Arizona Latinos rising up against ethnic studies ban

Latino Literature

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer famously wagged her finger at President Obama when he visited the state a week ago. Today, though, it is Brewer who is on the receiving end of a scolding as the Latino community rises up in protest against a law banning ethnic studies in the state’s schools.

In 2010 Brewer signed HB 2281 into law, which effectively banned ethnic studies programs in public schools throughout the state. The law states that school districts or charter schools shall not include in their program of instruction any courses or classes that include the promotion of the overthrow of the United States government, resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

It was thought by many that this legislation was aimed directly at programs designed to highlight Latino contributions to society, specifically at the Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Chicano studies program. Arizona state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Huppenthal publically criticized TUSD for what he called “an unbalanced, politicized and historically inaccurate view of American History being taught.”

Huppenthal also noted at the end of the press release that “minority students’ academic growth, year after year, substantially lags behind other TUSD schools and Arizona peers. This is unacceptable. Every child needs access to a quality public education, and these children are being underserved. In a world in which quality education holds the keys to opportunity and success, these minority students are being consigned to a lesser future. They deserve better.”

However, an independent audit ordered by Huppenthal and conducted by Cambium, a company that Huppenthal selected; found that the programs are in fact legal. New America Media reports that the audit found that “no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law [Arizona Revised Statutes] 15-112(A).”

Nicolàs Kanellos, Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Studies at University of Houston and Director of Arte Público Press (APP), told The Texas Independent that the policy has been driven by an anti-immigrant ideology.

“Mr. Huppenthal, even before he became superintendent, was a legislator introducing anti-immigrant legislation and attempting to ban ethnic studies programs,” Kanellos said. “When he became superintendent he felt empowered to take them on, even though he has never been able to provide any evidence that these books violate the law calling for the overthrow of the government or the promoting of one race over the other, etc.”

APP is the largest publisher of contemporary U.S. Latino literature, and two APP books are on the banned list in Arizona. “Message to Aztlan,” by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales and “Chicano! A History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement,” by Arturo Rosales were included in the seven books confiscated by Tucson Unified School District officials following the dismantling of the district’s Mexican-American Studies program.

Kanellos specifically cited Gonzales for being one of the “most important civil rights leaders,” mentioning a poem within the book, “I Am Joaquin,” which deals the conflicting identities of Latinos.

“It addresses that Chicanos are both Mexican and American, and have been both the oppressors and the oppressed,” he said. “It’s a healing piece not directed at Anglos but for Hispanics to come to terms with their history. It is just the opposite of the terms that Huppenthal has characterized them as.”

The loss of control by the current power structure is what Kanellos believes is the driving force behind these policies.

“I truly believe that the motivation is the fear of losing power as the demography of the Southwest changes,” he said. “It is about sustaining the power that comes from asserting a white monolithic Eurocentric history without acknowledging that we live in a multicultural society with contributions from minorities. If they really want to know how they can prevent dropouts and low performance from the Latino community, then teach them about their history, about the contributions made by Chicano leaders.”

Tony Diaz, a writer originally from Chicago, who lives in Houston, is the founder of an organization that promotes Latino literature called Nuestra Palabra.

“Our mission is to promote Latino literature and literacy,” Diaz told The Texas Independent. He talked about grassroots activism that has come in response to the Arizona ban on ethnic studies.

“This has been brewing for about a year,” he said. “The boiling point was actually cancelling the classes and quantifying the books. What really offended us down to our soul – they took the books out of the classes in front of the kids and boxed them up, and that was such a cultural offense we felt we had to do something.”

Diaz addressed what he sees as misconceptions and fear about the Latino community, and those stereotypes have led to these types of situations.

“There is a lot of it that is fear of the Latino community, as we are not conveyed through the mainstream media as individuals,” he said. “We have been portrayed as gangbangers, drug dealers, and low class workers.”

In response to the banning of these books, Diaz and other activists are smuggling them into the state.

“We have to be Librotraficante,” Diaz said. “We have to become outlaws again. We’re going to take all the ‘wet books’ that are illegal in Arizona back across the border.”

The Librotraficante Banned Book Caravan will be smuggling “contraband books” back into Arizona from March 12 through 18, and will stage readings and teach-ins.

Diaz believes that this issue has united the Latino community.

“This has galvanized us in a way I’ve never seen,” Diaz said. “Once we lay these tracks it’s going to be like a train. We’re not the sleeping giant, we’re the working giant. We’re going to make sure the American dream is realized for all the young people.”

Image: Creative Commons/iamusa