Feature photo by steev sit-in at AZ State Building in Tucson to protest anti-ethnic studies law.

In December, Arizona lawmakers passed the controversial bill known as HB2281, which banned ethnic studies in the Tuscon Unified School District. Last week, while students watched in stunned silence, teachers were forced to box up the seven books that were part of their Mexican-American Studies classes. Amongst the outlawed titles were Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was used to teach students about race and colonialism, and Rethinking Colombus: The Next 500 Years, which included a critical essay by Tuscon resident and Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko. Other titles included Critical Race Theory, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.

At a community forum, students spoke about the trauma of watching their teachers being forced to hand over the books that had been part of their curriculum. This program and its books have been denounced by Arizona politicians, such as District Attorney Tom Horne and state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal, the latter of whom actually compared the Mexican-American Studies program (MAS) to the indoctrination practiced by the Hitler Youth. Critics of MAS choose to ignore (or in Huppenthal’s case, deliberately misrepresent) the fact that students in the program have a graduation rate of 98%. Students speak passionately about finding themselves, finding a community, becoming enthusiastic about learning.

What’s the power of a word, of an idea? Already, the Tuscon Unified School District is denying that this is a “book ban,” knowing the connotations of the phrase, and has pointed out that the titles are still available to students through school libraries. To any modern, sane society, the censorship and destruction of books is an act tantamount to evil. It brings to mind images of goose-stepping Nazis and violent Red Guards in Maoist China, bonfires in which a people’s words and history go up in flames. When a people’s words become ashes, so do their collective identity; with their identity gone, eventually the people themselves follow. “Wherever they burn books,” wrote German poet Heinrich Heine, “they will also, in the end, burn people.”

In his book A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, Fernando Baez writes, “Public or private book destruction almost always takes place in alternating melancholy phases: restriction, exclusion, censure, looting, destruction.” By forcing teachers to remove these books — in a traumatizing, humiliating, and public way — the leaders of the Tuscon Unified School District, State Superintendent John Huppenthal, and state District Attorney Tom Horne, have sent a clear message: Be silent. Be obedient. Be empty, be acquiescent, be powerless, be alone.

Politicians in Arizona do not want their youth to talk about racism or oppression. In an interview with Jeff Biggers, who has been writing extensively about the ethnic studies ban for Salon.com and Huffington Post, teacher Curtis Acosta spoke about a meeting with his school administration: “What was clear is that our curriculum and pedagogy must be entirely overhauled. Which means the alterations are not only what we teach, but how we teach. No further support has been given to this point.”

The law itself is vague. It forbids “any courses or classes that: promote the overthrow of the United States government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” These programs have been shut down halfway through the academic year, with no guidelines for a replacement curriculum, only the threatening promise that these teachers will be monitored for their compliance.

In response to the ban, students in the district have been walking out in growing numbers, and a planned protest and teach-in was planned for Tuesday. A bill has already been introduced into the Arizona House to repeal the ban. Community leaders have been calling for federal court suit against the state, and for the Department of Justice to investigate Huppenthal and Horne on charges of racial profiling, hate crimes, and fraud.

Censorship is a form of violence. This law equates learning about Chicano history with promoting the overthrow of the government. It treats ethnic solidarity as treason. Arizona has become infamous in the last five years for eroding the rights of immigrants, undocumented people and Spanish-speaking citizens. Both Horne and Huppenthal campaigned on promises to “destroy” the ethnic studies program and “stop la raza. Arizona’s politicians talk is if they are on the front lines of a war, but a war happens for one of two reasons: a gross failure of diplomacy, or because someone, on one side or another, was spoiling for a fight.

In this case, it’s obvious which it is.

The men and women in the Arizona legislature who have enacted these bans are terrified of having a group of educated, empowered, and unified Latino youth in their state. They are so scared, they have bent the laws, lied on record, and sold their own fear and hate to their constituents. That is the power of an idea, of an education.

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