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On Receiving the Ella Baker/Septima Clark Human Rights Award

Tlazocamati huel miac – thank you to members of the Ella Baker/Septima Clark Human Rights Award Committee, American Educational Research Association, Division B, for 2013. I first want to acknowledge the Ohlone peoples – the peoples Indigenous to these lands. And I want to pass on a teaching I received: everyone of us, we are all Indigenous… to somewhere. That should create the consciousness within us to help us understand that we are all stewards of this earth, responsible for the health of Pachamama.

Cualli Yohualli Nehua no toca Dr Cintli

Tlazocamati huel miac – thank you to members of the Ella Baker/Septima Clark Human Rights Award Committee, American Educational Research Association, Division B, for 2013.

I first want to acknowledge the Ohlone peoples – the peoples Indigenous to these lands. And I want to pass on a teaching I received: everyone of us, we are all Indigenous… to somewhere. That should create the consciousness within us to help us understand that we are all stewards of this earth, responsible for the health of Pachamama.

Secondly, I would like to acknowledge the lives of Ella Baker and Septima Clark, two giants of the civil rights movement who are largely unknown to mainstream society, which is the case of most tireless human rights workers… I am in awe of their work and their inspiring legacy. And thanks to those who nominated me, and the AERA committee who chose me, to receive this national human rights award.

In their spirit, I would like to introduce you to two other names. Prior to coming here, I was at Sal Castro’s funeral in Los Angeles. He led a life similar to those of Baker and Clark. He embodied the meaning of “teacher,” leading a campaign in the 1960s and 1970s against educational apartheid against Mexican students in L.A. schools.

By all rights, a young woman, Leilani Clark, should actually be receiving this award today. She is both Kha’p’oo Owinge (Santa Clara Pueblo) and African American – a woman equal to Baker, Clark… and Castro. I should note that I am donating my monetary award – the $500 – to a student group called UNIDOS: United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies – a Tucson group that she co-founded and co-led in defense of Ethnic Studies in Arizona. She is an alumni of the very program that has been targeted since 2006. It was UNIDOS who staged a dramatic takeover of the Tucson School board on April 26, 2011, chaining themselves to the school board chairs – this while our entire community offered a ring of protection, surrounding and taking over the school board building that night.

It is UNIDOS and our entire community that also faced down some 200 law enforcement personnel in full riot gear, undercover officers, a helicopter, sharpshooters and a bomb squad – also at TUSD headquarters – where everyone was subjected to metal detectors on May 3, 2011 – again, in defense of Ethnic Studies. That night, the entire neighborhood surrounding the school board was blocked off, while many young activists were beaten, and seven women were arrested for having the audacity to speak to the school board. One student, Juliana de Leon, was tossed like a rag doll, some 10-12 feet through the air, injuring her wrists (Her mom was also assaulted). This was caught on videotape, yet to this day, there has not been an acknowledgement by the TUSD superintendent, Dr. John Pedicone, or the board, that this occurred. One disabled elder, Lupe Castillo, was arrested for reading “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by MLK Jr. There has yet to be an accounting for that brutal day as the passage of time does not undo injustice, especially on that night in which our entire community was disrespected and dehumanized. Despite this, there is some good news to report. In those days, the board was 4-1 against us. Today, it is purportedly 3-2 in our favor. And as a result, the superintendent who sicced the cops on us resigned last month.

I am proud to say that the year before, a day after the notorious anti-Ethnic Studies hb 2281 legislation was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, on May 12, 2010, I was arrested along with 14 others, mostly young students – from middle school to high school to University of Arizona and Pima Community College students, for refusing to leave the state building. While charges for ten were dropped, five of us, including me, were found guilty of criminal trespassing. That was of course selective prosecution as we all did the exact same thing (sit-in), though it was MAS alumni who were targeted.

Trespassing? It is true that perhaps 1,000 students walked out and surrounded TUSD headquarters, “scaring away” the state school’s superintendent, Tom Horne – the intellectual author of hb 2281 who believes that Raza Studies is outside of Western Civilization – from TUSD. His contention indeed is true; the Raza Studies curriculum is not derived from Greco-Roman culture, but rather, from a 7,000-year maíz–based Indigenous culture. He actually began to wage this campaign to criminalize the teaching of Ethnic Studies in 2006, in response to union organizer Dolores Huerta telling Tucson High students that, “Republicans hate Latinos.” Yet, just because hundreds of students later shut down the state building that day, that doesn’t make it trespassing. The students went but to demand accountability of Mr. Horne who had taken refuge inside the state building, holding a closed-door press conference, rather than face the students.

The idea of trespassing reminds me of an Indigenous declaration made in Peru in 2006 – at the behest of Tonatierra of Phoenix – in response to draconian US immigration laws: “We cannot be alien on our own continent!”

It was during this time that I received 3 death threats. I pursued prosecution and the right wing supremacist, by the way, was found guilty.

Several weeks prior to the signing of hb 2281, Gov. Brewer signed the infamous racial profiling sb 1070 legislation. In response, Leilani and 8 others also dramatically chained themselves to the state capitol, getting arrested in the process. That is what inspired many of us, not to be afraid. Their charges were eventually dropped.

To contextualize Tucson, we have Operation Streamline in which 60-70 Indigenous men, and women, are charged, tried, convicted and sent off to a private detention facility daily, all within an hour. Also, the week prior to sb 1070 going into effect, 700 federal officers rained down on south Tucson to arrest a few owners of transport vehicles, on suspicion of human trafficking.

Even if the US Supreme Court were to affirm them, we will never consider 2281 or 1070 “laws” because they are both amoral, unconstitutional and in violation of nine international human rights treaties and conventions – from the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights, to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. When UNIDOS took over the school board, they, in a historic and unprecedented manner, invoked article 31 of the 2007 UN Declaration.

The treaties and conventions include, the:

  • 1948: UN Declaration of Human Rights
  • 1948: American Declaration of the Rights of Man
  • 1960: Convention against Discrimination in Education
  • 1966 & 1976: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • 1969 American Convention on Human Rights (Organization of American States)
  • 1989: UN Convention on Rights of the Child
  • 1990: International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
  • 1994: International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • 2007: UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

As an aside, my students and I, including members of UNIDOS, created an acronym: CHILE – to remind us that all nine of these international treaties protect: Culture, History, Identity, Language and Education, though in reality, in the history of humanity, neither governments or treaties dole out or protect rights. They are always asserted and fought for, as is the case for us in Arizona.

After the arrests behind 2281 and 1070 – both of which have been found by a special UN rapporteur and several human rights organizations to be in violation of human rights – members of the O’odham Solidarity Across Borders Collective took over the Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson, which is located inside a military base. They chained themselves in the lobby. And yes, Leilani was part of that action too – protesting sb 1070 and its genocidal effect on Indigenous peoples. Incidentally, most migrants coming in from Mexico and Central America – as a result of NAFTA – are Indigenous; millions have had to migrate, unable to compete, as a result of the importation of cheap gmo corn, subsidized by the US government. There were lots of arrests that day, but the charges too were eventually dropped.

In Arizona, we have lost the fear of getting arrested. So much so that after the arrests at the military base, 5 DREAM students – for the first time in US history – unmasked themselves in Sen. McCain’s Tucson office – challenging the state to arrest them. The state did, but again, the charges were eventually dropped. This is where the concept of being UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID was born.

Prior to all these arrests, in the summer of 2009, when students learned that another bill had been introduced to eliminate ethnic studies – as a community – we decided to run through the desert – from Tucson to Phoenix – in 115 degree heat. The day we arrived and circled up in front of the capitol building, the bill was dropped. It was an amazing run; one runner had several epileptic seizures and several of my own students – and running partners – with whom I would get arrested the following year – succumbed to heatstroke. Our solace was knowing that we had support vehicles in this same desert that has claimed thousands of lives of those attempting to make a better life for themselves in this country. Incidentally, we repeated this run, taking a longer route in 2012, to demand that the state include the teaching of Indigenous Studies (and the Doctrine of Discovery) in the state curriculum.

The first attempt at eliminating ethnic studies was part of a homeland security bill in 2008. Yes. Indigenous knowledge is apparently a threat to homeland security. People should know that when Raza Studies was finally eliminated in Jan. 2012 – even though the battle is not over – it wasn’t simply 7 books that were confiscated and banned, but the entire curriculum; teachers were instructed to remove their art, posters, all their Raza Studies books and other reading materials (other books had been banned the previous year and speakers were subsequently prevented from speaking at TUSD schools). One teacher’s computer was wiped clean. This also included making the teaching of the Aztec Calendar illegal. They were given specific directives about not teaching anything that could lead to a Mexican American perspective, etc.

After we ran through the desert in 2009, we began to understand our moral power ( At this point, as a community, we began a series of more runs in support of Raza/Indigenous/Ethnic Studies. Then, we began to run to raise consciousness regarding the obesity crisis in our communities, including diabetes, and heart disease. That next year, we did a run to bring about cancer awareness to our community, as a result of losing one of our peaceful and heroic young warriors to cancer: 27-year-old Consuelo Aguilar, the one person who best personified Tucson’s Mexican American Studies movement. That same year, we also decided to run to raise awareness of domestic/sexual violence.

Our runs are not races, competitions or protests. Led by Calpolli Teoxicalli, an Indigenous collective of families, we run together and the slowest runner leads the pace. All these runs are designed to cleanse our communities, and ourselves, whether from alcoholism or youth violence, or as a result of external threats.

In the past seven years, we’ve had more than 100 protests/actions against the state and our school board, but some of our battles have been internal. This is why I said that it is Leilani Clark who should be getting this award. On International Women’s Day this year, she went public about an incident that took place the night of the March 2011 premiere of the movie Precious Knowledge – the movie that depicts the struggle to defend Ethnic Studies prior to the signing of hb 2281 in 2010. She made the claim that a sexual assault/rape occurred that night, perpetrated by one of the people associated with the movie. I will leave a website that contains details of this incident:

It took her 2 years to go public, two years of a harrowing nightmare for her – with fears of her life and sexual history being put on trial. It is shameful that as a society, we have created a culture of silence. Even after going public, the response has been muted, though a collective of young women – who formed to combat sexism, misogyny and homophobia within our movements – have created a website/zine to end those enforced silences: We cannot pre-judge – but there is something wrong when we cannot even discuss such issues in public, without threats of lawsuits. When I read about Baker and Clark, they saw the failure to speak about sexism as one of the failings of the civil rights movement.

In 2013, we cannot remain silent. We can address both external and internal threats simultaneously. We may not come to agreement about this particular case, or other similar cases, but what is important is that within a human rights context, we all need to be able to confront gender issues head on. We should be able to discuss them openly just as we confront racial issues openly. One is not more important than the other, nor should one have to wait for the other. I can’t tell anyone what to do, but perhaps whenever this movie is shown anywhere in the country, gender issues should be addressed as part of the discussion.

Lastly, I want everyone to know that for the past two years, there have been attempts by the political right wing to get me fired from the University of Arizona, as a result of my role in this struggle. It is quite an honor to be receiving this human rights award for precisely the same reasons.

I would like to leave you with the words of In Lak Ech – a philosophy derived from maíz:

In Lak Ech

Tú eres mi otro yo. Si te hago daño a ti

Me hago daño a mí mismo.

Sí te amo y respeto. Me amo y respeto yo

You are my other me. If I do harm to you,

I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you,

I love and respect myself.

I close with these words from the movie La Otra Conquista,

that are appropriate for Arizona:

“They came for our souls, but they did not know where to look.”

And finally, let’s do that unity clap that is purportedly illegal in Arizona.