I have heard authors openly complain of never having had their books banned by Arizona’s Grand Inquisitors. I suppose it’s a form of street cred, yet the truth is that censorship and banishment are not a badge of honor – but evidence of something very sick.
The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) book ban was part of the district’s shutting down of a curriculum and a department. Even more importantly, in collusion with the state and its anti-ethnic-studies law, HB 2281, it banned a worldview, or at least attempted to do so.
That effort included the banning of books, yet it is important to understand two things. First, when the state began its assault on Tucson’s highly successful Raza Studies Department, there was nothing wrong with the department, except its size: It was too small. Second, that assault was undeniably predicated on the idea, compliments of then-state Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne, that Raza studies resides outside of Western civilization.
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In 1997, when the department was founded, I was co-writing a nationally syndicated weekly column with Patrisia Gonzales. Throughout the life of the department, we were in regular contact with the director and its teachers, who used our weekly columns or books as part of the curriculum. We often spoke in classrooms or conferences.
Having recently participated in several banned-book-week events throughout the country, I have had to remind audiences that the issue in Tucson was not limited to the banning of books but instead was part of a larger effort to discredit and destroy the discipline. Even more sinister, it is a state effort to define and determine who Mexican-Americans are.
The state appears to want to have it that Mexican-Americans – or La Raza – are peoples who came across the ocean in three boats. The goal seems to be to teach students not that they have an indigenous heritage going back many thousands of years but that their history began with the arrival of helmeted conquistadors to these shores.
Within that context, I bring up two works, The X in La Raza and Codex Tamuanchan: On Becoming Human, both of which were part of the department’s original curriculum. These two works don’t always appear on Tucson’s banned-book list, in part because they were restricted from TUSD classrooms, not in 2012, but in 2011, the year before the TUSD school board and the state declared a virtual auto de fe against the Raza studies department. While TUSD administrators, under the helm of then-superintendent John Pedicone, officially confiscated seven titles in 2012, the rest of the books associated with the curriculum also, in effect, were banned.
Prior to this confiscation, in a scene right out of the Inquisition, as I walked into a courtroom in Phoenix in 2011, into the proceedings of the state’s inquiry into the legitimacy of the department, the state lawyer was questioning the director of the Mexican-American studies program. He was asking him about The X in La Raza. The lawyer was inquiring about a line in it regarding “Plymouth Rockers.” He wanted to know if that was in reference to the Pilgrims.
Only in Arizona. As I sat through that hearing, I never could have imagined that the director, or any writer in this country, would ever have to account for every word ever written by authors of books that were part of the Raza studies curriculum. In the same courtroom, the lawyers representing the state also asked about a poster: “Who is the alien, Pilgrim.”
Apparently, they were concerned with the program depicting the Pilgrims as peoples not indigenous to this continent.
After the hearing, Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, who campaigned to “Stop La Raza,” determined that the department was out of compliance with Arizona Law HB 2281. Soon thereafter, the Tucson School Board acquiesced and shut down the program. As part of this assault, teachers were instructed to remove all their teaching materials and – via nine directives – not to utilize anything thereafter that could lead to the teaching of a Mexican-American perspective. This included, but was not limited to, books, art and posters.
Perhaps only Horne, Huppenthal and Pedicone know the real reason the program was dismantled, but we know Horne waged a campaign to eliminate Raza studies because he claimed the material being taught in the department was not rooted in Greco-Roman thought.
In that sense, he was right. The department’s curriculum, including my works, contained material that is rooted in maíz-based culture – in knowledge that is indigenous to this very continent. The philosophical foundation for Raza studies was the concepts of In Lak Ech – you are my other me – and Panche Be – to seek the root of the truth. These concepts are thousands of years old and absolutely not rooted in Greco-Roman culture. However, Horne’s fallacy was to argue that knowledge outside of so-called Western civilization (outside of civilization itself, actually) is anti-American and therefore such knowledge should not be taught in US schools, in particular, not in Arizona schools.
In one egregious example of the consequences of this assault, a principal walked into one classroom of Norma Gonzalez, who was teaching from the “Aztec Calendar,” and instructed her to take it down and cease teaching from it.
Throughout this time, the students of Raza studies always knew what was at stake; that is why they have waged an epic seven-year struggle, one that continues, and continues beyond Arizona’s borders. I argue this battle was won long ago. The theatrics of Horne, Huppenthal and Pedicone – of trying to restrict or ban knowledge – is futile, at best a delay of the inevitable. That knowledge, and its corresponding worldview(s), cannot be eliminated. Despite hundreds of years of European efforts to eliminate it, it is still with us.
Recently, under a new school board majority and under a new superintendent, the district has, in stages, released a list of books for history and English classes that are now purportedly “unbanned.” The first list included no Raza authors, and some of the original banned books apparently will remain boxed and warehoused.
There is no word yet whether the district will also “unban” speakers. For example, Paula Crisostomo, associated with the LA Walkouts of 1968, was prevented from speaking at TUSD schools at the height of this struggle. And there were others.
Regardless of the minutiae of current developments (the district’s new culturally relevant curriculum and the ongoing litigation), Horne’s effort backfired. Now, more than ever, there is a greater interest nationwide in this discipline, and many new departments are sprouting around the country. Because of Horne, people know about the ethos of In Lak Ech and Panche Be, more than ever before. The challenge will be to teach these courses not solely at the college level but in kindergarten through 12th grade.
There is but one reason this discipline was assaulted: because it taught students that their story began not with three ships from afar, but on this very continent. Despite misinformation from the state, our students know better. I am reminded of a Cesar Chavez quote: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”
I might add: You cannot alienize a people once they know their roots.