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Feature image by Juana Alicia and True Colors Students, Living Without Borders

Last Friday, Tucson teachers Norma Gonzalez and Jose Gonzalez spoke at Little Village Lawndale High School regarding Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, known as HB2281. The event, The Raza Studies Tour, was organized by several social justice organizations. Little Village Lawndale High School owes its existence to social justice-minded community residents who went on a 19-day hunger strike in the early aughts, demanding CPS administration and developers honor their promise to build a new school for the highly over-populated area. A more fitting stage could not have been imagined for the Arizona educators who brought the story of their ongoing struggle to Chicago.

The Stakes are High: What Is Being Lost, and Who Is Losing?
Courses in Tucson Unified School District’s ethnic studies program are electives open to all students and fall under four divisions: African-American, Native-American, Pan-Asian, and Mexican-American studies. The latter’s mission is to “create within its community the comprehensive knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and critical consciousness necessary for the creation of effective leaders in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and diverse.” The majority of all TUSD students are Latino (64% of elementary schools, 54% in high schools), with a majority of those identifying as Mexican-American or Chicano. Latinos have the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, estimated around 44%.

According to TUSD Ethnic Studies Director, Sean Arce, addressing the achievement gap is central to the Mexican-American studies program. Students in the program graduate high school at a rate around 98%, which is over twice the national average. They’re also 2.5 to 4 times more likely than peers at grade level to pass state proficiency tests in reading, writing and math–even though math is not a part of the ethnic studies curriculum. From these findings alone, a strong case can be made that there is something worthy of replication in the TUSD ethnic studies model. Beyond improved test scores, students also credit the program with getting them to think critically about literature, history and their place in the world. They report “finding themselves.”  That’s something difficult to quantify but clearly invaluable.

And yet, former Arizona schools superintendent Tom Horne sees the ethnic studies program as a threat. Claiming that the program fosters ethnic chauvinism and is designed to promote the overthrow of the U.S., he made a successful case to the public for the passage of HB2281 in December 2010. The legislation bans courses that:

  1. Promote the overthrow of the U.S. government
  2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
  3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals

The Raza Studies program at TUSD has been charged with violating these provisions. If TUSD does not eliminate its ethnic studies program, district funding will be withheld.

What does the research say about acculturation and preserving your Chicano identity?
In a separate talk held on Loyola’s campus recently regarding the immigrant experience in the U.S., Dr. Lisa Dorner discussed how immigrant children are often called upon to help when family or other community members are not proficient in English (or need other elements of American culture translated). Dr. Dorner’s research suggests that through this language brokering process for family and community, children of immigrants come to see themselves as having a valuable function as linguistic and cultural interpreters. They learn they have a purpose in their homes and neighborhoods–which in turn engenders civic purpose: a sense that their actions can be of direct benefit to others, not only in their communities, but in this country and world. These youth, directed by their sense of civic purpose, are drawn to careers in education, law, health care and public service.

At the same talk, Dr. Dina Birman discussed the idea that acculturation of immigrants into the larger society can be facilitated by the development of a strong ethnic or cultural identity, which can help individuals successfully navigate through the broader culture in a way that reduces internal psychological and familial conflict. Such conflict reduction is associated with greater mental, physical and academic outcomes. I can be a Chicana, know myself, and benefit from that secure identity as I lead my life as an American. Who would have thunk it? Clearly not these right-wing extremists who refuse to acknowledge the cultural diversity that surrounds us. Like it or not, though, they need to understand that the population of our country will continue to reflect great cultural diversity–and will do so at an increasing rate from here on out.

Assume some of these above-mentioned elements can be brought together:

  • Civic engagement for first-generation Americans
  • A strengthened cultural identity put to service as a psychological buffer aiding in acculturation
  • An authentic education with an emphasis on critical thought, social justice and conscientiousness

If immigrants were greeted by these conditions, the potential for Latino immigrants and their families to contribute meaningfully to U.S. society seem all but guaranteed. But in the presence of increasing anti-Latino/anti-immigrant political rhetoric, growing economic disparities between the have and have-nots and institutionalized racism and discrimination as characterized by SB1070 and HB2281 (and similar legislation that has been introduced in over 30 states), the previously alluded to potential contributions of Latino immigrants fade to the background. Simply paying rent and staying out of jail become all that a majority of Latino youth can hope to work towards.

“Educate the Children and It Won’t be Necessary to Punish the Man.”
It really doesn’t take a sophisticated statistical analysis to recognize the relationship between elevated high school drop out rates and incarceration rates among Latinos. In general, quality of life outcomes are lowered for the uneducated. Instead of working to maximize the benefits immigrants can bring to this country, many politicians weighing in on the so-called “education” issue regarding ethnic studies are very quick to punish the man, woman, and child. They manipulate the public through fear-mongering and xenophobic propaganda, using their power to divide rather than unite.

Tom Horne is one such politician. Taking office as Arizona’s Attorney General on January 3rd, he effectively turned anti-Mexican sentiment into voter capital as he spearheaded the takedown of TUSD’s ethnic studies program via HB2281. Why are ethnic studies such a threat? Less than a few thousand students are served by the program. What is really going on in Arizona? Even the least conspiratorial-minded among us can connect the dots between Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s ties to the Corrections Corporation of America (a company that builds prisons that hold criminals and, you guessed it, immigrants), Neo-Nazi/white supremacist-linked Russell Pearce and Kris Kobach (creators of SB1070), and cultural crusader turned chief legal officer of the state of AZ Tom Horne to see that the political climate in the Southwest goes beyond simple hatred of Mexicans. This is also about human greed. These politicians abide by the maxim: “Punish the man to feed your children.”

“Chicano Studies Represent the Only Institutionalized Victory of the Chicano Movement.”
Dr. Raoul Contreras was also in attendance at the Raza Studies Tour. In underscoring the importance of preserving ethnic studies, he reflected upon the Chicano movement. “Chicano studies represent the only institutionalized victory of the Chicano movement” he reminded us. Taken for granted today by many, the right to obtain multiple perspectives on history, the right to know who you are and where you come from are rights that were fought for–and they are now in danger of being lost.

However, the academic warriors in Tucson’s ethnic studies programs understand this all too well and are now hard at work defending their right to culturally relevant curricula. Precious Knowledge is a Dos Vatos documentary portraying the current struggles of these students and educators, giving us a glimpse into not only their classrooms but also their hearts and minds. While lawmakers and the public argue over the merits of ethnic studies, the students and educators in the program know what stands to be lost: their identity, a sense of purpose, critical thought, and intellectual freedom.

A Thirst for Knowledge
My mother, a third generation Mexican-American born in the Midwest, tells me she didn’t know much about the history of Mexico until college. Hers was the era in which nuns hit children for speaking Spanish in Catholic school, and bilingual education in public school as nonexistent. Bicultural or multicultural curricula were just as absent. Determined to set me on a different path, she took me to visit Mexico City and the city of Teotihuacán when I was in junior high. While exploring Mexico, I saw the monolith commonly referred to as the Aztec Calendar. Many of us were taught that the figure in the center, Tonatiuh, is depicted with his tongue sticking out in the form of a sacrificial dagger so as to symbolize the ritualistic blood-thirst often associated with pre-Columbian societies. Others strongly oppose this interpretation, considering it representative of the demonization of the indigenous people of ancient Mexico. Still others take it to mean something else entirely. Case in point: my father told me Tonatiuh’s tongue is sticking out because he bit into a serrano pepper. But, regardless of what is true, when I see the iconic images of the Sun Stone today, I see the face of history. Tonatiuh razzes his oppressors. He mocks those who have tried to destroy him. He says, “Look at me. I am still here. We are still here. I cannot be hidden. I cannot be buried.”

And we cannot afford to have history hidden and buried again.

Please help the educators and students of Arizona in their struggle. Spread the word of SaveEthnicStudies.org and donate to the organization. This is a battle that is being fought in court and one that will demand extensive resources. For additional news and information, please follow SaveEthnicStudies.org via their Twitter account and Facebook page.

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