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Raza Studies: Inside or Outside of Western Civilization?

The struggle to defend Raza Studies in Tucson, Arizona isn’t simply an epic struggle; it is civilizational in scope. While it may sound hyperbolic, such a characterization actually comes from its opponents, such as former state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne, who has long contended that Raza or Mexican American Studies (MAS) does not emanate from … Continued

The struggle to defend Raza Studies in Tucson, Arizona isn’t simply an epic struggle; it is civilizational in scope. While it may sound hyperbolic, such a characterization actually comes from its opponents, such as former state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne, who has long contended that Raza or Mexican American Studies (MAS) does not emanate from Greco-Roman culture, and therefore lies outside of Western Civilization. His central thesis appears to be that Western Civilization teaches respect for individualism and that other cultures, such as Mexican culture, as taught in Raza Studies, preaches collectivism.

To debate Mr. Horne’s assertions first entails entering a completely fictional world, including his first contention that his effort to eliminate Tucson’s highly successful MAS Department is motivated by Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech. He cited this on Jan. 3, 2011, in his 10-page document in which he found MAS-TUSD out of compliance with HB 2281, the state measure that in effect, banned the teaching of MAS.

His entire thesis presupposes that he has the capacity to judge what is inside, or outside of Western Civilization, and that even if he had that capacity, that it somehow is grounds for excluding an entire discipline – Raza Studies – from Arizona schools. As the intellectual author of HB 2281, he presupposes that individualism and collectivism are mutually exclusive and that somehow, individualism is both superior, and embedded in the U.S. Constitution. That aside, a complication ensues when one comes to understand that the philosophical foundation for Raza Studies is rooted in maize – a crop completely Indigenous to Abya Yalla or the Americas. In geographic terms, this continent is firmly rooted in “the West.” While it is understood that Raza Studies does not trace its intellectual roots to the Greeks or the Romans, Indigenous peoples of this continent have never ceded the direction of the West to peoples from Europe or other parts of the world. At the same time, Raza Studies has never rejected Greco-Roman culture; on the contrary, it is Mr. Horne that has made that claim.

Opposition to Chicano Studies Dejavu

The discipline of Chicano/Chicana Studies was the intellectual companion of the Chicano Movement of the civil rights era. Akin to the political movement, it had naysayers since its inception and it continues to be opposed today by those that abhor “multiculturalism.” Today, few serious scholars at the university level publicly question the validity of the discipline. The Chicano Movement was a generational struggle as it broke from the past, relegating the submissive hat-in-hand Mexican into the trash bin of history. But the effort to destroy MAS-TUSD, without question, is indeed civilizational. It involves a debate over whether MAS knowledge, and whether Chicanos/Chicanas lie inside or outside of Western civilization. In effect, it even involves whether Chicanos/Chicanas are Indigenous peoples at all.

This clash, which appears to be a struggle over academic freedom, actually has all the elements of a cosmic drama; it is about what it means to be human and about what is permissible knowledge. While it may sound like a debate from the era of the Inquisition, it is actually taking place today, in the year 2012.

It has involved a carefully crafted plot, which includes the passage of HB 2281, designed specifically by Horne, to find MAS-TUSD outside of the law. It charges the department with promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government, with anti-Americanism and with promoting segregation and the resentment of Whites. It has also involved ignoring an independent study (The Cambium report), which debunked those charges, instead praising MAS-TUSD and calling for its expansion. Not liking the conclusions, Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, handpicked an administrative law judge, which gave him the pre-ordained verdict he desired. As a result of this 6-year ordeal, the [Lewis] Kowall decision prompted TUSD, under threat of crippling economic sanctions (a tactic used in war against enemies), to shut down the highly successful department. In doing so, it banished the curriculum and its books. More than anything, it prohibited the teaching of an Indigenous worldview, with an emphasis on social justice.

Counter-intuitively, this action, rather than unique, now places TUSD in the same company as the rest of the nation’s public school districts where none of them teach Raza Studies (the Indigenous history and culture of Mexican Americans) district-wide at the K-12 levels. In effect, this can be seen as contributing to the de-Indigenization of the nation’s schools. It can also be viewed as a form of denial [of Indigenous roots] that has long been in effect throughout the continent, including the United States. This is the meaning of civilizational war; it has been an ongoing process since 1492.

Since MAS-TUSD was dismantled in January 2012, things have taken a turn for the worse, involving the outlawing of the curriculum and book banning (involving some 50 books), including the confiscation of several titles and other teaching materials while school has been in session. It also includes the reassignment of all the MAS teachers, the firing of several of them and the firing of its long-time director, Sean Arce.

Citywide walkouts in response to Closure of MAS-TUSD Department

Perhaps what happened to MAS teacher Norma Gonzalez is most symbolic of this civilizational clash: While she was teaching, a school official walked in and upon seeing the Aztec Calendar on the screen, instructed Gonzalez to take it down, informing her that anything having to do with Mexican history and culture was prohibited. As an icon, there are few things more Mexican than the Aztec calendar. As Gonzalez states: “Virtually every Mexican home has one.” Teaching it has now become illegal and the calendar itself apparently now constitutes illegal knowledge. She recently lost her job at TUSD, though she has gained it again, though reassigned.

The irony is that the same knowledge – The Aztec Calendar – can and is being taught by the Native American Studies component of TUSD. Apparently, things prior to 1492 are considered to be outside of Mexican culture and history and it is the state that nowadays determines what constitutes Mexican history and culture. By the stroke of a pen, it also appears that it is the state that determines the indigeneity of peoples, in this case, the indigeneity, or lack thereof, of Mexican peoples.

The students and the community have not ever been passive about these matters, beginning in 2006 when students walked out of an auditorium in which they were prohibited from asking a conservative speaker any questions. This speaker had been brought in to counter Dolores Huerta who had proclaimed to students at Tucson High School that “Republicans hate Latinos.” In this case in Jan. 2012, upon learning of the suspension of the department and its classes, citywide walkouts ensued. Students were suspended and in one case, a student was yanked from a classroom two days after testifying before the school board. A few days later, MAS teachers were served a Jan. 18, 2012 memo with nine directives, titled: “Guiding principles for MAS teachers.”

The first directive states: “Assignments can not direct students to apply MAS perspectives.” That alone would need to be litigated in court, as no legal definition exists for such a perspective. If permitted to stand, and if replicated nationwide, such and similar directives would destroy the very concept of education as we know it. It does precisely what it purportedly opposes; it ascribes perspectives to particular groups and creates a state mechanism, the state superintendent, which determines the parameters of a [Mexican American] perspective. Theoretically, any perspective.

The Jan 18 memo further informs the teachers that school administrators will frequently visit them and, that student work will be frequently collected by said administrators to ensure compliance with HB 2281. This in fact is happening and is establishing what appears to be an unheard of precedent in U.S. schools.

Part of the context of this struggle includes the action of UNIDOS, which illustrates resistance as opposed to acceptance. Tired of being ignored, nine members of the citywide coalition of high school students chained themselves to the school board chairs on April 26, 2011. The following week, TUSD officers and the Tucson Police Department responded with maximum force. It is estimated that some 150-200 law enforcement personnel were deployed that night, surrounding both the TUSD headquarters and the neighborhood. This included a bomb squad, a canine unit, sharpshooters, SWAT and riot equipped officers and the use of metal detectors. That night, seven women were arrested for speaking. One 69-year-old elder was arrested for attempting to read: “A Letter from Birmingham,” by Martin Luther King Jr. Outside, several students were beaten.

A year after that direct action, heavy security persists; regular meetings average nine armed security, which includes the use of metal detectors.

While the local media has been hostile to MAS, it is the national media that has turned the tide in favor of MAS. National education organizations have united in a universal condemnation of this development. While book banning is not a new phenomenon or one limited to repressive nations, the one in Tucson perhaps is unique because aside from confiscating and boxing books and sending them off to the district’s book depository, the district and the state deny that there has been a book banning. Some of the books can now be found in the school libraries, but they can not be taught by the former MAS teachers, nor can MAS books or related teaching materials be inside their classrooms.

A March 2012 photograph of a small child being subjected to a metal detector went viral, with CNN following up with a not-so-flattering picture of TUSD. It was a public relations disaster for TUSD and the state. The photo and the CNN story leaves the impression that TUSD somehow fears its own constituents, including children, the disabled and even great-grandparents. To this day, only one person has attempted to bring in a weapon, a knife, by an ardent opponent of MAS. In the same week of the CNN story, a satirical piece by the Jon Stewart show revealed the ridiculousness of the case against MAS. In this segment, board member Michael Hicks single-handedly convinced perhaps a skeptical nation that Arizona and TUSD school officials have contrived their case against MAS on the basis of hearsay and apparent ignorance. In the piece, he refers to Rosa Parks as Rosa Clark, insinuates that the students carry weapons into the board room and also claims that MAS teachers feed burritos to their students to ensure loyalty.

The battle for MAS appears to have been won in the court of public opinion nationwide. Not so locally; the TUSD governing board continues to impose its will on the primarily Mexican American community and school district (approximately 62 % of district students are Mexican American/Latino, a percentage which is growing yearly). While Arizona may be different, it is also likely that the ideologies that have sprung forth from this state, including the fear of the “browning” of the nation, may result in other states and districts creating similar legislation that would also ban Mexican American Studies. We of course have already seen this effect in the realm of SB 1070 copycat legislation nationwide.

Arizona indeed may be different because, on this issue, the politicians are brazen. For example, while running for superintendent, Mr. Huppenthal campaigned to “stop La Raza,” promising he would eliminate MAS at the K-12 and university levels. In March, 2012, he began musings about going after the MAS program at the University of Arizona. Interestingly, state statistics reveal that as of 2012, White students are no longer the majority of K-12 students in the state of Arizona. This of course may be the reason for the discomfort with the teaching of Ethnic Studies, the sense that Arizona has been “lost” to Mexico.

Currently, there is a federal lawsuit (Acosta) challenging the constitutionality of HB 2281, arguing vagueness and overreach. Despite overwhelming evidence that it is discriminatory and contrived, the final outcome is uncertain due to a politicized U.S. Supreme Court. However, the prospects of Huppenthal succeeding at the university level does not look promising because even opponents of MAS-TUSD argue that its curriculum would be acceptable at universities because students there are capable of making up their own minds, etc. The actual reason, many people suspect, is the tradition of academic freedom at colleges and universities nationwide; to go after MAS at the university level would invite a condemnation even more widespread than exists now.

But Tucson is in Arizona, a state that has been arguably in the lead of a decade-long anti-Mexican movement. What SB 1070 has shown the nation is that cultural conservatives will do whatever they want, even if it bankrupts the state. However, in 2011, the moneyed interests of the Republican Party convinced them to back off of their onslaught of anti-Mexican-anti-immigrant legislation, which included an effort to overturn the 14th Amendment (birthright citizenship).

It is uncertain whether such pressure would discourage Horne and Huppenthal in their efforts to, in effect, do away with a worldview – represented by the MAS discipline. It was Horne after all, who in the face of overwhelming evidence that MAS-TUSD graduates nearly 100% of its students and sends upwards of 80% of them to college, declared that he does not care how the students do in school; what matters to him is that they are not learning Greco-Roman knowledge and values.

Horne is correct on this matter; the philosophical foundation of MAS-TUSD lies in the maiz-based philosophies of In Lak Ech (You are my other me) and Panche Be (To seek the root of the Truth), as expounded upon by Maya scholar, Domingo Martinez Paredez in his classic work: Un Continente y Una Cultura (Orion, 1960) not in Western Civilization. The question is, can the state prevent students from learning a part of their own culture, which is maiz-based and Indigenous to this continent, but one that he considers anti-American? (The question really is, can a district, a state or even a federal government, outlaw the teaching of a perspective and the teaching of a peoples’ culture?)

This is where history appears to be repeating itself; what appears to be happening is another campaign of reducciones or forced assimilation (Spanish colonial era campaigns) and the equivalent of another auto de fe; a 1500-s era book burning, as occurred in Mani, Yucatan in 1562 (Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, 1938, original 1500s). In that era, the Church, specifically the bishop, Diego de Landa, declared that the knowledge of Indigenous peoples was “godless, pagan and demonic.” In this era, Horne continues to make parallel declarations. The 1500s represent the “Dark Ages.” MAS students know this and that’s why they fight for what they consider to be their inherent, universal and inalienable rights – rights protected by virtually every human rights treaty since 1948, including the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is the same declaration that UNIDOS invoked when they took over the school board in 2011.

Regardless of what happens in U.S. courts, MAS supporters are also intent on taking their concerns before international human rights forums. The following are international treaties and conventions that HB 2281 violates:

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: The UN Convention on Rights of the Child

1990: The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

1994: The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

2007: UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In fact, a close inspection of them also leads many to believe that SB 1070 also violates every one of them also.

Those who support the MAS struggle in Tucson are certain that they will prevail as all human rights treaties and conventions protect the right to culture, history, identity, language and education.

What is also important to remember is that the attacks against MAS – relative to Western Civilization – are not limited to its philosophical foundation; Mexicans and Chicanos/Chicanas in Arizona today are being treated as peoples less than full human beings and peoples deserving of something other than full human rights. Because the students and community of Tucson understand this, it guarantees that the battle over MAS – with its accompanying search for the truth and social justice, regardless of court decisions – will not be over anytime soon.

* 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 Mexican/Indigenous origins and migrations. The ban highlights that virtually the entire cultural production of the past generation of Raza/Indigenous writers/artists has been criminalized.

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