Tucson Skirts International Law in Refusing to Reinstate Mexican American Studies

The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) school board recently defended its decision to not re-implement the highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program after Arizona’s 2010 HB 2281 legislation essentially banned the subject from the district’s schools.

The majority of the board contends that the district’s new “Culturally Relevant Curriculum” (CRC), introduced after 2012, is essentially the same as the terminated Mexican American Studies curriculum.

Their argument, however, neglects the fact that A.Wallace Tashima, a US federal judge for the District of Arizona, found HB 2281 unconstitutional in 2017, ruling the legislation was motivated by racial animus when then-Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law eight years ago. It also neglects the fact that State Superintendent Diane Douglas said that the state would abide by the decision. Despite this, TUSD officials still refuse to reintroduce Mexican American Studies.

As to the difference between programs, Tucson’s “Culturally Relevant Curriculum” was bureaucratically concocted, designed to avoid the penalties of HB 2281, whereas MAS is, in fact, its own discipline. Mexican American Studies is some 50 years old, and very much rooted in its community as a product of a civil, human and educational rights movement going back to the 1960s. That’s not to say that CRC is bad. Quite the contrary; it is very good, primarily because many of the former MAS educators are part of it. However, that is not what was fought for between 2006 and 2017.

Apparently, no one has been able to tell the board the difference between the two programs and explain the importance of Mexican American Studies to a community. Perhaps the answer can be found in Texas, where the School Board of Education unilaterally decided recently to change the name of “Mexican American Studies” to “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

However, following outcry by students, advocates and educators, the Texas board elected to rename the course “Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies.” The board acknowledged the importance of aligning the approved class with the MAS discipline that already exists at the university level.

Beyond the court victory and the Texas precedent, when we look at the numerous international treaties and conventions that affirm the right of Indigenous peoples to their own culture, history, identity, language and education, we can clearly see that peoples are not the property of nations. They have a right to self-identify, and not become culturally obscured.

This is a crucial part of the ethnic studies struggle in Arizona. The state objected to Mexican American Studies because it was teaching subjects that did not derive from Greco-Roman culture, and was purportedly outside of Western civilization. The response by the program’s supporters is that teaching Indigenous Maya-Nahua concepts is very much a part of the history of this continent, and relevant to Mexican American students in Arizona, many of whom are part of that thousands of years old maíz culture and who also have roots in the Sonoran Desert.

Liliana Patricia Saldaña, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is part of the Texas ethnic studies struggle. “[It] sounds like Tucson is trying to make MAS irrelevant, whereas the program that was banned was rooted in Indigenous and decolonial epistemologies,” she said, adding that while some programs can be relevant, they can still, ultimately, be assimilationist. This has always been the prevalent aspect “in the culture of US schooling,” and not necessarily the goal of impacted communities.

Saldaña is spot on in taking the exact opposite position as that of the board, who appear not to be familiar with the discipline, the 2017 court decision, or international law. A careful reading of international law finds that HB 2281 was in violation of the following international treaties, conventions and declarations:

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

These treaties, conventions and declarations all affirm the right of all peoples to an education, and specifically, the right not to become culturally erased.

For instance, the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Section 3, affirms that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

And from the 2007 UNDRIP, which the Tucson students invoked:

  • Article 8: Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.
  • Article 13: Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

The attempt to prohibit the teaching of Mexican American Studies, and even changing its name, is nothing short of cultural genocide – which can also be categorized as forced assimilation.

To disregard a major court decision speaks volumes by a school board that operates as if Tucson were part of an apartheid state even though many of its students are Mexican American. Worse, to unilaterally decide to impose a program, or to change its name, is in complete violation of the spirit of said treaties, conventions and declarations, and completely immoral because it is contrary to the 2017 court decision against the state.