In Response to AZ Ban, Students in Tucson Hold Their Own Ethnic Studies Classes

A teach-in about Chicano studies after the closure of the Mexican American Studies program in the TUSD

A Chicano studies teach-in after the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies program in the TUSD. (Photo: Valeria Fernandez)

TUCSON, Arizona—Instead of going to class at Tucson Magnet High School last Tuesday, high school senior Juan Quevedo,  entered a different type of classroom, protesting with hundred of others the cancellation of his Mexican-American studies program (MAS) by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).

Inside the Casino Ballroom, organizers from Unidos, a youth group that opposes the ban, held an all day teach-in on culture, critical thinking and Chicano studies with round tables where the students could engage in dialogue.

“It would be illegal now for the teachers to teach us [Mexican-American studies] so we are coming here to learn all the things they don’t want us to,” said the 18-year-old Quevedo.

The students went back to school on Wednesday, but Unidos will continue to hold teach-ins on Saturdays. A representative from Unidos said that independent student groups may also choose to walk out again.

The controversy over MAS entered a new phase on Dec. 27 when an Arizona administrative judge ruled the classes were in violation of a 2010 state law that bans ethnic studies when they promote the “overthrow of the U.S. government.”  As a result, this January, the Tucson School Board and school administrators proceeded to suspend the MAS classes and remove books that were considered inappropriate from classrooms.

In his ruling, Judge Lewis Kowal sided with findings presented by the Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal who argued that “students were being indoctrinated to develop resentment on a racial basis.”

Some of the books that were taken from classrooms include Rethinking Columbus: The next 500 Years and Occupied America. There are reports that teachers were also advised against teaching Shakespeare’s The Tempest, because of its racial themes.

So for the past weeks Quevedo and other students have protested what they believe is an arbitrary ban to their education via walkouts.

“It is very impressive, because students have come together from high schools to middle schools to protest against this,” said Jesus Romero a former MAS student and member of Unidos.

“We want to plant a seed, to keep learning about our history and culture,” Romero said.  Sixty percent of the over 55,000 students in the Tucson school district are Latino.

Like Quevedo, another 800 students enrolled in the MAS classes in Tucson found themselves having to switch gears mid-semester.

“We’re teaching the traditional curriculum, if a student was in the Mexican American history perspective classes they defaulted to a traditional history class,” said Sean Arce, co-founder and director of MAS.

Nicolas Dominguez, an 18-year-old student that attended the Unidos teach-in said he was disheartened and stressed when he discovered his classes had changed from one day to the next.

“It slows us all down,” he said. “Our teachers want to do something but they’re stepping on glass, they don’t know where to go.”

Dominguez was taking classes on Latino literature, Mexican-American  history and the Social Justice Education Program.

He especially liked his literature class when they were analyzing hip-hop songs, and reading magazines to look at how women are portrayed in society.

HB 2281 was introduced by Republican Representative Steve Montenegro in 2010 after he was approached by then-Superintendent of Education Tom Horne—now the state attorney general— specifically to be applied at TUSD.

“One of the reasons we brought this bill forward was because of the curriculum, the text books they were using, some of them had violent material aimed at inciting violence against another race or class of people,” said Montenegro.

Supporters of the MAS program deny Montenegro’s and Huppenthal’s assertions.

The school district was faced with loosing 10 percent of its funding, about $15 million, for not being in compliance with the law. Four members of the board, with the exception of Adelita Grijalva voted to eliminate the classes.

“The law is unjust, it’s racist and it’s discriminatory,” said Grijalva. “Our classes aren’t designed to overthrow the government or for ethnic solidarity.”

Teachers and students that filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of HB 2281 contend that an audit commissioned by Huppenthal himself found “no observable evidence” that MAS violated the law.

“He didn’t like the findings of his own commissioned audit, which spoke of higher graduation rates,”  said Arce, about the documented academic success of the program. “He came up with his own findings, which are not factually based. Misinterpretations of historical text and historical pictures, based on fear and hate mongering for the Latino community,” added the teacher, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Arce maintains that the findings and even the the judge’s ruling were subjective and are tied to a hostile climate for Mexican immigrants in the state and linked  to passage of SB 1070, a law that made it a state crime for an immigrant to not carry documents authorizing their presence in the U.S.

Backers of the ethnic studies law said that it is doing what it was intended to do.

Montenegro emphasized that the law “doesn’t prohibit the teaching of ethnic studies in its true nature.”

“It prohibits the teaching of resentment against other people,” he said.

Students from Unidos disagree with Montenegro’s assertion and plan to hold more of their own classes in the future.

“They’re operating like the Nazis did in the 1940s, when they were banning books, were censoring. Even the politics behinds this have sort of a Nazist, fascist, racist orientation,” said Augustin Romero, a founder of the MAS program and director for student equity in TUSD.

“We are going to be here, and we’re going to learn,” said Daniel Montoya, a 19-year-old former MAS student that founded Unidos. “It doesn’t matter if they create laws to stop our education, we’ll get our education anyway.”

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.