Education vs. Fear

A lawsuit filed by 11 TUSD teachers seeks to keep ethnic-studies classes alive

Augustín Romero could pack up his family and leave Arizona, and start over somewhere far from Tom Horne and Jan Brewer—but that would mean giving up on an education program that Romero passionately describes using words like "love," "hope" and "purpose."

The only reason he's even considered leaving, Romero says, is the occasional threat against him and his family. The first and former director of the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American Studies Department has received pictures in the mail of his children playing during recess at Davis Bilingual Magnet elementary, along with a note telling him that the sender knows where his children go to school. The anonymous threats have also included pictures of Romero's house with a note that the sender knows where he lives.

"I guess they want to scare me, and they want us to stop," Romero says, shrugging his shoulders.

Despite the threats and the passage this year of state House Bill 2281—which prohibits Arizona public schools from teaching what are deemed to be ethnic-studies classes—11 of Romero's colleagues continue teaching 45 classes in TUSD schools under the Mexican American Studies umbrella, in history, literature and art, from elementary school to high school.

Civil rights attorney Richard Martinez calls Romero's fellow teachers the Tucson 11, and on their behalf, he filed a lawsuit on Oct. 18 against outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and the Arizona State Board of Education. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of HB 2281 and seeks to shed light on what he says is the real purpose of the law: political opportunism.

Martinez hopes a judge will allow the classes to continue past Dec. 31, when the law goes into effect. Horne has said that he will find TUSD in noncompliance of HB 2281, and according to the law, if a school is found in noncompliance, it will be given a 90-day warning, and then the state is allowed to withhold 10 percent of its funding.

Horne, a former state legislator, authored the law, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed on May 10.

Horne has used a 2006 incident as a reason to make ethnic-studies classes illegal in Arizona schools. Horne's deputy superintendent, Margaret Garcia Dugan, was sent to speak at Tucson Magnet High School and refute statements that labor activist Dolores Huerta made at the school that were critical of the Republican Party—and she was greeted by kids who stood up, silently, with tape over their mouths.

Before Election Day, most of the plaintiffs interviewed by the Tucson Weekly said they were growing tired of the fight and of Horne, but they were hopeful that perhaps the Canadian-born attorney and superintendent would finally go away if he were defeated in his race to become attorney general. However, Horne defeated Democrat Felicia Rotellini.

"Nothing has changed from my perspective; in fact, I look at it this way: The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity," Romero says about the election results. "This is an opportunity to demonstrate what we do—to ... get the truth out there, to counter the lies, the rhetoric."

Romero says he worries that many people in Arizona and across the country have bought into the claims that these classes—which have been proven to increase school attendance, markedly increase state test scores, and improve overall school grades and behaviors—teach kids that their ethnicity is better than everyone else's (what Horne has described as ethnic chauvinism), or that the classes teach kids that they are victims of oppression.

"This really comes down to the pedagogy of love, the pedagogy of hope, and as teachers, we are going to invest in our children. We are reinvigorated.

"You wanna fight? Bring it on. Let's go, because we know what we do is the right thing, and we do it for the right reasons," Romero says.

A building across from Martinez's Barrio Viejo law office serves as the headquarters for Save Ethnic Studies, a campaign run by ethnic-studies proponents who want to raise awareness of HB 2281 and the lawsuit, and raise money to cover the legal expenses.

In the office, about half of the Tucson 11 members sit around a table discussing how they became teachers in the department, why they signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and why they continue to teach the ethnic-studies classes—knowing they could be out of a job in the new year.

Horne has talked to local and national media about what takes place in these Mexican American Studies classrooms, describing them as anti-American incubators that teach kids to overthrow the U.S. government or be revolutionaries. However, he has never observed the classrooms in person. TUSD has invited Horne and Garcia Dugan, but neither has ever accepted the invitation.

"He's sort of right," says Curtis Acosta, a Mexican American Studies literature teacher at Tucson High School. "Love in our schools is revolutionary."

As a biracial student in a small town outside of Sacramento, Calif., Acosta says, he grew up struggling with his identity. He was only one of two Mexican-American kids in his school, and when he played basketball, the crowd would shout out his school nickname: Mean Bean. He never had a Chicano/Latino teacher, and he never told anyone how much the nickname bothered him.

"It took me a long time to find balance and be proud of my heritage," Acosta says.

Dolores Carrion, a teacher with TUSD for 33 years, grew up in Coolidge, and also never had a Mexican-American teacher or mentor. During her freshman year of college at the UA, she left for Mexico and stayed there for seven years, learning her cultural roots.

"That's my prime motivator as a teacher now. Growing up in Coolidge, we were made to feel (that) we were deficient, yet I grew up in an area that was culturally rich. It was one of the reasons I went to Mexico, to rediscover who I am," the art teacher says.

Sally Rusk has taught at Pueblo Magnet High School for 20 years, and now teaches a Mexican-American perspectives history class. She talked to the Weekly on the day after Election Day, and she admitted it had been a very difficult day. Not only did Horne earn a narrow victory in his race; Republican state Sen. John Huppenthal, also an ethnic-studies critic, handily beat career educator Penny Kotterman in the race to replace Horne as the state superintendent of public instruction.

"It wasn't just the results of his election that made it difficult. I don't understand what is happening right now and what is going on in this country," Rusk says, sighing at the end of her sentence, and finally crying. "This is a fear-based law, and it's absurd."

Rusk, who is white, started at Pueblo because she is bilingual, and the school needed a bilingual math teacher. "I lucked out getting a full-time job, but I always wanted to teach social studies and history, especially with a social-justice curriculum, because it is obvious we need thinkers."

There is an excitement Rusk sees in her students, which is why she doesn't understand why anyone would want to dismantle what they've accomplished.

Part of the reason Norma Gonzalez became a teacher in the Mexican American Studies Department was personal: Her daughter was taking an Advanced Placement English class at Tucson High, and she told Gonzalez that she felt she was being discriminated against.

"She was one of four Mexican-American female students, in a predominately Anglo class. She sat in the back, and that was the teacher's choice. She would raise her hand, but was never called on, nor were the other girls; sadly, all four were pushed out. They left the class. I spoke to the teacher several times and suggested she make a circle with the desks," Gonzalez says.

Nothing changed, and her daughter ended up taking a senior level Chicano-studies class—and everything was different. She saw her daughter excited and interested, and being asked to participate fully in the classroom experience.

"I think our schools are also not teaching critical thinking. It is absent from our traditional curriculum, but we are using critical thinking—critical consciousness about their world, understanding history and how it is cyclical, but also the ability to question," Gonzalez says.

Mexican American Studies teacher José Gonzalez graduated from Cholla High School. He says he remembers Carrion teaching art.

"I admired Dolores from a distance. She worked across the hall from where I studied. I had a beautiful art teacher named Mrs. Belfur, but I remembered Dolores. She had long, beautiful hair, and that was, like, the first Chicana teacher I had ever seen, and man, I wish I'd had her (as a teacher)," Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez teaches a government and history class for the department, and he remembers that his high school history teacher merely read from the class textbook.

"Of course, he would put us all to sleep," Gonzalez says.

Rene Martinez, whose father is the lawyer representing the Tucson 11, teaches in the department; he attended Northern Arizona University for three semesters, but came home to finish school at the UA and was hired by Romero as a student worker in the Mexican American Studies Department at TUSD.

"He told me to register for (a) Chicano movement (class). He was a big influence on me," Martinez says, looking at the other people at the table and remarking that he feels that he's "grown up with these folks here."

"I probably wouldn't have registered for (the Chicano-studies class otherwise). I said to him, 'Does it count?' 'No, but it will be good for you.' I trusted him."

Although his lawyer father was involved in Chicano-student walkouts in Tucson in 1969 and protests in the 1970s, the young Martinez says seeing his father reflected in the course was an important moment, and one he thinks about when he teaches.

"Part of what we do is connecting with these students in how we care, and then showing them a part of history they didn't know existed—and they identify with that history. It's exciting what takes place in our classrooms," he says.

The elder Martinez, the Tucson 11 attorney, says what is happening right now is linked to everything he fought for in the 1970s and in the 1980s, when the school board wanted to close Davis Bilingual elementary, and the district needed to create a desegregation plan. Martinez ran Raúl Grijalva's successful campaign to get elected to the school board.

The creation of the Mexican American Studies Department was part of that fight that continued into the late 1990s, when UA students and activists began pressuring the school board to create the program.

"As all this Tom Horne stuff comes up, we said, 'At some point, we're going to have to take this to court,' and unfortunately, the day came," Martinez says.

After all of the fighting and the years of protests, why does the fight continue? Martinez says the work he and other activists did at the time made public schools better for Chicano students, but as the Mexican American Studies history teachers will say, history has a tendency to repeat itself.

"I think we met our obligations. The curriculum they developed is exactly what we wanted—to increase test scores, to keep kids in school," Martinez says.

Horne and his fellow ethnic-studies opponents say the curriculum is un-American, but Martinez says they don't provide a definition of "un-American."

"The say in the law it is promoting ethnic solidarity, as if that's something bad or something that could be awful. HB 2281 is a crazy hodgepodge of notions, designed primarily (against) one group: Mexican Americans," the elder Martinez laments.

In Horne's TV interviews, Martinez says he still hasn't heard the superintendent give a rational example of what Romero and his teachers have done wrong.

"The students were rude (or) disrespectful, or look at it that they were politically engaged in voicing opposition to your beliefs," he says, referring to the 2006 incident. "That's democracy, and that's American, but as soon as you have a group of Latino students actively voicing their viewpoint, somehow, that's offensive. Some people who march, I agree with, and some I don't, but it doesn't matter, because they have the right," Martinez says.

Horne has said he's opposed to bilingual education. When HB 2281 passed, the Arizona Department of Education issued a mandate that teachers with accents would not be allowed to teach in Arizona. Martinez says he fears that Huppenthal will push the same policies.

"Their version is a 1950s notion that you assimilate into a white society and forget who you are and where you came from. It is a milquetoast mentality, and they don't understand that long ago, we went from an assimilationist country to an acculturationist country. If you speak Spanish in your home, or somehow stay culturally connected to being Latino, then you are (considered) un-American. They confuse American values with (their values), being white," Martinez says.

History teaches us that other immigrant groups—such as the Irish, Italians and the Poles—have had their difficulties. Why are we seeing a resurgence in anti-Mexican sentiments today? Martinez says it is demographics: The Latino population continues to grow, and the U.S. is projected to become the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.

"That scares the white community, because they think it (makes the country into) something else, part of Mexico, part of Latin America, South America. Cultural retention, linguistic retention—that's just part of who we are as a country. For Latinos, that doesn't scare us to the exclusion of others," Martinez says.

Romero agrees, and says if common sense entered the discussion, they wouldn't have to deal with this law or this lawsuit.

"If you talk to my kids and ask them to tell you what the experience is like, why they appreciate the courses, they say things like, 'I feel safe; I feel loved; I feel understood,'" Romero says. "Over the past years, countless parents told us, 'Thank you for saving our kids' lives.' And some kids have come up to me and said, 'Romero, if it wasn't for these classes, I'd be dead today.'"

Part of the reason Romero came onboard to lead the Mexican American Studies Department was the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which required school districts across the country to fill academic gaps. In TUSD and the state as a whole, Latino students made up the highest percentage in the dropout rate—as well as the highest percentage of people incarcerated.

Originally, the program was designed for Mexican-American kids, but Romero soon started getting requests from counselors asking if other kids could take his classes.

"We were Latino-focused, because that was the mandate from No Child Left Behind, but quickly, we learned all kids could benefit from a shift in the traditional narrative they were being taught. I started having Anglo kids tell me, 'Thank you for not teaching me the story of the founding fathers all over again.'"

Romero says the program kept track of scores from the beginning. The first classroom of 17 kids all had dropped out of school at least once, with an average GPA of 1.2, "so in essence, this was a group of throwaway kids. We started working with them in August, and then in May, we walked in and asked them all the same question, 'Why are you still here?' They told us, 'Because of what you teach us.'"

Romero worked to make sure the curriculum was state-aligned—to honors standards. "We didn't want it lowered or dummied down. We elevated everyone's expectations. This is really big stuff, but struggling readers struggled through it. One of our students said it took her four days to read the first page of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It took her three weeks to read the first chapter, and four months to read the entire book, but she didn't put it down. It was a struggle, but she got through it: 'This was the first class (in which) I ever read a whole book,' I had kids tell us. 'This is the first class I ever took that had books with chapters.'"

Sean Arce, who was there from the beginning with Romero and the UA college students and who protested to get the board to start the program, now works as director of Mexican American Studies and is working on his doctorate at the UA in education on language, reading and culture. He says he understands how to support his arguments with peer review research and anecdotal evidence.

"We've discovered that the academic work we're engaged in not only benefits the Mexican-American community, but our entire community," Arce says.

The evidence they've collected is clear: Most of the students who have gone through the classes stay in school; they enjoy school and other classes more; their reading levels increase; 66 percent of the students go on to college; and they outperform their peers on the AIMS tests.

"We have the solutions for creating positive educational programs and opportunities for all people. I don't know why (Horne and Huppenthal) don't look at it that way," Arce says.

"I wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for the Chicano movement—none of us would be—but they are really trying to roll back those gains for their own political agenda and building on the fears of the public. It's great for them as a platform ... but the great thing about this country is that justice always prevails. It may take some time; there might be a lot of struggle and sacrifice, but I know the truth will win."

Beyond showing Latino students their own history, which is often left out of traditional American-history classes and textbooks, Romero says success has to do with the fact that each of the teachers works from "a place of authentic caring." This means that if a student helps his father, for example, clean a bar because his partner was sick, and the student is tired in class, the conversation goes like this: "'OK, mijo, I gotcha. Here's the assignment. Read it, come back another time, and we'll talk about it.'"

"Revolution" is a term Horne uses when he describes the ethnic-studies teachers and students. Romero advises that he look up the word, which also means change.

"Are we teaching change? Of course. It goes back to how we came to do this, because we know we are leaving kids behind. How is it we can do a better job of not leaving kids behind? Invest in love; invest in hope; and invest in purpose," Romero says.

The Weekly called Horne for comment, but he did not return our calls as of our press time. Huppenthal never returned calls or e-mails from the Weekly asking for comment, either, but in October, Huppenthal told the Arizona Capitol Times that he planned to take the ethnic-studies battle to the University of Arizona next.

"That's really the problem, this stuff is coming out of our universities and the ethnic studies there," Huppenthal told the Times. "Just dealing with it in Tucson Unified, I think you also have to deal with it over there at the University of Arizona."

Huppenthal could take his argument against ethnic studies to the Board of Regents—where he will have an ex-officio seat as superintendent.

While politicians like Huppenthal and Horne are eager to continue the fight, the Tucson 11 teachers admit it is frustrating and tiring, especially when they just want to continue doing their jobs.

"I think that it's mostly sad that our students have to engage in this type of struggle. I don't know if I would describe it that we are happy to continue the fight, because it takes a toll on a human being to constantly be in a position where you are threatened. It is anti-human," Norma Gonzalez says. "In that sense, they are ready to take on that struggle, because they know the history before them—that people have struggled to get to where they are today.

"It's recognition of that struggle and a continuation of doing the right thing, but it's important to acknowledge that it takes its toll on a human being."