Mexican American Studies in Arizona Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders

No other high school program in Arizona -- perhaps even the nation -- has gone through such scrutiny, investigation and media abuse and disinformation, as the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson.
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In a must read cover story in the most recent Tucson Weekly, acclaimed journalist and fifth-generation Tucsonan Mari Herreras expertly sorts fact from fiction in the controversial Ethnic Studies ban in Arizona.

Yet, underscoring Herreras' debunking of 10 myths -- that "stories of mythical proportions have surrounded the fight for Mexican-American studies -- with some truths sprinkled in between the lines" -- is one of the most tragic, if not obscene, realities in Arizona's education showdown: As the state inches toward its centennial in 2012, Mexican Americans -- including the 60 percent of the students that make up Tucson Unified School District -- still have to defend and justify the teaching of Mexican American history and literature, as if Mexican Americans are not part of the greater American experience.

The final showdown over the extremist witch hunt to outlaw Ethnic Studies in Tucson is only days away; but, the supremely American struggle for democratic education, justice and local control of schools has been playing out in the state's segregated minds for over a century.

Five years ago, long-time educator Salomon Baldenegro nailed Tucson's and the state of Arizona's enduring and shameful problem: "...history is cyclical, and the Mexican haters have resurfaced. We again find ourselves having to prove our legitimacy in our own country."

Or, at least in the legislative narrative of a modern-day Arizona framed by recalled Tea Party President Russell Pearce and his friends, Canadian-immigrant and violence-invoking Attorney General Tom Horne, and Tea Party extremist John Huppenthal, the embarrassingly incompetent Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Or, in the silence and ineptitude of a school district overseen by a demoralizing figure like TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone, who reneged on his promise to join the Mexican American Studies program in their federal court battle for constitutional rights, unleashed unforgivable and excessive police brutality on the city's youth and elderly icons last spring, placed obstacles on the program, referred to college-bound students as "pawns," refused to participate in public forums to heal the divide in the city, and dismissively concluded the historic legacy of Mexican American Studies as a "distraction" in his overwhelmingly Mexican American district.

In a chilling reminder of his acquiescence to the hateful narrative of Horne and Huppenthal, Pedicone refused to publicly rebuke, despite numerous pleas, Huppenthal's vicious charge in September that his district's own Mexican American youth could be compared to Hitler's paramilitary Jugend.

Let's be clear: No other high school program in Arizona -- perhaps even the nation -- has gone through such scrutiny, investigation and media abuse and disinformation, as the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson.

And yet, no other high school program among low-income students in the state of Arizona -- or perhaps the nation -- has proved its undeniable success in alleviating the achievement gap, graduating college-bound students, inspiring community-engaged young citizens, and garnering unprecedented praise from national education experts and an independent audit. No other program has sponsored as many public forums to heal and bring together the city on issues concerning its youth.

Bottom line: Mexican American Studies Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders.

In 2006, Baldenegro wrote:

We grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, when American society viewed Americans of Mexican descent as foreigners and there was a concerted campaign by society, particularly the schools, to make us feel inferior and treat us as interlopers in our own land.

We had two choices. We could acquiesce and shuffle through life, hat in hand, picking up society's crumbs. Or we could resist and assert our humanity. We resisted.

In coalition with barrio activists and some Mexican-American professionals, we fundamentally changed the educational, political, cultural and social landscape of Tucson and Arizona.

Years later, few Tucsonans have had the vantage point and experience as youth advocate and educator Sarah Gonzales. Unlike many entrenched and highly paid administrators or politicians who have failed to take on the Tea Party extremists or defend Tucson's children on the frontlines, Gonzales has spent the last decade organizing arts, education and social justice projects in schools and youth communities throughout Arizona.

She writes:

The voices of the community most central to Ethnic Studies have been ignored, refuted and disrespected. The treatment of our youth, respected elders, MAS teachers and community supporters has been egregious. Unfortunately, in many social movements the leadership oppresses the voice of the community instead of seeking the community's knowledge.

I think the community is seeking to hold Pedicone responsible for the hostile climate that his leadership or lack thereof created at the school board meetings around this topic. It is quite understandable that a community who has been beaten, arrested and devalued would not trust or support the leadership. The community has a right to seek accountability for these transgressions.

Ethnic Studies is a placeholder in the long line of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino/a legislation in Arizona recently. To view it as somehow different from the rest of the legislation is to be ignorant to structural inequality.

Arguments over curriculum or programmatic changes for the "best interest" of the students by people who have no education, participation or background in Ethnic Studies serve only to distract from the unity needed to refute an unjust piece of legislation that has no business in Tucson.

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