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Death Threats, Censorship and the Aztec Calendar

After the January 2012 dismantling of Tucsonu2019s Mexican American Studies (MAS) department by TUSDu2019s governing board, my colleague Norma Gonzalez at MAS-TUSD was forced to take down the image of the Aztec Calendar as she was teaching it, purportedly because it contained Mexican history and culture.

This article is part of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. To read more articles by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

After the January 2012 dismantling of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) department by TUSD’s governing board, my colleague Norma Gonzalez at MAS-TUSD was forced to take down the image of the Aztec Calendar as she was teaching it, purportedly because it contained Mexican history and culture.

That action is traced to the state’s 2010 anti-Ethnic Studies HB 2281, championed by then state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne.

But this past week, the axis of the universe reversed; at a press conference held to denounce the use of death threats in the MAS controversy, Arizona attorney general Horne, told the media several unexpected things:

1) that the use of death threats in the MAS controversy are out-of-bounds and do constitute hate crimes, and;

2) that HB 2281, which is currently being challenged on constitutional grounds, does not prohibit the teaching of the Aztec calendar or Mexican American history or culture.

Point one was a welcome development, however, on the second point, it was as though the last several years had not happened. Gonzalez responded to Horne’s announcement: “What Horne does not care to know is that the Aztec Calendar represents the keys to Mexican indigenous culture… Within it are the teachings of life critical for all people to learn, yet Horne’s intentions have never been to understand what we teach and how it impacts students. His double speak does not surprise me… “

In addition to what happened to Gonzalez, he apparently was unaware of what occurred after the MAS dismantling:

  • MAS teachers were given 9 directives, including one prohibiting the teaching of materials that lead back to “Mexican American perspectives.”
  • A TUSD memo directed schools to pick up several book titles from MAS classes. Books were boxed and taken to a TUSD administrative site. Also, teachers were directed to vacate all their MAS books and teaching materials from the classroom, including lessons, artwork and posters.
  • The contents of MAS director, Sean Arce’s office were also boxed and sent to the same site; including books that had been banned the previous year.
  • One teacher’s computer was wiped clean, lessons and all.
  • A student was yanked from his classroom by TUSD security at Tucson H. S. after having spoken up at a school board meeting. He had been told he was in violation of a rule of crouching in the aisle as opposed to sitting in his chair.
  • In March, the Cesar Chavez march, which traditionally has begun at Pueblo High School, was forced to start elsewhere because TUSD officials sought to prohibit discussion regarding the MAS controversy.
  • In April, Tucson High’s UNITY festival organizers were told that they could not speak about MAS (which is precisely why the festival was created in 2008).
  • In April, after having spoken up in support of MAS at a White House Education summit, and after Justice Department officials reassured him that it is illegal to retaliate against employees for speaking up, Arce was subsequently fired.
  • In May, Ana Castillo, was essentially prohibited from speaking at Tucson High. The school had placed conditions; no media, and thus, the prize-winning author elected not to speak there (precisely one year before, highly respected educator, Paula Crisostomo of Occidental College, was outright prohibited from speaking at TUSD schools).
  • This summer, several MAS teachers were fired; some were reassigned.

When Mr. Horne was apprised of these incidents, as though oblivious of HB 2281, he said that he had no control over what school officials do; that they are not under him. Then he returned to his unfounded mantra that MAS is a highly racist curriculum, ignoring the independent 2011 Cambium report that found otherwise.

While Horne and TUSD officials have expressed interest in investigating issues that do not involve death threats, virtually no one has been inclined to investigate the events of May 3, 2012 in which more than a hundred law enforcement officers swarmed the TUSD headquarters. That night, seven women were arrested inside while several people were physically abused outside. Despite a video capturing an officer throwing a young student through the air, there’s never been an official explanation about this incident.

There has also been little interest in conducting a serious investigation into the YouTube video that called for people to shoot the UNIDOS students “in the head.” Taking the word of the perpetrator, Tucson police determined that this incitement to violence was but “a joke.”

At least Horne did not equivocate on the death threats (the trial in Tucson is Aug. 7) and he did agree on the need for an independent body to mediate this continuing crisis. The real crisis, in the minds of MAS opponents, is that there is now a nationwide movement to grow MAS at the K-12 level nationwide (