On Monday, after the Tucson, Ariz. school district banned its acclaimed Mexican-American studies program, hundreds of high school students throughout the city walked out of their schools in protest.
The protesters gathered downtown at the administrative offices of the Tucson Unified School District. The administrators targeted were at least partially responsible for the ban.
Demonstrators were angered by what they see as the immorality and unfairness of a decision to confiscate, in front of students, books that reflect the heritage of the students themselves. (60 percent of the students in the Tucson district come from Mexican-American backgrounds.)
The ban follows by only a week an incident involving a school superintendent (who comes from Texas) who told students that if they wanted to study their own history, they should “go to Mexico.”
Although the district is partially to blame for doing away with the Mexican studies program and shuffling teens into other classes, a report in the New York Times indicates that, had it failed to shut down the program, it would have lost over $14 million in state funding.
This proved to be the desired outcome for Republican Arizona school superintendent John Huppenthal, a tea party activist who has long crusaded against ethnic studies. Huppenthal went as far as to claim that they are “brainwashing” students into “thinking that the Latino community is a victim of white oppression.”
Huppenthal, perhaps conveniently, saw the school program as potentially being in violation of a law that prohibits “programs that promote the overthrow of the United States government.”
Tucson school officials argued that Huppenthal misunderstood and misinterpreted the program, and that Mexican-American studies was meant to engage students, push them to do well, and achieve better grades and class attendance.
Cholla High School student Ahtziri Iniguez, who was part of the walkout, remarked, “I think it’s very unfair that people here don’t let us learn about our own culture. My brother took Mexican-American classes during his junior year, and he would go home and discuss it with my mom. It interested me in education, so I knew I wanted to take these classes.
“We did this walkout to prove [that] if you want something, you should fight for what you believe in, because if you don’t do anything, nothing will change.”
Some community leaders seem to be willing to fight as well: Rather than adhere to Huppenthal’s crackdown, they intend to ask Tucson’s school district to join a federal court suit against the state and call on the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate Huppenthal for racial profiling, hate crimes, fraud, and even possible extortion.
The Republican agenda, meanwhile, is now to replace the slot previously filled by Mexican-American studies, with a new elective course about how “the Bible and Biblical principles” influenced Western civilization and democracy. At least, that’s the intention of a bill introduced by Tea Partier and Arizona State Representative Terri Proud. The bill would allow all public schools to teach this proposed religious course.
Victoria Lopez, a program director with the Arizona office of the American Civil Liberties Union found the idea of a Bible-oriented class “troubling.”
“It’s very easy for teachers to cross the line and violate students’ religious rights,” she said. “There’s a lot of room here for those violations to take place.”
Notably, the Tucson school district is nearing its celebration of the 104th anniversary of its founding by immigrant Estevan Ochoa, who became mayor of Tucson in 1875. Also approaching is the anniversary of Arizona native and United Farm Worker leader Cesar Chavez.
Apparently, the irony of doing away with an important ethnic program at a time when Mexican-Americans are being celebrated for their achievements has been lost on prejudice-oriented Republicans.
Photo: Tucson students protest the dismantling of the Mexican American studies program. D.A. Morales/Commondreams.org.