Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 31, 2012

Elias Serna: Strange Rumblings: The Battle for Raza Studies

Strange Rumblings in Arizona:
A Battle to Defend the K-12 Raza Studies Department at Tucson Unified School District from Racist Republicans

Editorial by Elias Serna
Posted with permission at Censored News
Elias Serna is an English PhD candidate at UC Riverside, President of AMAE Santa Monica-West LA Chapter, and co-founder of the comedy teatro Chicano Secret Service.

A tempest of epic proportions stirs darkly over the Southwest United States, reviving ancestral Indian spirits, splashing sand in shocked faces, and generally raining down onto our forehead and seeping into our eyes. While it may precipitate massive floods of students onto major metropolitan thoroughfares throughout the vast region of Aztlan, the eye of the storm hovers menacingly over the old Indian- Chicano town of Tucson, Arizona.
Presently, Tucson's amazing K-12 Mexican American Studies Program (MAS) is fighting a heroic battle, with students, community and teachers playing a decisive role. This educational war now has national implications-the Tucson 13 Case has gone to the 9th Circuit court, which includes California and the Southwest. Against the secessionist, visibly racist and evasive Republican state government (which denies that SB 1070 is racial profiling), MAS activists are fighting impressively on a legal, student activist, and cultural front.
On April 26, amidst an ongoing federal legal battle (Tucson 13), and constant State government attacks by Republicans, the middle-of-the-road Tucson school board decided to turn the MAS classes into vulnerable electives (which would slash enrollment), basically "taking the program outside and killing it" (in MAS director Sean Arce's words). Inside the overcrowded boardroom, minutes before the meeting started, UNIDOS (a group of MAS students and alumni) marched past security guards and chained themselves to the school board chairs in front of a screaming crowd, beginning their now anthemic chant: "When our education is under attack, what do you do?" The response resounded across the Southwest: "FIGHT BACK!!!"
The sit-in set off another wave of activism that calls attention to the struggle for Raza/Ethnic Studies and a brewing civil war over what education is supposed to do, how (and which version of) history should be taught, and who is an "American." This summer will witness a major chapter in the history and future of Chicano Studies. Raza Studies (MAS' former name) activists are calling on Californians (especially educators and artists) to participate actively, and support the cause by attending meetings and events in Tucson and Arizona. One can simultaneously support the economic boycott by staying over people's homes or on Indian Reservation hotels nearby, and patronizing mom-and-pop eateries and cultural centers.
Much like the 1960s Freedom Summers in Mississippi, this struggle may be decided by pressure from neighboring masses of liberation-minded fighters from the coastal states.
The subtitle of this article doesn't mean to be inflammatory. It is bases on my familiarity with the Chican@ Studies discipline (over 10 years college-level teaching), four years of studying Tucson's MAS Department, attending their Summer Institute, using their curriculum and methodology for West LA schools, and seeing how and why Republican state officials have attacked them. Below, I outline the history of this battle that is now in Federal courts, detail the Raza Studies program's many significant accomplishments, and emphasize student activism while covering some unique aspects of this discipline.
The first Raza Studies courses were weekend cultural instruction for at-risk community youth. In the mid 1990s a small group including Sean Arce, Agustin Flores and a few others leveraged a proposal for the first Raza Studies classes on a Desegregation Order from the Federal Courts; Tucson schools had been found in violation of civil rights laws. The program brought together dedicated and talented teachers. It also fused the ideas of Chican@ Studies scholars with groundbreaking theories on society and critical pedagogy by Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Critical Race Theory scholars among others. An important, yet often overlooked factor here was love.
The teachers genuinely cared about the students, the community, and their profession. Although this isn't measured on any state test, the department flourished, spread to K-12, offered an impressive summer institute, and boasted amazing educational outcomes, especially for Latino students, that contrasted sharply with dismal national figures. According to an audit of the program, MAS program students were 5% more likely to graduate than their peers in 2005 and a whopping 11% more likely to complete high school in 2010. These outcomes and the struggle are captured eloquently in the recently released documentary film "Precious Knowledge," which will air on PBS nationally next spring.
In 2006, MAS invited national civil rights figure Dolores Huerta to speak. She had worked closely with Cesar Chavez (who was raised in Tucson and passed away there in 1994), and has stated that the iconic "Si Se Puede" chant had its origins in Tucson. Her response to a local who pessimistically rejected her ideas saying "No, Dolores, aqui no se puede"-it can't be done-was, "No! Si se puede!" Huerta's rhetoric again set off a political battle. During her speech, she called attention to the fact that "Republicans hate Latinos." In response, the State Superintendent of Schools at the time, Tom Horne (a native of Canada), sent a fellow Republican, to speak at a Tucson school. MAS students requested permission to ask her questions. They were rejected by school administrators. In protest, they taped their mouths and walked out. An infuriated Horne vowed to dismantle the Mexican American Studies Department in political retaliation. He attempted to pass a bill to destroy the program. It was challenged and defeated.

Why Do AZ Republicans Want to Keep Latino Kids From Graduating?
Raza Studies students in Tucson were 5% more likely to graduate than their peers in 2005 and 11% more likely in 2010. Some have suggested that perhaps the private, for profit prison lobby is sending rabid mad dog Tea Partiers after the successful Mexican American Studies program to keep a study supply of bodies for their tax payer funded prison beds. Educated Chicanos are less likely to end up in penal system.

In 2010, HB 2281, the Anti-Ethic Studies bill, passed and was signed into law by Republican governor Jan Brewer (originally from Orange County, California). Teachers countered with a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the racist law (it only targets the Mexican American Department). Students held protests and walkouts to raise awareness and challenge state and district decisions. Later MAS alumni, teachers, community and Indigenous groups ran from Tucson to Phoenix, over 100 miles in 113 degree heat to protest the passage of the law.
This unique protest demonstrated the activists' conviction and brought national attention to Raza Studies. Throughout 2011, MAS teachers and students have been fighting incessantly against State attacks, countersuits, right leaning media, a flip-flopping school board, and a hegemonic conservative voting bloc.

The Anti-American History of Chicano Raza Studies
While most college grads move out of their old neighborhoods in exchange for careerist gain, Chicano Studies activism offered alternative viewpoints on education. To be precise, it was historians and other social scientists that broke ground in the university by challenging a one-sided version of history. The early years and historical context (Third World revolutions and a growing Civil Rights movement) influenced the idealism and some original tenets of Chicano and Ethnic Studies.
The first generation of Chicano and Ethnic students-influenced by the Third World Liberation Front in San Francisco and Berkeley-emphasized self-determination in staffing and defining of Chicano/Ethnic Studies epistemology, the necessity of "bridging" the university with the community. essentially, a major principal of Chicano/Ethnic Studies was to analyze and produce solutions to the oppressive conditions in the barrio enclaves. As a result, early agenda items created barrio centers and field studies (now called ethnography).
Tucson's MAS Department-from its humble beginnings to the outsanding academic statistics it has achieved in a short period-is a phenomena that inadvertently stands at the threshold of the entire discipline of Chicano Studies itself. MAS began when several former MEChA students and University of Arizona grads began offering supplementary Chicano Studies courses in the community on weekends.
They leveraged a federal desegregation order to implement Raza Studies classes in the schools that would take on the achievement gap that is the hidden shame of the nation. Raza Studies grew over a decade into a full-on academic department that offered over 60 courses throughout the school district at numerous schools.
MAS also boasted a high-powered summer conference to train teachers featuring prominent education professionals such as Peter McLaren and Pedro Noguera. Even more impressive were the transformations and practices happening in MAS classrooms.
Teachers innovated the classroom, profoundly impacting students and engaging them in school. Students initiated artistic and cultural events and programs themselves and went on to higher education. They practiced the early tenet, "taking the school/university back to the community, " in a dynamic fashion.
During the protests to defend Raza Studies against Horne's early attacks, students were articulate, once even conducting research on wealth disparities between school districts and how this reproduces privilege and inequality, attacking Horne's own unexamined white male privileges. They also began joining the "Barrio Runs" led by the Tucson Caluplli (an "indigenous school" in Nahuatl) as a way to come together spiritually and protest the Republican attacks.
In the process, they discovered that running strengthened their minds as well as their bodies, and that running in this way was itself another way of learning. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education explained running's role in generating new ideas. The more in depth journal articles of Dr. Roberto "Cintli" Rodriguez, explain how these ancient ceremonies contribute to a Chicano Studies epistemology (an established field of knowledge). It is important to emphasize that under the radar tracking the political storm, Tucson's Raza Studies program-its teachers, students and alumni--is making critical contributions to and generation unique innova-
tions within the entire discipline of Chicano Studies.
While Raza Studies at present has mobilized wide support in Tucson and beyond, their accomplishments are currently countered by malicious unfair edicts handed down by Republicans in the seats of power.
When Horne's successor, State School Superintendent Huppenthal (who vowed to "stop La Raza") forced an audit (at an expense to taxpayers of $170,000) of MAS by a Florida consulting firm of his choice, the results came back unexpectedly favorable to MAS. The Cambrium Report lauded MAS's achievements and suggested dialogue between parties and that the program be expanded. Huppenthal irrationally ignored his own report and concluded on his own that MAS was still in violation of HB2281 (ie. It still "taught oppression," was "revolutionary" and "promoted the violent overthrow of the government").
Community called for his immediate resignation. An order to quash the whole bill-which would be a godsend victory for Raza Studies-sits on the desk of a Japanese-American federal judge. Otherwise, proceedings begin in September; the Tucson 13 will likely continue fundraising to pay fees and education experts. The Bush-appointed conservative federal judge who sat on the 9th Circuit, was ironically killed by a right-winger during the shooting of Senator Giffords in January 2011. That same day, The New York Times ran a front-page article on Raza Studies. The Times failed to make a connection to it, and subsequently overshadowed the topic.
Three other state and federal cases revolve around Raza Studies. In recent days, district administrators have caved into State Republicans, cutting enrollment and courses in half, restricting teachers from advertising their classes, moving teachers to different schools, cutting their courseload, and often personally attacking the director of MAS, Sean Arce. Many have received anonymous death threats and threats to their families.
Regardless, MAS and the field of Chicano Studies remains a unique approach to instruction, which recognizes Chicano culture and Latino students as important sources of knowledge. Raza Studies will continue to produce new insights, alternative, effective ways of learning. Tomorrow's Chicano Studies will continue to matriculate scholars that will shed light a darkness that today looms dangerously over us all. But many in Tucson and here in LA proudly proclaim "Hasta la Victoria Siempre," and if past actions are any indication these Tucson Xicanos and their allies know the true path to victory.

Elias Serna is an English PhD candidate at UC Riverside, President of AMAE Santa Monica-West LA Chapter, and co-founder of the comedy teatro Chicano Secret Service.

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