When historians examine Arizona’s early 21st century, including the anti-immigrant SB 1070 and the anti- Ethnic Studies HB 2281, the question they will ask of intellectuals is not what side they were on. Instead, they will ask, what did you do?
As the pols sought to take us into the dark ages, the historians will ask: did you observe from afar and sit idly by or did you step forward to prevent the pols from taking us back into the 1500s?
I am often asked this question; they also ask me this about my colleagues.
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Often, I am generous. I usually respond, that we, that they, are all doing something. Perhaps not enough, but we and they are doing something.
The students, youth and community are often not quite as generous as I.
Since the turn-of-the-century, and especially since September 11, 2001, Arizona has been at the epicenter of a nationwide battle centered on the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, and even more specifically, over what it means to be human. In the name of national security, the right wing has been quick to surrender privacy and human rights. In Arizona, this has translated into a heightened alert status at a militarized border, and the normalization of racial profiling directed at red-brown peoples. This has come at a time of thousands of deaths along the border as a result of peoples fleeing their homes, desperately attempting to make a better life for themselves and their families. These acts of survival, many precipitated by NAFTA, have created unprecedented racial and cultural resentment, resulting in many draconian measures, culminating with the now infamous SB 1070, a would-be law that essentially codifies and requires law enforcement officers to racially profile. In June, three of the four provisions up before the court were stricken down and there are good chances that it will all eventually be stricken down.
Not content with attacking peoples whom these pols consider to be outside of the law, they have also passed another measure, which dictates what knowledge is permissible and what thinking is permissible; it dictates what can be taught and what can be learned. This is HB 2281.
These “laws” have provoked historic and monumental struggles. In Tucson, aside from law enforcement repression relative to immigration related issues, this has also resulted in a concerted assault against Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) department under the Orwellian rationale that it teaches hate and resentment and the overthrow of the U.S. government.
Specifically, its indigenous knowledge component has been attacked, purportedly because its philosophical foundation is derived from maiz-based knowledge, as opposed to Greco-Roman knowledge, and thus is “outside of Western civilization.”
Even the name of the department has been under assault; it was formerly called La Raza Studies. Due to extreme right wing pressure, which is essentially illiterate about these matters, the department was forced to change its name. La Raza is derived from a broader concept called La Raza Cosmica, developed by Mexican educator, Jose Vasconcelos in 1925. The concept is the antithesis of racial purity: it alludes to the mixture of all the peoples and cultures of the world.
These struggles harken back to the 1500s because the very same questions being asked and the very same determinations being made then are the ones now in play. Europeans could not understand or comprehend our existence. They debated whether we were human and had souls. The side that believed that we indeed were human officially won the debate. But they did not do so because they believed in our equality and our full humanity; they did so for the purpose of mass conversions. They believed that we had souls, but that they were in need of saving and they self-righteously assigned themselves this task. This in no way entitled us to be treated as full human beings with corresponding full human rights.
Amazingly, those were the ones on our side. It is mind-boggling what the other side had in mind. Actually, those that lost the intellectual and spiritual debate, in the end, won the political debate, hence the legacy of 300 years of violent colonialism – which included land theft, slavery and other forms of forced labor, and codified exploitation, segregation and discrimination.
The reason they believed that we needed our souls saved is because they also believed that we were uncivilized. And that’s being kind; they actually believed we were demonic. That, essentially, is the same language of former state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne. When he began his crusade against Raza Studies in 2006, it was he who invoked the idea that the department was outside of Western civilization. Perhaps to this day, he does not comprehend the ramifications of such a characterization. It was the very same judgment that permitted the violent colonization of this continent.
Purportedly, we were not human; we were not Christians, therefore those that came from the other side of the ocean, via the so-called doctrine of discovery, were entitled ownership of the land – and our bodies and our souls were simply part of the spoils.
To this day, that is what establishes their “legality,” and their “legal” claim to the land. This is how people from across the oceans became legal and those of us from here, from maiz-based cultures spanning many thousands of years, became sub human or at best, foreigners and illegitimate human beings. In today’s lingo, “illegal” on our own lands. After more than 500 years, not content with owning the land, these pols are seemingly still laying claim to our bodies, our minds and our spirits… and apparently, also our souls.
Little wonder why MAS teachers are not supposed to teach their own culture or history to our students.
That’s why the struggle is of epic proportions. That’s why it involves both SB 1070 and HB 2281. For those who are not sure about what motivates Arizona’s politicians, it is incumbent upon everyone to read former State Senate President Russell Pearce’s e-mails recently uncovered by the ACLU.
People can also get a glimpse by keeping up with the racial profiling trial, featuring Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s communications at: (https://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/sheriff-arpaio-racial-profiling-illegal). Both leave a long trail and also leave no doubt as to what we are up against. Both believe that Mexican peoples are less than human.
Of course, in their defense, they don’t hate or target Mexicans and they don’t hate or target immigrants; they only hate and target the “illegals”… the ones that just happen to look like Mexicans and Central Americans… the ones they see on street corners looking for work, in stores, at restaurants and at the parks.
Hence, the question: when these politicians attempted to take us back into the 1500s, what did you do?
My colleagues, professors at colleges and universities nationwide, and even more specifically, professors who teach ethnic studies and Chicana/Chicano studies, what did we do?
Truthfully, this has not been an attack simply on Raza Studies, but instead, it has been an attack on the very idea of education. Restrict and prohibit classes and curricula and you wind up with Swiss cheese education. Students are free to learn everything that is not prohibited. Many people believe that this is about banned books. The reality is that it is much bigger; even beyond censorship: it is about the banning of a worldview.
This is why the question of what we should do, has to be asked of every educator. It is not somebody else’s issue; at the very core of this struggle is the battle over what it means to be human. Shall we permit government to pass laws reminiscent of the 1500s, when most people on this continent were considered less than human, less than equal and less deserving of their full human rights?
One part of history that is unknown to most people throughout the country, even in Tucson itself, is that when the student group UNIDOS took over the school board in April of 2011 –in defense of Mexican American Studies – they invoked the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This was historic; it was their answer to both Mr. Horne and his successor, Mr. John Huppenthal. Outside of Western civilization indeed!
How did the school board respond? How did TUSD superintendent, Dr. John Pedicone respond? Shamefully, is the best word that can be used. The following week, the TUSD responded with a massive police presence. It responded with police dogs, with sharpshooters, with a bomb squad, with a helicopter, with more than 100 police, including fully equipped riot police. Inside, seven women were arrested for attempting to speak, and outside students and community members were harassed, physically abused and beaten. To this day, there has never been an investigation and, to this day, the school board has not provided an explanation, nor has anyone been held accountable.
Instead, supporters of MAS continue to be demonized, and of course, now MAS has been dismantled.
And so we return to the question to my colleagues? What have they done? What have we done?
It is not too late to answer the question; it is not too late to step forward in this struggle of epic proportions. Yes, we’ve done some, but we can do a lot more. The students notice. Many national organizations have denounced Arizona’s state legislature and the governor for these backward state measures. Also recently, a conference was convened to lay the groundwork for expanding Raza Studies at the pre-K-12 level nationwide (RazaStudiesNow.com).
Yet, that question of what have we done should be asked not simply of my colleagues nationwide, but of everyone. What did we all do when the forces of ignorance attempted to take us back into the dark ages?
And what of those from the community? They’ve been there, sometimes, but not always. Not like the students, not like the youths. When it has been time to defend the department and to defend the discipline, it has been the students that have stepped forward with their bodies, their minds and their spirits – the very essence of who they are – which is what is under attack.
With my own eyes, I have seen the definition of courage in the eyes of students who have been beaten down, who have been told that their history is not worthy of being studied, that their culture is deficient, and that they are less than full human beings.
I have seen the students literally beaten, I’ve seen them arrested and I have seen them at all-night vigils, march across the city, protest in front of the school board and inside the state building. I’ve seen them rally and I’ve seen them walkout. I’ve seen them at community forums; I’ve seen them step forward, when others stepped back or when others were conspicuously MIA. I’ve seen them run through the desert in 115-degree heat to deliver messages to the state superintendent, the state legislature and to the governor, and I’ve seen them eloquently address the Tucson school board.
Through all this, I’ve seen them face hate and condescension and I’ve seen them ridiculed and demeaned. I’ve seen this in person and also in the media. I have seen the faces of dehumanization, but more importantly, in the students, I have seen the faces of courage…of coraje.
These students have taught our Tucson community, and the world, the meaning not simply of resistance, but of creation-resistance. Their reality is not dependent upon reacting to the forces of hate, bigotry and ignorance. They’ve organized themselves. They’ve created their own school. They’ve trained themselves and they’ve secured their own organizing space. These several generations of students (Social Justice Education Project, UNIDOS and; MEChA) battle because they believe in their right to a relevant education. Many of them have long graduated from MAS and yet they continue to battle. Many say it is no longer for them, but for their younger brothers and sisters… and for their children.
What has always been incredible is the way Dr. Pedicone and the school board have always treated them. Noting that they have already dismantled MAS, they often wonder, they often ask why the students and community keep coming back?
Cesar Chavez once said that once you educate a person, you cannot un-educate them.
This is why the students keep coming back. They know their history and they are fully aware of their human rights. That is why they invoked the 2007 UN declaration. They know who they are.
The school board knows that the students are guided by the maiz-based ethos of: In Lak Ech -You are my other me. Contrary to what their detractors say, they have never been violent, precisely because of that ethos. But also, perhaps the school board and Dr. Pedicone are miffed by Panche Be-To seek the root of the Truth. It is not simply about seeking truth, but about critical education and seeking justice. That’s why they don’t go away.
At the moment, there are many legal cases wending through the court system; both state measures continue to be challenged on constitutional grounds. Tragically one of the legal cases involves a $1 million lawsuit against two educators from Tucson’s MAS department: its former director, Sean Arce and teacher, Jose Gonzalez.
It is a slap suit, without merit, designed to silence and intimidate those who battle to defend the now seemingly defunct MAS department. But as the students and community always tell the school board: long after they are gone, MAS will still be here.
This is why the question is asked; not what did others do, but what did you do?
When Tom Horne said that MAS was outside of Western civilization, what did you do? When the school board shut down the department, what did you do? When the curriculum and the books were banned, what did you do? When MAS teacher, Norma Gonzalez was forced to take down the Aztec Calendar, what did you do? When the teachers were fired, what did you do? When they were sued, what did you do?