAS classes were successful in boosting Latino graduation rates because they dealt with material that was important to the students. For many students in the classes, this was the first time they read books by people from similar backgrounds, about topics that are alive for them each day. And they learned to love and respect their communities, and to harness that pride and build something positive with it.
Then it came crashing down. In 2006 and 2007, Tom Horne, then Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, began claiming that TUSD’s MAS programs promoted anti-American and anti-white sentiments. By June 2009, Horne introduced state legislation to attempt to ban Ethnic Studies courses.
This is where it gets more interesting. We got the chance to talk and have dinner with four young activists from UNIDOS (United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies), who provided a perspective on resistance in the context of the MAS controversies. On April 26th, 2011, student activists took over a TUSD meeting and chained themselves to the desks on the dais, preventing school board members from being seated. “We felt voiceless, like our voices didn’t matter. Taking the schoolboard was the only thing we could do,” said Denise, one of the UNIDOS students who spoke with us.
The efforts of MAS students prevailed in this moment, but Horne, his successor John Huppenthal, and Governor Jan Brewer, succeeded in passing lHB 2281, which decreases state funding from schools found to be promoting “classes that advocate overthrowing the government…or advocate ethnic solidarity,” and MAS was officially suspended on January 10th of this year.
It’s hard to describe the fury that I felt while watching “Precious Knowledge.” It was incredible to me to see scenes of love and learning in the classroom — learning that truly engaged students, that made them feel important and made them think critically about their world — and devastating to see that taken away by a few powerful white men in suits who did not even deign to visit a classroom, or, in the case of Huppenthal, visited the classroom once and then misrepresented his experience to prove his erroneous point. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be a student in the classroom when the books were banned, when, as Erin from UNIDOS put it, “these books that reflect you are put in a box and taken away.”
The UNIDOS students that we met are inspiring models of community organizing. They’ve acquired a casita, which they are in the process of fixing up, and are planning to have teach-ins, classes, a garden, a library, and tutoring. Their goals center around autonomous education, political analysis, and outreach. They’ve organized rallies and marches, had alternative school days with teach-ins, and work to provide for the educational needs of their community. On a personal note, I valued the opportunity to converse with people our age and hear their journeys towards activism. BSP student Roxanne put it best when she said that it seemed to her that activism her in Tucson is based around the heart: people are acting because it directly affects their life, or their neighbor’s life.
Here are some helpful resources on MAS in Tucson:
Raza Studies Background and Timeline
News article from January 2012: Tucson School Board Eliminates MAS Program
Daily Show Clip about MAS Ban
Precious Knowledge Documentary ad
Mexican American Studies statistics show that the program works, from SaveEthnicStudies.org
– submitted by Rachel Adler