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Unity through silence: A Tucson Story

Human beings are defined by the sum total of our values… what we believe in and that which guides us in our daily lives. Yet, values are virtually worthless if one preaches them, but does not adhere to them. So too ethos? Ethos are not what one believes per se, but what one lives by. This discussion is not abstract, but is about the footprints that have been left behind the past several years in the monumental struggle in Tucson, in defense of Ethnic/Raza or Mexican American Studies (MAS). The battle here has never really been about facts; all the relevant facts, and all the independent studies prove the success of the former department. Instead, the [external] battle has actually been about values/ethos. The internal battle has been about whether we have been living those same values/ethos.

Human beings are defined by the sum total of our values… what we believe in and that which guides us in our daily lives. Yet, values are virtually worthless if one preaches them, but does not adhere to them.

So too ethos?

Ethos are not what one believes per se, but what one lives by. This discussion is not abstract, but is about the footprints that have been left behind the past several years in the monumental struggle in Tucson, in defense of Ethnic/Raza or Mexican American Studies (MAS). The battle here has never really been about facts; all the relevant facts, and all the independent studies prove the success of the former department. Instead, the [external] battle has actually been about values/ethos. The internal battle has been about whether we have been living those same values/ethos.

At the moment, after six years of battle and with victory at hand, our community finds itself in seeming crisis over the very values that we teach. The word seeming is invoked because as a community, we have the tools to prevail and to prevail honorably.

In an Indigenous amoxtli or codex, a footprint represents or depicts a journey or migration. In a metaphorical sense, the footprint is record, archive, memory and evidence of existence, of a life lived, not necessarily that of individuals, but of communities. Those of us involved in these battles should be thinking about what footprints we are leaving behind.

At the moment, a living codex is being carved out in Tucson, Arizona. That carving has been clearly documented – etched actually – by runs, walks, marches, rallies, vigils, building takeovers, teach-ins, countless protests and countless testifying at school board meetings – all under heavy security and police presence, some of which have resulted in arrests (May 12, 2010 and May 3, 2011) and physical violence (May 3, 2011). It was also etched recently at the three recent federal hearings, sans police presence, in regards to the desegregation plan that has sealed our victory. This long story – also documented in hip-hop, poetry and song – and witnessed always by the fire and drum – is powerful. It is perhaps the educational civil rights story of our times. It has been a struggle over memory… about what we remember and about what we forget… about what is acceptable and permissible knowledge vs. unacceptable and impermissible knowledge… about what gets taught vs. what gets censored.

The footprints tell the public story, which is a heroic one indeed and one that has been extensively covered, from the LA Times to the NY Times. However, unseen to outsiders are the many internal conflicts, the disagreements and disputes about legal and political strategies and tactics… and the many [tense and rocky] relationships. They are all part of the normal dynamics of life, particularly those that are present in any movement. These [bitter] disputes are normally kept out of the public’s eye, or at least not revealed until long after-the-fact by historians. The reason: the tragic and counter-productive ethos of: unity via silence.

But Tucson was supposed to be different, precisely because of the maiz-based values/ethos that were being taught as part of MAS: In Lak Ech-Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo and Panche Be-Buscar la Raiz en la Verdad (You are my other me-To Seek the root of the truth). Other values/ethos were also being taught, however these are the most well known. They are part of what former state schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne, deemed to be outside of Western Civilization.

From private to public – from the personal to the political

As a society, one of the great advances of the previous generation was in the realm of understanding that the personal is political, compliments of the feminist movement. Some deem that controversial and reject that ethos while others fully embrace it because of what preceded it… the notion that what happens out of the public’s eye, especially in one’s home and especially to women, is private and no one else’s business.

Enter that purported crisis in the person of Sean Arce, former director of Tucson’s celebrated and highly successful MAS department. Unquestionably, he has been one of the primary casualties of this battle, due to a legal/political strategy that, in effect, made him and the 10 other educators the face of MAS (as opposed to the rights of educators, students, parents and our community). Reasonable minds can differ on this approach, however, this struggle has undeniably placed a bulls eye on each of their backs. As it is, the courts removed the educators as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state’s HB 2281 anti-Ethnic Studies legislation. This is typical of how the courts normally treat educators – as people without rights. Aside from that, educators can be targeted and removed and oftentimes, unpredictable things can happen to them, etc.

Something indeed has now happened; Arce’s footprints landed him in jail on Dec. 9, accused of 3 counts related to a domestic violence incident. It first involved an incident at a night club involving his ex-wife and then later him breaking windows at her home (See police report: Arce Case.1212090089 click here.). Considering the legal ethos of “innocent until proven guilty,” and because the case will soon be going to court, it is inappropriate to render judgment regarding guilt or innocence. However, it should be acknowledged – and it is public knowledge now — that there is a prior from 2006 in which charges were filed, and then dismissed (most MAS supporters were unaware of this prior incident). Arce will have his day in court, beginning Jan. 8, and obviously will defend himself, however, there are some things that he is not contesting; his inappropriate behavior that night.

It is that behavior that has thrown our MAS community into a state of seeming chaos and crisis. Some believe that we should not react and remain silent; that it is but a private matter. Others think the opposite, while some want nothing to do with the situation. Others believe that we should distance ourselves from Arce or that we should distance MAS from him. The truth is, many in our MAS community have been anything but silent about this, having had a series of meetings and conversations about this situation, etc. Many of us believe that remaining silent is not an option (The right wing is certainly not remaining silent, this despite that it has yet to hit the mainstream media in Tucson-Phoenix, LA or New York, etc.). Through all this, people who have fought hard for MAS are instinctively choosing sides in an acrimonious manner. Additionally, the different “camps” appear to grasp the situation differently, as if existing in parallel universes. However, those that have been meeting understand this to be a false choice. It is not an either/or situation and the actual resolution of this specific issue will not be resolved via the media. But the issue will surface and it will be addressed by and in the media.

The Dec. 9 incident went public two weeks after-the-fact via the Internet and on social media networks, including a zine put together by a collective of young women (, then followed by a crazed right-wing outfit, the Arizona Daily Independent (with mostly anonymous posts, which are shamelessly, but not unexpectedly, exploiting this story). Second to Tom Horne (intellectual author of the anti-Ethnic Studies HB 2281), this outfit is the primary nemesis of MAS. While there have been other posts, it is the Tucson Weekly that has drawn the most responses. And yet, we are barely in the beginning phase of a feeding frenzy by MAS opponents. The rhetoric is heavy. Part of what has also triggered the frenzy is Arce’s apology, which was posted in the blog. DA Morales of the ThreeSonorans blog, who was with Arce for part of that night, also weighed in. His response, in effect, a defense of Arce, itself has caused a stir, particularly for invoking malinchismo to explain and further his argument. The situation has led Morales to shut down his website and facebook page, though his last [edited] post can be read here, where he mistakenly asserts that MAS is now dead:

Some of these posts merit a full response, but there is not enough space or time. Also, in this “debate,” some have begun to invoke the values taught by MAS to further their point of view. Yet, those values/ethos — those that I alluded to at the top, and others – are part of a way of life and are taught for the purpose of creating better human beings, not for invoking them to justify or deny… or to belittle or attack individuals. This is critical because it is those same values/ethos, that permit us to denounce Arce’s behavior, while not throwing him under the proverbial bus, though in this case, it promises to be a runaway train. It is also critical to understand that as a community, attempts have been made to communicate with his ex-wife, that if she needs assistance, our community is also there for her.

It is precisely those same values that have brought us to this point of victory in the battle with TUSD and the state. These values teach us about what it means to be human; they teach us about relationships and how to treat each other. They also teach us about respect, reciprocity and responsibility. However, there is a strong sense by many of the youths, especially young women, that the leadership in this community has not been living up to these values, including Arce. Though truthfully, it is not just youths who have been bothered by inappropriate and unacceptable behavior that has gone unchecked for the past several years.

Unquestionably, the concerns of the young women are not rhetoric (despite the use of rhetorical language) and they have let Arce know that they are upset with his behavior and not satisfied with his response, etc. Some will deem their criticism harsh; yet, they are not the only ones criticizing Arce for his behavior as people nationwide have been weighing in. What weakens the posts written by the collective is their public anonymity. It goes not so much to credibility, but it prevents dialogue, a dialogue that is sorely needed, one that requires us to use our critical thinking skills, as opposed to simply choosing sides. The lack of dialogue can lead to vilification and/or demonization by the different “camps.” Without dialogue, it is doubtful that we can arrive not so much at the root of the truth, but also to a place of peace, dignity and justice. Anonymity can also be interpreted as a symptom of silencing.

If anything, that public anonymity may also tell us something about why the lack of signatures: the lack of trust and the sense of not living in a safe space. The thrust of what they have been communicating the past several years is that it is unacceptable to ask women and the community to subsume the concerns of women – marginalization, domestic violence, sexual/gender violence, alcohol abuse, etc. – to the realm of secondary or non-issues.

The fact is, what some have been calling for – even before this incident – is silence – silence for the sake of unity. Here is a quote that is often raised here in Tucson, in regards to this topic:

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

Enforced and expected silence is a concept right out of the 1960s and is no longer valid for today’s times. As it is, there are other equally serious issues here (as in any movement) that have yet to surface, primarily because of fear of repercussions for those that dare to speak up. And many say that failure to address those earlier issues is precisely what contributed to the current situation.

At the same time, for those that suggest that the MAS community distance itself from Arce, that is not possible or practicable. Just ask the right wing. For one, to do so would be to deny his central role in our MAS community, despite the fact that he has been unemployed [fired] since the spring of 2012. To do so would be to wash our hands.

Arce is a good friend, colleague and brother to many of us – for many, he is also mentor – and because of this, many of us feel compelled to convey to him, in both private and public, that his behavior is unacceptable, precisely because of the philosophical values that MAS teaches. Many of us have told him as much. Violence of any kind, specifically domestic violence – and without mincing words or definitions – is not something that we teach or condone, regardless of the source. As a result of his own actions, he has forfeited the right, at this time, to represent the MAS community.

He cannot either be thrown under that runaway train. That is not In Lak Ech,and there is another equally important ethos called redemption. Instead, many of us will assist in whatever way we can to ensure that he get the proper treatment and/or support that he is in need of. This does not substitute for responsibility and accountability. Redemption requires that he face our community, the [young] women especially, but actually, our entire MAS community. He has indicated his willingness to do so and has begun this process, having already met with UNIDOS and MEChA representatives.

On the legal front, Arce has to be in charge of his own defense. From a moral standpoint, he has taken the first step of declining to seek a position with the new MAS or its replacement. He also has indicated that he will also not be a visible presence in the MAS community. And he has stated that he is also seeking therapy, etc. Some do not think it is enough, believing that he has minimized and not acknowledged the gravity of his behavior. That is not uncommon from someone who has not successfully completed therapy/treatment.

Partly for legal reasons – and the fact that this will not be resolved via the media – all this barely scratches at what has been going on in Tucson. Like anywhere else, there are no gods or saints here, just mere mortals – imperfect human beings with many flaws – who will attempt to resolve these issues face to face.

One of things that our community can be proud of is that most of us do understand that the MAS battle also involves our larger state and national communities as well as the larger Indigenous communities of this continent. And yet, as always, we will continue to support those courageous educators – who are also our sisters and brothers, who have waged this historic battle. They have done so along with the students, parents, community and other educators and human and Indigenous rights supporters nationwide, who have been with them at every step of the way… leaving many heroic footprints along the way.

We also know that the ferocious attacks from the right wing will continue to come our way. On this issue, they are not the primary problem, as they always hate anything and everything about MAS. We have the larger aforementioned communities to answer to, including the Ethnic Studies/MAS and educational communities. It is a moral obligation. And as we step forward, we do not have to hide or deny or distance ourselves from our values and ethos. That is our strength and precisely what is guiding us. Even more so, for many months now, many of us – representing nearly 20 Tucson organizations – have begun to meet about the future of MAS (A collective response regarding this situation may be forthcoming in the near future). This process resulted in the Declaration of Intellectual Warriors plan (, drafted by the youths of our community and submitted to the federal court.

This is historic for two reasons. As part of our battle, TUSD administrators, the state and the right wing have successfully pushed the idea that adults brainwash and control the students. In reaction, there has been a separation of the generations. The Intellectual Warriors document – and the process that created it – was a good step toward bridging that divide. The different generations are beginning to once again trust each other, with respect and sincerity.

That historic document also calls for not simply Mexican American Indigenous Studies (MAIS), but also, African-American, American Indian, Asian American, Middle Eastern, Women Studies, and LGBT studies – all as core classes. What we as a community can do is ensure that all of these studies – and the values contained within them – are incorporated within MAIS. Those of us who teach in this discipline – at whatever setting, from universities to Xinachtlis – do not need permission to do so. As a community, we can also insist that MAIS examine all these relationships, as we do not live in isolation. More than simply teaching about racial/gender/class consciousness and their intersections, we also need to eradicate the culture of silence.

In that process, we also cannot afford to retreat from our values and ethos. They are precisely what enable us to continue to search for the root of the truth and social justice, and most importantly, that path of creating better human beings. This is why it is a purported crisis. There is no moral dilemma; what we teach will guide us in how we treat and guide Arce, how we deal with issues of gender, how we treat each other, and equally important, how we step forward. Now more than ever, it is time to step forward, not back. Now more than ever, it is time to demonstrate to the world the true meaning of In Lak Ech.

Most people are familiar with one meaning, as generally taught by MAS educators, primarily in the form of Huehuetlatolli – or ancient guidances that govern how we treat each other. In this version of In Lak Ech – Tu eres mi otro yo, we teach students to see themselves in each other – regardless of race, gender, culture etc. That ethos teaches us to not disrespect each other and to honor and value each other. There is a second meaning to this same ethos: the otro yo – the other me – refers to our internal self.

As we resolve these issues – and it can be done, face-to-face – we need to examine our inner selves and not use these very concepts to deny, justify, belittle or attack. These are ethos that are meant to be lived, as opposed to be used for “winning arguments.”

As it is now time to begin to leave new footprints, here is another quote that is appropriate in this situation:

“Our lives will begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” MLK Jr.