Inside Ethnic Studies

An upcoming documentary goes where Tom Horne won't: into TUSD's controversial classes

These two facts have always bothered filmmaker Eren McGinnis: Fewer than six in 10 Latino adults have a high school diploma, and Latinos constitute one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the United States.

So when McGinnis heard about the success of TUSD's Mexican-American Studies Department at sending Latino students onto college—and that Arizona legislators wanted to end the department's classes, the filmmaker says she knew this was a story she wanted to tell.

McGinnis and her partner, Ari Palos, have been making documentaries together since the late 1990s through their production company, Dos Vatos.

"We've always done social-issue documentaries," says McGinnis. "Then when I started working with Ari, we began working on Latino issues. ... We're always interested in telling stories that don't normally get heard. The film business is still a business that's dominated by the white male, so if you do anything that's not white and not male, it's usually a story that's not been heard."

For three years, the Mexican-American filmmakers have worked on Precious Knowledge, a documentary about TUSD's ethnic-studies classes. The documentary is almost done, and Palos says they hope to screen it at the Fox Tucson Theatre in March.

Outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne—recently elected as Arizona's next attorney general—has never visited a TUSD ethnic-studies class. McGinnis and Palos, however, spent a school year in Tucson Magnet High School's Chicano-themed literature, history and government classes.

"It's interesting to me that, basically, we live in a society now that throws people in prison rather than educates them. You have to ask: Why? What's going on? Can't we think of better ways to make money?" McGinnis asks.

When the filmmakers first arrived at Tucson High, they learned that some students didn't care much for school and didn't think much about graduation or college. The documentary focuses on several of these students and shows the transformation that occurs by the end of the year.

"So we have a kid like Crystal (Terriquez), who comes into the program and is not that into school. She takes the literature class, and it opens her world—and then she becomes interested in her other classes, and she looks at her future differently," McGinnis says.

During filming, Horne was campaigning against ethnic studies and working with the Legislature on a bill that would make the classes illegal in Arizona public schools. The bill, HB 2281, was signed into law this year.

As a sophomore, Crystal says she suffered through school, particularly a world-history class.

"We were this little group of Mexican kids in the back corner that (the teacher) didn't pay attention to," says Terriquez, who now attends Pima Community College and wants to become a court interpreter.

One day, Terriquez says, that teacher told them about "'some classes for you Mexicans that will help you out.' A lot of people have asked me, 'Did you take that as a racist comment?' At first, I thought (it) was, but after I took those classes, I wished she was still teaching there so I could go thank her."

Even though that teacher's perspective of the classes was wrong—the classes aren't just for Mexican students—Terriquez says the classes were transforming. She entered a very quiet student who just went to school because she had to, and left as someone who wants to learn more.

As threats to the ethnic-studies classes began to grow, Terriquez says, she felt compelled to speak out at protests in Tucson and in Phoenix. Last spring, she and 12 others were arrested for trespassing at the state building in downtown Tucson during a protest.

"The TV news said we were being radical students protesting, and that we wanted to be arrested," Terriquez says. "It wasn't about that. To me, it was about my little sisters. I want those classes to be there for them."

Terriquez says she's been told by their attorney, Richard Martinez—the same civil rights attorney representing 11 Tucson educators who are suing Horne over the constitutionality of HB 2281 (see "Education vs. Fear," Nov. 11)—that a final decision on charges isn't expected until December.

Terriquez's mother, Selene, says she's certain her daughter wouldn't be a college sophomore had she not been introduced to the ethnic-studies classes—and that the classes helped at home, too. "She actually helped us a lot in our family. We were going through a lot of problems."

Selene Terriquez says that her husband didn't want her to go to work, and that it was Crystal who explained what she was learning and convinced her father that it was good for her mother to work.

"But there's no racism," Selene says. "They don't teach them anything bad in the classes. Back then, I was a stay-at-home mom. I sat in those classes. I actually thanked those teachers for getting my daughter where she is right now."

Becky Harvey also saw a transformation in her daughter. Mariah Harvey, who graduated from Tucson High with Terriquez in 2009, says watching Horne campaign against the classes and the passage of HB 2281 made for "a gut wrenching experience."

"As an adult, we know things may not always work out the way life is supposed to," Becky Harvey says. "But our kids felt that, 'If I try my best, good results are supposed to come,' not, 'My state legislator is going to call me a revolutionary.'"

That's exactly what happened last year, when Mariah Harvey and other students faced lawmakers like then-Sen. Jonathan Paton and Sen. Russell Pearce, who harshly questioned the students' motives. In the Precious Knowledge trailer, you can see Pearce tell Mariah Harvey that what she described was sedition against her country.

Mariah Harvey respectfully disagreed and pointed out that racism and oppression didn't just magically disappear from the United States. Mariah, who is half African American and half white, says she took the classes because she wanted to learn more about her Chicano friend's history and the region she called home.

Becky Harvey says her daughter was diagnosed with Graves' disease right as she began taking the classes. The classes kept her daughter engaged in school.

"Graves strips you of your goals and motivation," Mariah Harvey says. "The classes made me feel like it is my obligation to succeed. The teachers told us it was a strict obligation to be educated. We heard that every day. So I thought, 'Well, maybe I'm supposed to be educated.'"