Countdown in Arizona: Todos Somos Raza Studies

Countdown in Arizona: Todos Somos Raza Studies

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The lines have been drawn. Or rather, the date has been set and the countdown has begun. If Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne has his way, after Dec. 31, 2010, Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) highly successful Mexican-American Studies K-12 department will cease to exist.

But despite Gov. Jan Brewer having signed HB 2281, the anti–ethnic studies measure, in May, those who support Raza Studies have good reason to feel confident that on January 1, the program will be alive and well.

HB 2281 bans schools from teaching hate, anti-Americanism and the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Horne, the measure's “intellectual author,” claims that Raza Studies advocates these ideas and promotes “ethnic solidarity” that results in racial segregation in schools.

In fact, in Raza Studies students are taught the arts, language, philosophy and other concepts associated with Mesoamerican peoples whose cultures derived from maiz.

HB 2281 does not call for the outright elimination of Raza/Ethnic studies. Instead, it calls for the withdrawal of 10 percent of district funds for every month that a program is found to be out of compliance. For TUSD, that would amount to $3 million per month, a sum it can ill afford to lose.

The day after HB 2281 was signed—and after Horne threatened to show up at TUSD headquarters to do a victory lap—hundreds upon hundreds of students and community activists laid siege to TUSD headquarters and, later, to the state building, resulting in 15 arrests. During this siege, TUSD’s Board of Governors issued a statement from the acting superintendent. In its entirety, it reads:

“TUSD proudly supports our Ethnic Studies classes. We have no plans to eliminate or reduce course offerings. We believe these courses are relevant, engaging, meet state standards and are in full compliance with the law. Additionally, they are part of our unitary status plan. We stand firmly behind our Ethnic Studies Department, staff members and students.”

The statements are a clear indication that if the program is ruled out of compliance, it will be the antithesis of local control and the epitome of foreign (state) intervention. Horne’s goal— as he has repeatedly stated—is to rule Raza Studies out of compliance and to eliminate the program by the end of the year.

As a result, a historic lawsuit against Horne is forthcoming. The consensus amongst Tucson’s Mexican- American community is that come Jan. 3, 2011, Raza Studies will be fully operational—continuing to educate and inspire minds and prepare students to attend colleges and universities nationwide. The program is virtually an anti-dropout program (more than a 90 percent graduation rate) and a college student factory (upwards of 70 percent go on to college). But that doesn’t seem to impress Horne. Instead, his primary concern is ensuring that only Greco-Roman knowledge—the purported basis for Western Civilization—is taught in Arizona schools.

Raza Studies grounds students in critical thinking and in Indigenous pedagogies—on maiz-based or Maya-Nahua knowledge and understanding that is thousands of years old and originates on this very continent.

Despite this, Horne and his legislative allies claim that Raza Studies is un-American. In court, Horne will have his hands full in defining these terms. Can things that originate in Greece and Rome be considered American, while knowledge that originates on the American continent be considered un-American and not part of Western civilization?

HB 2281 makes a clumsy attempt to isolate Raza Studies—it allows for the teaching of the Holocaust and African-American studies and purportedly exempts American Indian Studies classes required by federal laws. The measure appears to be a clear discriminatory effort to eliminate Raza Studies.

In the realm of definitions, will maiz-based knowledge also be ruled as not Indigenous or not “American Indian”?

The forthcoming lawsuit will have the historic impact of the Scopes Monkey Trial or Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. What happens here in Arizona will set a legal precedent not only regarding what can be taught in public schools, but also whether states have the right to restrict, censor, dictate, intimidate and overrule what districts and educators can teach in local schools.

HB 2281 is the epitome of forced assimilation. Ultimately, the struggle here in Arizona is over the inherent right—also enshrined in treaties and international laws—of children to learn about their own histories and cultures.

Roberto Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the Mexican-American Studies Community Advisory Board, can be reached at: