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Arizona’s Curriculum Battles: A 500-Year Civilizational War

The censorship, banned curriculums and banned books in Arizona, are subject to much spin, which often lacks a grasp of the bigger and more ominous picture. These actions in Arizona are a stark premonition of what could happen elsewhere, but what’s important to remember is that they are not new. The suspension and dismantling of Arizona’s Mexican-American studies (MAS) program in Arizona is the most dramatic and recent incident in a process that was set in motion some 500 years ago.

A young boy is searched by security guards at the entrance of the Tucson Unified District headquarters, ahead of a school board meeting on March 13, 2012. (Photo: Roberto Cintli Rodriguez)

The censorship, banned curriculums and banned books in Arizona, are subject to much spin, which often lacks a grasp of the bigger and more ominous picture. These actions in Arizona are a stark premonition of what could happen elsewhere, but what’s important to remember is that they are not new. The suspension and dismantling of Arizona’s Mexican-American studies (MAS) program in Arizona is the most dramatic and recent incident in a process that was set in motion some 500 years ago.

On paper, HB 2281 – Arizona’s 2010 anti-ethnic studies house bill – criminalizes the teaching of ethnic studies, but the reality is that there has always been but one target: Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Raza Studies department. Under intense political pressure, it was renamed Mexican American studies or MAS-TUSD.[i] However, the name change did not spare the department, as the state schools’ then-Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, had already targeted the department for elimination.

In this highly successful department, Horne saw something un-American at its core, something evil and cancerous. MAS-TUSD’s indigenous, maiz-based curriculum, was something he saw as outside of Western civilization – something outside of Greco-Roman culture. He is unaware of the irony that maiz, or corn, is indigenous to this very continent, whereas things Greco-Roman are not. For Horne, what he deemed to be the “foreign” curriculum was something that had to be destroyed at all costs.

Among those who look on in horror at what is happening in Arizona, many are blinded to the fact that this has already occurred in every state of the union.[ii] Arizona was the last holdout. Thus, as people look on in horror, what they should be contemplating is not simply how to help save Arizona, but how to reverse the 500-year process of de-indigenization and dehumanization that continues unabated on this continent and in virtually every country in this hemisphere.

Asking what is at stake in Arizona is not only asking the wrong question, but it is asking it a few centuries too late. This, Horne understands. He refers to the process of eliminating Raza Studies as a civilizational war. And indeed, it is the very same one prosecuted by Bishop Diego de Landa in Mani, Yucatan, where he declared an auto-da-fé in 1562, setting in motion one of humanity’s greatest cultural tragedies: the destruction of Mayan books, known as amoxtlis. That three-day book burning is only one incident in a hundreds-of-years process that attempted to destroy the intellectual, mathematical, scientific, cultural and spiritual knowledge of this continent. (Fortunately, while thousands of Mayan, Nahua and Mixtec amoxtlis were destroyed, the knowledge itself was not; it was simply suppressed and survived via oral tradition).

In this civilizational war, one by one, peoples and communities – and their unique corpus of knowledge – are condemned as pagan, barbaric and demonic; a dehumanization that prepared the ground psychologically for the same peoples to be evangelized and colonized.

In the realm of civilizational war, that auto-da-fé was never actually called off or corrected. Instead, De Landa thereafter wrote a book (“Relación de las cosas de Yucatán”) about the Maya, which to this day, many Western scholars praise for its insights into Mayan civilization, conferring upon the destroyer of Mayan culture the title of foremost expert on the Maya.

Mind-boggling is perhaps the best adjective that fits here. Yet up until recently, this has been the norm throughout history: indigenous peoples are reduced to illiterate savages, to be civilized and studied, never to be treated as co-equals.

Fast forward 500 years and Horne, who today is the state’s attorney general, may soon be viewed as the state’s foremost champion of human rights. Horn ironically fancies himself an adherent of Martin Luther King Jr.[iii] His successor to the superintendent position, John Huppenthal, is less grandiose in his ideas and ambitions, but also fancies himself a multiculturalist (though he would never employ this term). They have both destroyed MAS-TUSD in order to “improve” it by giving all students greater exposure to the many cultures that make up Arizona and this nation.[iv]

Akin to Diego de Landa, they, apparently, are the experts with respect to what should be taught about Mexican Americans. Dr. John Pedicone, superintendent of TUSD, also ranks with these two other experts in determining what knowledge is valid and what it is that should be taught in Tucson schools. It is under his stewardship that MAS-TUSD has been dismantled.

But all of this is the smallest of pictures.

Critics of the program rightly point out that MAS-TUSD is the only department of its kind in the nation. But they are incorrect as to why. The reason is that the policy of “reducciones,” the colonial practice of attempting to literally wipe out all vestiges of indigenous knowledge, is nearly complete. It was not a 300-year colonial project, but an ongoing one, continued by successive governments, under different guises and different names, whether it has been called civilization, Westernization, modernization, evangelization, Hispanicization, Americanization or forced assimilation. In the United States, American Indians know all too well the variants in the process used to “reduce” them: the boarding school.

Why was MAS-TUSD unique? Because per Horne’s view, it had reversed history; it was in the process of reversing a historical process. In his view, MAS tapped into historical memory; it utilized culture to bring out the best in students. Horne believes that students should be treated as atomized individuals, not as members of distinct cultures, and he believes that the only valid culture they should be exposed to is that which is based on Western civilization. He cares little or nothing about their personal or academic success, their agency or empowerment – what is essential is their indoctrination.

This is why the whole nation has it upside down. This is why Arizona is not the future. It’s not that other states may enact future and similar bans. Through omission, those bans have long been in effect, in this country and on this continent. That is why MAS-TUSD was virtually the lone example, nationwide, of a district-wide indigenous and social-justice-based K-12 curriculum.

In no other district nationwide are the indigenous or maiz-based concepts of In Lak’ Ech (“You are my other me”) and Panche Be (“To Seek the root of the Truth”) taught.[v] In no other district nationwide is this curriculum at the center, as opposed to at the fringes or the margins. At MAS-TUSD, indigenous knowledge was in its proper place; at the center, and more importantly, at the root of the curriculum. In that sense, Horne has always been correct: maiz-based knowledge does not emanate from Greece or Rome. It is indigenous to this continent, including Arizona, purportedly the site of the oldest cornfield in the nation.[vi]

That this curriculum is unavailable in other districts nationwide means that this “reduccion,” in effect, has already also taken place nationwide. Many, many thousands of years of the history of this continent have been displaced, and, at best, marginalized or remanded to institutions of higher learning. Apparently, the history of this continent is out of bounds for K-12 students.

Every child should know the amazing history of this continent. But they don’t. Rare is the K-12 student who can name more than one or two cities that existed prior to the first European setting foot on Abya Yalla – on this continent – before it was renamed America.[vii] If they don’t know those names (there were thousands of cities), still less do they know the history of this continent.[viii] This erasure did not or has not taken place solely in Tucson, but virtually throughout the entire continent, and it has been normalized, with K-12 students having no knowledge of an entire continent (prior to the arrival of Europeans), its peoples, its civilizations, its knowledges and philosophies. That ignorance is the norm, rather than the exception.

This is why Raza Studies or Chicana/Chicano Studies have long been opposed – even and sometimes especially – at colleges and universities. [ix] From their inception, there has been a relentless cold war waged against them, often waged under the guise of budget cuts. This cold war has also been waged against American Indian Studies, Indigenous Studies, Black Studies, African American Studies and Asian-Pacific Islander Studies (erroneously categorized as ethnic studies).[x] Their existence has been tolerated, as is the case in Arizona, at the university level. But their existence in Tucson at the K-12 level, along with their great success as measured by student achievement, apparently assured its targeting and destruction. The department boasted an unheard-of near-100 percent graduation rate at a time when the drop-out rates for students of color range between 40 and 60 percent.

To be sure, MAS-TUSD should not be counted out just yet. But for those outside of Tucson, that is to miss the point. For the most part, the rest of the country and the rest of the continent has already been “reduced.” Most of the continent has either been Hispanicized or Anglicized.

Translated, what this means is that it is not ethnic studies in Tucson that needs to be saved, but rather, metaphorically, it is that “reduccion” or forced assimilation needs to be reversed in every community, in every school and in every nation on this continent. A further translation: decolonization is not a project of the past, but of the present.

Caravans should be going to Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Denver, Dallas and Houston, Kansas City and Chicago, Atlanta and New York, not to solely support Tucson, but to place humanity at the center of school curriculums and ensure that indigenous peoples and their/our history remain at the center on this content, along with the rest of humanity.

If people want to see what erasure or a disappeared curriculum looks like, they can look not to Tucson, but to every K-12 curriculum in the nation. This is not hyperbole. Akin to what the Zapatistas often told visitors as they streamed into Chiapas after their January 1, 1994, uprising: “If you want to assist us, go back home and fight for your own human rights.” In this case, people should examine the curriculum of their local schools and wage the battles there, ensuring a relevant and inclusive curriculum, one that stresses humanization or rehumanization.

It is easy to descend upon Tucson to fight against banned books. And perhaps that’s why people will come and why they will always be welcome. But the real challenge should be for people to fight for an indigenous-centered social-justice-based curriculum in everyone’s local school. We do, after all, live in the Western Hemisphere – not Western Europe. This battle has to be waged at local school board meetings and at state legislatures. To not do so is to accept that reduccion, or that auto-da-fé that has yet to be extinguished.

To read other articles by writers in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

* Five of Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez’s books and one video are on the banned curriculum list. The video is: “Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan.” The books are: “Justice: A Question of Race,” “Gonzales/Rodriguez: Uncut and Uncensored,” “The X in La Raza,” “Codex Tamuanchan: On Becoming Human,” and “Cantos Al Sexto Sol.” This last book is a collection of more than 100 Raza/Indigenous writers, writing on the topic of origins and migrations. These bans highlight that virtually the entire cultural production of the past generation of Raza/Indigenous writers/artists has been criminalized.
Rodriguez teaches at the University of Arizona and can be reached at: [email protected].

[i]Under similar pressure, the name of the University of Arizona’s Mexican American and Raza Studies Department was changed to the Department of Mexican American Studies. The right wing assumes La Raza means “The Race,” but the concept is actually traced to Mexican scholar Jose Vasconcelos, who coined the term at the beginning of the 20th century. The concept alludes to the mixture of all the races of the world.

[ii] This alludes to the teaching of the so-called master narrative of history, traditionally taught in US schools as the story of this nation and continent, beginning with the pilgrims or with Christopher Columbus, an event that set in motion the ideas of providence and manifest destiny – the belief that God had bestowed upon Europeans/European Americans, the right to conquer all of the Americas.

[iii] Bernard Lafayette Jr., a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr. and a Freedom Rider, along with virtually the entire civil rights community nationwide, begs to differ with Horne, consistently denouncing his use of the civil rights icon to destroy MAS.

[iv] Huppenthal doesn’t appear to grasp big-picture ideas. He is more plain-spoken in his biases. For instance, when he campaigned for Arizona superintendent, he campaigned on the promise to Stop La Raza (the department, presumably, not the people).

[v] Much of what is known about In Lak’ Ech and Panche Be comes to us in the United States via Domingo Martinez Paredes, a Mayan scholar from Yucatan and an author of several books, including “Un Continente y Una Cultura.”

[vi] University of Arizona researchers pinpoint the corner of Ina and Silverbell in Tucson as the oldest cornfield (4,000) in what is today the United States. The oldest evidence of corn in the United States however, was found in Bat Cave, New Mexico, dating close to 6,000 years before the present era. It is believed that maiz was created some 7,000 years ago in Southern Mexico.

[vii] Abya Yalla is a word from the Cuna peoples of Panama, a term that indigenous peoples from this continent have adopted in lieu of “The Americas.” Other similar names include Pacha Mama from the Quechua peoples of the Andes and Cemanahuak from the Nahua peoples of Mexico, or Turtle Island by a number of American Indian peoples.

[viii] The one city that most seem to know is Mexico City-Tenochtitlan. A few may have heard of Teotihuacan (misnamed the City of the Gods), the huge pyramid site 45 minutes north of Mexico City.

[ix] Huppenthal campaigned on the promise to eliminate Raza Studies at both the K-12 level and at the university level.

[x] A more proper term should be civilizational studies. Women Studies and LGBT Studies have also been similarly attacked, though they are generally not lumped into the category of ethnic studies. In Arizona, HB 2281, in effect, bans “ethnic studies.”

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