Despite a few pockets of wealth, Tucson Unified School District is a largely poor district serving a predominantly Latino population. White students make up only about 20 percent of the district, and the vast majority of students are entitled to free and discounted lunches. TUSD students lag behind their state peers on standardized tests, and students of color lag even further behind their white peers.
Romero and other founders of Mexican-American Studies hoped that by connecting history to current events and ethnic identity, the program would especially inspire Latino students to envision a better future for themselves, their communities. and the country. Classes, taught by a small corps of teachers spread across the district, counted toward required graduation credits, although they were not compulsory – students were free to take standard history courses or of American literature instead. In 2010, before the ban went into effect, the program included around 2,000 students per year and existed in five high schools, as well as some middle and elementary schools.
María Federico Brummer, who started teaching in the program in 2006, explains that the classes spoke to her students in a way that sparked intellectual curiosity and motivated them to imagine more for themselves. “As a college teacher, I could see it. I knew this was the way we should teach our students, ”she says. “You saw that these students felt more academically engaged, the students felt for the first time that they could be academics in one way or another and that the school was not a foreign place for them, but a place where they could have a future. “
Several surveys and independent audits have confirmed this claim, concluding that students enrolled in the program performed better in reading, writing and even math. They were also less likely to drop out and more likely to feel engaged in school.
But critics, including Paton, the Republican lawmaker who echoed Dolores Huerta’s comments, ostentatiously described the program as a cult of personality around Romero and other early leaders who had an “almost pseudo-spiritualist vibe.” “. Teachers who opposed the program reported harassment from Mexican-American studies teachers and students. Several opponents of the program were put on a blacklist and have long suspected that their opposition was the cause.
“It was really weird. There was a lot about self-confidence and connecting with my people – kind of liberation theology, ”Paton says. “They were teaching on Aztlán. … It was completely crazy. (Aztlán is the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztec people, as well as a term used by Chicano activists to refer to the area seized in the US-Mexican War.)
Doug MacEachern, a conservative columnist for the Republic of Arizona at the time, found in the program an inexhaustible source of comments. “Until these ideologues got their grip on it, these kids actually had a good chance of being educated,” McEachern said in an interview. “I try to stay away from these terms, but you can’t: they turned them into Marxist infantry.”
After years of attacking the program, Republican lawmakers finally tabled a bill banning classes that teach “racial resentment” and advocate “overthrow of the government” on the governor’s office in 2010. Brewer signed the legislation – as well as Arizona’s tough immigration laws. , SB 1070 – the same year.
When the hammer finally fell, Federico Brummer joined with other teachers going from class to class to collect the books they had used in the program. Some students cried, she says, as she wrapped copies of Elizabeth Martinez’s book 500 years of Chicano history in pictures, by Luis Valdez zoot costume and Rodolfo Acuña Occupied america. The students organized a 24-hour vigil.
Under threat from Phoenix state lawmakers and politicians to revoke millions of public funds for violating the ban, the Tucson School Board disbanded the program in 2011. That’s when the fight peaked. climax, an intense confrontation not unlike the battles of the school board. today – although it was the students, not the parents, who led the protest.
One day in April of that year, a group of over a hundred students and supporters invaded a school council meeting at the district office. Nine of them stormed the platform and struggled with security before shackling themselves to the chairs of the board members. “Our education is under attack,” they chanted. “What do we do? Defend ourselves!”
The meeting was interrupted, temporarily delaying the inevitable dissolution of the program. The case made national news, deepening the rift between the two sides and exacerbating tension in the community.
Critics like MacEachern have to date argue that the students would not have protested without their professors’ orders. “Who bought them the chains and the locks?” ” He asked. But the teachers were proud of the students’ display, and they say they hadn’t expected it – that the ban was an attack on the students as much as it was on the program.
“The best part is that they were able to keep it a secret, even from us,” Romero said. “The honest truth about this is that when I got up and saw the students rushing forward, they scared me too.”
It all happened at a difficult time for the Arizona Latinos. The immigration and education bills followed overwhelming voter support for a proposal to prohibit undocumented students from receiving tuition fees at local universities and community colleges. It was the same time that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio racially profiled Latinos at traffic stops and raided workplaces looking for undocumented immigrants. (Arpaio was later found guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying an order to stop racial profiling, a crime for which Trump pardoned him.)
As stressful as those years were, they were also, in a way, rewarding for those responsible for the Mexican-American studies program. The students were experiencing the same struggles their icons had faced in the Chicano rights movement decades earlier – the same types of struggles they had heard about. They fought for a better education in the same way that Dolores Huerta fought for better working conditions. They were making their own story.
“I saw our students organize and grow and take pride in not only themselves, but also their families and our community proud of the work they were doing to save our program,” said Federico Brummer .
Indeed, the ban was not the end of Mexican-American studies in Tucson. In 2012, a federal court appointed a “special master” to oversee negotiations in the decades-old district desegregation case – an academic named Willis D. Hawley, who saw the program’s benefits for Latino students. Hawley ordered the district to reinstate Mexican-American studies while finding a way to comply with state law of 2010. So the teachers and administrators of the program began to rebuild. They abandoned the name Mexican-American studies in favor of “culturally appropriate” courses and curricula. But the books used by the program were reincorporated and most of the same teachers remained involved.
Veterans of the Mexican-American studies program say it wasn’t really the same after the state’s ban, however. Federico Brummer had to undergo a “retraining” to unlearn some of the tactics used in Mexican-American studies, she says. When they restarted the program, officials from the Arizona Department of Education, led by John Huppenthal – a main opponent of the program who became state superintendent of public education, the highest educational authority in the state, just after the adoption of the ban – sent monitors to classes to keep tabs on teachers and even read their lesson plans.
TUSD’s culturally relevant curriculum today is larger than Mexican-American studies ever before: it now includes over 200 history, literature, and social studies teachers for around 6,000 students. It’s in all high schools and colleges in the district, with plans to expand to elementary schools. But without the originally dedicated core of teachers, the lessons just aren’t as good, says Federico Brummer, who is now director of TUSD. Mexican-American Student Services. The spike in test scores that teachers saw at the height of the program has also largely faded.
“We have a problem between quantity and quality,” says Federico Brummer. “We have teachers who are being told ‘voluntarily’, ‘You’re going to teach this language course from a Mexican-American perspective. And it’s totally different.
What does Tucson’s embrace of ethnic studies for the rest of the country portend as he questions whether schools should – or even do – teach critical race theory? Today’s political context is different, as is the curriculum that is up for debate, but there are a few lessons to be learned from the way the Arizona fight unfolded.