Ethnic Studies Myths

It's time to separate fact from fiction regarding TUSD's Mexican-American Studies classes

In Arizona, we have firsthand experience with the power of myth—for example, think of Gov. Jan Brewer's claim of an endless stream of headless corpses in the desert.

It's that kind of storytelling that has helped our state become a top exporter of anti-Mexican sentiment, first with SB 1070, and then with HB 2281, Arizona's anti-ethnic-studies law.

The myths surrounding the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies classes—which HB 2281 was written specifically to deal with—begin with state Attorney General Tom Horne, back when he was state superintendent of public instruction.

In 2006, labor-rights activist Dolores Huerta addressed Tucson High Magnet School students and uttered these words: "Republicans hate Latinos."

Horne reacted by dispatching his deputy superintendent, Margaret Dugan, to explain to students why Huerta was wrong. Horne wanted students to know that Republicans do not hate Latinos. However, many students—frustrated that they were not allowed to ask Dugan questions—stood up in unison with tape across their mouths. More than 200 walked out during her speech.

Horne investigated where these students learned about free speech and civil disobedience, and determined they gained their knowledge in a series of Mexican-American studies classes. The best solution to Horne, apparently, was to get rid of these classes, as he soon spearheaded HB 2281.

Since Huerta's statement and the beginning of Horne's crusade, stories of mythical proportions have surrounded the fight for Mexican-American studies—with some truths sprinkled in between the lines.

It's time to sort things out.

Myth No. 1: Republicans love Mexicans.

Around the time when Huerta spoke at Tucson High, a series of bills was being passed by Arizona's Republican-majority Legislature—including earlier versions of SB 1070, border-security bills, a bill requiring employers to use a work-eligibility-verification system, and bills to deny in-state tuition and financial aid to noncitizen students. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed most of the bills.

There were also four state ballot proposals that targeted immigrants, including an English-only law, which voters passed. Nationally, a controversial federal immigration-reform proposal led to a series of immigration-related protests across the country, including in Tucson.

Huerta's statement was part of an appeal to students, as she was asking them to look at the legislation and challenging them to start a campaign to address why "Republicans hate Latinos."

This led to the aforementioned speech by Dugan, and the walkout by students, which infuriated Horne. In an open letter in 2007, he wrote that TUSD's program should be terminated. Next, in 2008, he worked with lawmakers on SB 1108, the first anti-ethnic-studies bill. He tried again in 2009 with SB 1069, but both bills failed to become law.

But then Barack Obama was elected president, and Napolitano went with him to Washington, D.C., to head up the Department of Homeland Security. Jan Brewer, Arizona's Republican secretary of state, became governor, and with a Republican majority in the Legislature passing SB 1070 and HB 2281, she signed them into law in 2010.

Truth: When it comes to most Arizona Republicans, Huerta has a gift for stating the obvious.

Myth No. 2: Horne's anti-ethnic studies law isn't anti-Mexican.

HB 2281 was written to focus on only one school district in the state, and on only one program.

TUSD has other ethnic-studies programs that focus on African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific islanders and Asian Americans. But only Mexican-American studies classes—and their teachers—are under attack. When former state Sen. John Huppenthal successfully ran for state superintendent (while Horne ran successfully for attorney general), part of his platform was to get rid of la raza, a term from the Chicano movement that means "the people."

He didn't say black studies, or Indian studies. He said la raza.

From Nolan Cabrera's perspective, fear and politics are the real reasons behind laws like SB 1070 and HB 2281. Cabrera, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona's College of Education, has been a vocal supporter of the TUSD program.

"Social-science research shows us that the Latino population is the largest-growing in this country right now, and that's what makes it very easy to play upon those fears," Cabrera says.

"They've been doing it for years. It plays on your fears and increases turnout on the conservative right. The other timing (factor) is the recession: When people are pinched, they react. Look at our past with Operation Wetback, and then the Chinese Exclusion Act—'throw out the foreigners.'"

Truth: Hatred of all things Mexican can help you get elected in much of Arizona.

Myth No. 3: These classes are teaching a form of Mayan religion.

Some, but not all, of the Mexican-American studies classes in TUSD open with a poem written by Luis Valdez, of Zoot Suit and La Bamba fame. The poem is called "In Lak Ech," a Mayan phrase that was used as a greeting; the poem in some ways mirrors the golden rule.

Here's Valdez's poem:

In Lak Ech

Tú Eres mi otro yo / You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti / If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mí mismo / I do harm to myself;

Si te amo y respeto / If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo / I love and respect myself.

After reciting the poem, students sometimes participate in what is called the unity clap. The unity clap originated with the United Farm Workers as a way to bridge the communication gap between Latino and Filipino workers who did not share the same language; the idea was to create unity. The clap starts off slowly, then gets faster and faster.

In the movie Stand and Deliver, East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante is depicted using a form of clapping to get students revved up, and he even throws in a bit of Mayan math history. However, no one accused Escalante of teaching students Mayan religious practices, or of being in a cult.

Pueblo High School teacher Sally Rusk, who teaches Chicano history, explains that when the classes recite "In Lak Ech" and other Mayan writings, "What we're doing is a paradigm of reflection—to engage the students to reflect on actions and their history. The whole reason we study history is to learn from the past. As we learn, we need to share with others, and this is where it is scary for critics, because it is about transforming society.

"We open the week and end the week saying we want a revolutionary state of mind, but that's not about the violent overthrow of our country. We're (telling) our students that we can no longer accept the high dropout rate for Chicanos."

Truth: Ethnic-studies classes keep some Latino high school students from dropping out—a fact that doesn't impress Mexican-American studies opponents.

Myth No. 4: John Pedicone is against ethnic studies because of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council.

As soon as John Pedicone became TUSD's superintendent, local activists said his appointment was an attempt by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council—of which Pedicone was once a member—to take over the direction of Tucson's largest school district.

SALC has had its share of criticism as an organization with a political agenda. Members include car-dealer Jim Click (a conservative Republican) and many area corporation representatives. The council has been accused of being overly Anglo and not doing a good job of representing a wide spectrum of Tucsonans.

"The fact that people try to generalize SALC and my affiliation is misguided," says Pedicone.

Pedicone describes SALC as a group of "effective community leaders" who want to improve Tucson and its economy. He says he looks at working with members of SALC as a way to bring education and business together.

"The fact that people talk about bigotry, but then generalize or make assumptions and create fear based on my affiliation with SALC, is wrong," Pedicone says, "because it just isn't true."

Truth: While it's probably a good idea to keep an eye on SALC, repeating over and over that Pedicone is a SALC operative doesn't make it true.

Myth No. 5: John Pedicone is working to dismantle Mexican-American Studies.

Pedicone says he's aware of the claim that he doesn't support ethnic studies, and that it's hearsay. He calls the attack on ethnic studies part of a specific political agenda that he is not involved in.

"Unfortunately, people are on edge on both sides," Pedicone says.

Janet Marcotte, executive director of the YWCA Tucson, describes herself as a Pedicone supporter, and says she also continues to support ethnic studies.

"I've also been characterized as a great friend of John, but when I first reached out to him, I'd never met him face to face. I've been following everything he said, and following it closely, because it is an issue I care a lot about," Marcotte says. "... We would not be appealing (Huppenthal's finding that TUSD violated HB 2281) if it wasn't for John. I don't know why that keeps getting overlooked."

However, teachers and others who support the program disagree. Rusk says changes made to the Mexican-American Studies Department that were championed by Pedicone have had a negative impact on the program. The director, Sean Arce, was essentially demoted when Assistant TUSD Superintendent Lupita Cavazos-Garcia was placed in charge of the program (as well as other district-wide programs).

Rusk says that this year, all of the Mexican-American studies teachers were forced to work full-time, which prevented some of them from doing effective outreach for their classes, like working on dropout-prevention programs and participating in community events.

The district also changed the way the classes were offered and how students registered for them. With little time for outreach by teachers, enrollment dropped, Rusk says.

Although district officials claim to support the program, the end result of the changes is "that our enrollment is down by more than half this year," Rusk says. Instead of supporting the program, they're dismantling it, she charges.

Truth: It's difficult to publicly criticize a program that has been proven to help students—and what happens behind the scenes is what matters to its survival.

Myth No. 6: Isn't it time to move on?

With State Sen. Russell Pearce—an author of SB 1070—having been recalled, ethnic-studies activists say now is the best time to take advantage of a newfound energy and interest in changing the state.

However, both Marcotte and Pedicone say the district faces more-important problems than ethnic studies.

UA's Cabrera says he'll be happy to move beyond ethnic studies "when we no longer live in a racist society."

Cabrera says Pedicone and school-board member Mark Stegeman brought criticism by ethnic-studies supporters upon themselves. For example, after the student-led group UNIDOS took over the TUSD governing-board meeting on April 26—when Stegeman planned on introducing a resolution to make Mexican-American studies classes only available as electives, and not requirement-fulfilling classes—Pedicone and others criticized the students rather than accepting some of the blame for the students' frustration, Cabrera says.

"When you start vilifying the students, you are almost parodying Huppenthal and Horne," he says. "Why demonize these kids if they are fundamentally interested in having this conversation? UNIDOS' actions stemmed from the students being ignored and not having their voice listened to. So right now, (with the late Judy Burns' seat on the school board open), why not have a youth voice present?"

Truth: No, it's not time to move on.

Myth No. 7: MECHA is anti-Semitic and un-American.

During the state Administrative Court hearings, the state presented an e-mail to Pedicone from assistant superintendent Lupita Cavazos-Garcia regarding her concerns that MEChA, a national cultural and academic organization for students, was described as anti-Semitic, and that it could potentially indoctrinate children.

Questioning MEChA in this manner was surprising to local activists, who pointed out that U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva was a member of MEChA, as was Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero.

The Community Advisory Board for TUSD's Mexican-American studies program called for Cavazos-Garcia to be removed from her administrative position, but she remains in place.

"Her comments clearly illustrate a profound misunderstanding of the organization and a general lack of support for groups dedicated to the educational advancement of Latino youth," reads the advisory board's press release.

"Despite Garcia's personally held beliefs, TUSD has placed her in charge of the district's Mexican-American studies program, which similarly prepares students for advancement in higher education and teaches American history and literature through the Mexican-American perspective. Despite the program's proven efficacy in increasing student achievement, under Garcia's direction, the department has seen a dramatic internal restructuring and a damaging decentralization of program staff."

Pedicone's response is that he can't determine who he employs based on complaints from the community, or based on complaints from people who don't like her as their supervisor.

"The fact that she is in charge is not the issue. Where in any organizational structure does someone who doesn't like their supervisor get to change that?" Pedicone asks.

Truth: When people complain about MEChA, they usually describe a Mexican plot to re-create Aztlan. No one seems to have the ability anymore to understand symbols and metaphors.

Myth No. 8: Anyone who offers criticism of ethnic studies is a racist.

As discussions heated up regarding what Pedicone and TUSD would do regarding the state's finding that the district was in violation of HB 2281, Marcotte says she reached out to the superintendent to devise a strategy for the school district. It was at this meeting that a local activist and ethnic-studies supporter who showed up was told to leave. Accusations flew, and Marcotte was called a racist.

On the contrary, she says. "I think that my corner is being in support of ethnic studies, and I think I've been unfairly characterized."

The passion of those who fight on behalf of ethnic studies, she says, is understandable, especially in the context of SB 1070. Given the anti-immigrant mood in the state, "I think it's been very difficult to focus on how we make things better," Marcotte says. "It happens in this (kind of) situation—'you're not totally with me, so you're against me.'"

Marcotte acknowledges she hasn't always agreed with the tactics of program supporters. "Because of that, it's been very difficult to localize a broad-based group to be supportive of ethnic studies. It would be nice if it was different, so that we could show a unified voice."

Marcotte also says that calls for Pedicone's resignation were absurd. "When that happened, it was hard for me to believe (people calling for Pedicone's resignation) have the best interest of the district in mind."

Truth: At some point, everyone who supports ethnic studies will need to sit down and work with each other. Check egos at the door, please.

Myth No. 9: There's no way to heal wounds and work together.

People who identify themselves as progressive yet have offered criticism of ethnic studies have been called racists, while elders in the Chicano community were escorted from the governing board room on May 3 by Tucson police in riot gear. Other ethnic-studies supporters who surrounded the TUSD administration building that night were stomped on, pushed and bruised by police while they peacefully protested.

Where does the community go from here, as it waits for news from the state Administrative Court judge on whether TUSD's Mexican-American studies program violates state law?

"We need to work together," Rusk says. "This is what we keep saying as teachers—that we need to look at what we teach" and "our wants and goals."

She says, "I'd like us all to have a huge meeting and figure out this division, the escalations and our framework."

Marcotte says opportunities remain for everyone to come together around this issue.

"I've done all kinds of programs, some that are over 20 years old, but that doesn't mean I don't believe there could be improvements," she says. "It's the same with ethnic studies. There probably can be improvements in the curriculum. And right now, it sometimes feels like a battle over the status quo. Frankly, the status quo is not good enough for our students."

The division among people who are on the same side "has been such a horrible thing for our community," she says. "We have just made Horne and Huppenthal very happy. We've been fighting with each other and not fighting for the best interests of students."

Truth: If making Horne and Huppenthal unhappy is a goal all ethnic-studies supporters can agree on, it should be easy to heal wounds and work together.

Myth No. 10: Huppenthal is right: Cambium Learning Group didn't do the audit correctly.

Huppenthal and his team at the state Department of Education testified during the Administrative Court hearings that Cambium Learning—the company and its subcontractor hired by the department to do an audit of the TUSD's Mexican-American studies program—didn't do a satisfactory job.

The audit, which offered some criticism of curriculum and other issues, stated the district and its classes were not in violation of state law, and auditors offered positive comments about the program and its teachers. The audit confirmed that the classes helped students do better in school and increased the likelihood of them graduating and going on to college.

However, TUSD had already heard this news in May when Cabrera presented his own analysis of TUSD statistics on the program.

"There are massive gaps in graduation (rates), but for the (Mexican-American studies) kids, that gap is eliminated," Cabrera says. "It should be profound headline news. ... I have yet to see a program in TUSD that has such a profound impact."

Cabrera says students in the program also began to perform better in classes outside of the program, such as math classes. "There is no Chicano-studies math, but those gaps began to close, too," he says. "That tells me it's not just about teaching the student, but changing their orientation to school in general."

Truth: Teaching kids their history in a way that's supportive helps them do better in school.