A Night to Regret

The arrest of TUSD's former MAS director brings forth contrition, as well as questions about gender and domestic violence

There are several ways to look at the Sunday, Dec. 9, arrest of Tucson Unified School District's former Mexican-American Studies director and co-founder, Sean Arce, who now faces charges for allegedly assaulting his ex-wife and for vandalism and trespassing.

There's the view from rabid critics of the district's beleaguered MAS department, who see state Attorney General Tom Horne a hero and buy into a mythology that the classes are anti-American. To them, Arce's arrest somehow exposes the dark underbelly of the program.

But there's also another view, from people who have supported the program and its return to TUSD but see Arce's arrest as an example of issues that need to be addressed within a movement that formed in response to Horne's anti-MAS law as well as SB 1070.

In the days after Arce's arrest, the Tucson Weekly talked to dozens of people who were responding to the news, and to gossip that at times grew out of control. While many expressed heartbreak for someone they respect, others said they worried about how Arce's arrest could fuel further attacks against MAS.

Here's what happened that night, according to a Tucson Police Department report obtained by the Weekly. Police said they responded to what was described as a break-in in progress. One witness interviewed said he heard banging at his neighbor's house, went to investigate and saw two broken windows and a man he didn't know bleeding from his right hand and standing inside the house. When the man saw the witness, he left the house, and the neighbor followed him and saw the man get into a white sedan.

More information about what occurred that night came from a police interview with Arce's ex-wife, who told police she was at La Cocina the night of Saturday, Dec. 8, when Arce showed up, grabbed her arm and pulled her away from a table where she sat with friends. After several patrons separated the couple, she left with friends and drove home.

A friend who was leaving the ex-wife's house saw Arce in the neighborhood, according to the ex-wife's interview, and called to tell her that Arce was driving toward the house. After she got off the phone, Arce's ex-wife heard something banging against a sliding glass door and she left with friends through the garage. They drove off and she called the police.

The report noted that when police arrived at the house, they found the front door and garage door open, and two broken windows, one of them with no glass left in the frame. But no one was inside. Blood found on glass from a broken window and on the front door was collected for evidence, according to the report.

Arce's ex-wife told police that she thought he was staying at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa to celebrate his birthday. Police arrested Arce at his Starr Pass room and he was transported to the Pima County Jail and booked on suspicion of domestic violence/assault, domestic violence/criminal damage and domestic violence/trespassing.

The week after the arrest, some MAS supporters noted a palpable silence about the arrest and hoped news of the alleged incidents would go away. However, Arce had reportedly discussed his arrest with members of UNIDOS, the student-led group that helped bring national attention to MAS when it took over a TUSD school board meeting last spring.

The Weekly reached out to Arce's ex-wife for comment, but response came from Tucson attorney Richard Martinez, the attorney representing former MAS teachers who filed a complaint in U.S. District court challenging the legality of the anti-MAS law. The plaintiffs are awaiting a decision from federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima.

Martinez, who is representing Arce on the Dec. 9 alleged domestic violence charges, is also representing Arce and former MAS teacher Jose Gonzalez in a defamation lawsuit filed last year by former TUSD teacher John Ward, who now works for the state Department of Education.

When Martinez called the Weekly, he said he had counseled his client not to discuss what occurred on the night of Dec. 8. But on Thursday, Dec. 27, I heard again from Martinez, who said he wanted to set up an interview with Arce.

During that interview, Arce said he wanted to clear up "a lot of misinformation..."

"Nonetheless, I own up to what I did and I regret bringing this attention to my kids ... I am a father who loves my children more than anything. No one has a right to disrespect their mother. ... my conduct was inexcusable."

Arce confirmed that he met with students from UNIDOS after his arrest.

"It was important because I let down a lot of people in the community. I have dedicated my life to youth advocacy, and try to provide an example and be a model for the youth. I think it's important to own up to what is true," he said.

Arce was fired last year when the TUSD governing board voted to not renew his contract as director of MAS. The meeting that night was packed with MAS supporters who pleaded with the board to keep Arce in his position. Shortly after his dismissal, Arce received the 2012 Myles Horton Award for Teaching People's History from the Zinn Education Project.

Arce told the Weekly the past four years have been particularly difficult for him. In addition to the fight for MAS classes, there was the fight for his job, a divorce and losing his home. The stress, he said, has at times been unbearable.

"... Still, what took place is inexcusable and I should have sought help earlier," said Arce, who has now sought counseling.

Martinez, who attended the interview with Arce, said there is a pretrial hearing in Tucson City Court on Monday, Jan. 8.

Usually the victim, in this case Arce's ex-wife, has "an important voice in where the case goes," Martinez said, but neither he nor Arce would say whether Arce's ex-wife intends to drop the domestic violence/assault charge.

Martinez acknowledged there are people in the community with an agenda to discredit Arce, even within the community that supports MAS. Shortly after Arce's arrest, an online blog surfaced called Malintzine (malintzine.wordpress.com). The first entry is titled "Dear Sean" and is a letter directed at Arce.

Kim Dominguez, program director for the UA Department of Mexican American Studies' Social Justice Education Project and a supporter of the MAS classes, told the Weekly she's familiar with the blog and that Malintzine is a collective of women and "queer people of color," who are interested in MAS and gender issues.

Dominguez has been a constant voice on gender and sexual violence issues within the local movement sparked by the anti-MAS law and SB 1070, also known as the "Papers, please" law. She said it's important for members of the movement to speak out, even though she understands how hard that can be when they are also dealing with trauma inflicted by the likes of Horne and others.

"We know that in social history that often, (troubled) men get highlighted as the leaders of these movements, while there are underdogs (that carry the movement)," Dominguez said, adding that those underdogs are most often women.

The Malintzine blog, she said, received 500 views in its first week. There is a lot, she said, that local women in the movement want to say, but they've felt they haven't had a voice. Women, Dominguez said, have felt dismissed and left out of the organizing.

"There is worry that talking about this perpetuates a narrative of young brown men and machismo. I understand that," Dominguez said. "But at this point, there needs to be change."