Ties That Bind

Internal struggles in the UA Mexican American Studies department grow due to ties to TUSD

Internal struggles, not the UA administration, may be to blame for the recent ouster of the student-led group UNIDOS from the university's Mexican American Studies department.

Four days before the first anniversary of the student takeover of the TUSD board meeting that propelled the state's anti-Mexican American Studies law into the national spotlight, UA MAS department head Antonio Estrada sent an email to assistant professors Roberto Rodriguez and Julio Cammarota. In it, he said that the department was "under scrutiny from the UA Administration."

"It has come to my attention, yet again, that Unidos is holding meetings in MAS," Estrada wrote in the April 23 email. "You both know the issues involved, and we were told to cut our ties with them, other than Roberto being an adviser. Unidos is a community group, not a university club. Julio, I know you know they are using your office. If this does not stop, I will take the front office away and make it for grad students, since Julio you are not bringing in research dollars to support its use any longer."

Estrada wrote that the ban on allowing UNIDOS to use the UA space would take effect in August.

"I don't think either one of you is getting the message from our administration. You cannot use UA facilities or computers during 8-5 to lobby for TUSD, Unidos or Ethnic Studies. We are under scrutiny from the UA Administration. I've said this to you multiple times. Don't bring this department down! ... We cannot use UA facilities to fundraise for Save Ethnic Studies. I will relay this to the dean and the President and your event for tomorrow will be off. Try to understand my position in all this, please. I can't help either of you if you keep breaking the rules!"

In the middle of this exchange sits 27-year-old UA undergraduate student Kim Dominguez, a founding member and manager of a UA MAS program called the Social Justice Education Project, or SJEP. The 10-year-old program supports TUSD's MAS teachers and classrooms.

Dominguez says she understands it's unusual for an undergraduate student to call out a department head, but the times dictated the need to make Estrada's email public. More important, according to Dominguez, is educating the public on the ties that connect UNIDOS and the UA MAS department, and their importance in the struggle to protect MAS classes in the Tucson Unified School District.

"There's a feeling that most have in the department that (Estrada) is MIA from this struggle to defend MAS in TUSD. We feel that we're on our own," she says.

Dominguez says the connections between UNIDOS and the UA MAS department begin with SJEP, which was started by Cammarota and TUSD's Augustine Romero. The project offers academic and curriculum support to TUSD MAS classrooms. Many former MAS students in TUSD who have gone on to UA's MAS program work in SJEP. They also volunteer as teaching assistants to TUSD MAS teachers and offer mentoring to TUSD students.

That mentoring manifests itself through such things as reminding students about scholarship and financial aid deadlines, holding financial aid and college application workshops for TUSD MAS students and their families, and checking in with students on plans for college or academic projects.

"The problem with (Estrada) focusing on UNIDOS is that what people may not understand is that SJEP is UNIDOS and UNIDOS is SJEP," Dominguez says. "Students from TUSD and the UA began meeting last year to discuss what they could to do prevent the district from shutting down the MAS department. From there that group grew as UNIDOS. They are directly related. UNIDOS is SJEP's baby."

Dominguez says that besides the advocacy role SJEP has taken through UNIDOS, its efforts to make sure students succeed have become more critical in the relationship between TUSD and the UA.

That story, she says, often gets neglected. And Dominguez should know, because she's a product of both SJEP and TUSD.

At 27, Dominguez says she got a late start at the UA MAS department. After graduating from Cholla High School, she got married and had a child, then attended Pima Community College. It was a former TUSD MAS student affiliated with SJEP who encouraged her to apply to the UA. Dominguez says she didn't think she had a chance, especially after talking to her high school counselor when she graduated from Cholla.

Dominguez says that's a common theme in SJEP. Mentors and teaching assistants have to dispel bad information students receive from counselors and let them know "that they can apply to the UA, that they can go to college."

Cammarota and Rodriguez were contacted for comment regarding Estrada's email to them but neither UA professor had responded by press time. The Weekly emailed UA President Eugene Sander asking for comment about any directives from the UA administration. Sander emailed back, "Not aware of any directives concerning the SJEP program. Check with Dean JP Jones."

We emailed John Paul Jones, dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, but he did not respond by press time.

Estrada, however, responded to a request for comment about directives regarding SJEP. "I have never received any warnings from the UA administration about MAS or SJEP," Estrada wrote. "SJEP is a legitimate research project housed in the MAS dept at UA."

When asked for further clarification—whether the issue was UNIDOS and perceived faculty involvement in the student group—Estrada replied, "Exactly! Not about SJEP. The issue is complex because some SJEP students are members of UNIDOS, and Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor in the department, is the UNIDOS adviser, which is fine with me. I think tensions are running very high among students and some community members, and anything that smacks of a 'crackdown' is seen as a betrayal. I was simply trying to protect the department and faculty from those who have threatened our department from the outside, like (state schools Superintendent John) Huppenthal."

Dominguez says she responded to Estrada's April 23 email with her own email the next day,  asking that the department treat UA students, SJEP volunteers and interns, who are often high school students and involved with UNIDOS, "with respect and consideration in the space we have created over the last decade. It is wildly inappropriate to enforce 'rules' that have not been discussed with the ENTIRE staff. I hope in the future these things will not be skipped over and young students including myself will not be left out of important communication. SJEP will continue to use this space as we have for years until the issue is resolved, not the other way around. I surely hope our own ETHNIC STUDIES department wouldn't have students escorted by campus security."

Estrada responded to Dominguez's April 24 email with another email. It reads, "All of you are way out of line!"