“Tucson, Arizona was a part of Mexico not so long ago. All this hateful rhetoric to ‘go back to where you come from!’ does not work so well in Tucson since a lot of people are exactly where they came from and do not have anyplace to go back to.”
— Eren Isabel McGinnis, Producer of “Precious Knowledge”
Battles over school curriculums occasionally make national news, but quickly fade. However, the banning of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson has assumed much greater significance. The action precipitated by the Arizona legislature – and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer — brazenly suppresses educating a multicultural society in a school district where the majority of students are of Mexican descent. The documentary “Precious Knowledge: Arizona’s Battle Over Ethnic Studies” brilliantly details the energy and critical thinking of students in the Mexican-American studies program as compared to the bigoted cliches of the politicians seeking to deprive them of the knowledge that empowers non-Caucasian young people.
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The following is a Truthout interview with “Precious Knowledge” Producer Eren Isabel McGinnis:
Mark Karlin: A book that is more than 40 years old, Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” plays a central role in the Mexican-American studies program and is a repeated target to the politicians who opposed the curriculum. Can you explain a bit about the book and why it was such a threat to many white Arizonan political figures?
Eren McGinnis: Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is a classic textbook of the college classroom and one of the guiding texts of Tucson’s famous Mexican-American studies program. The book has its focus on the important relationship between teacher, student, and society. Freire calls the traditional way of teaching the “banking model” where the teacher stands in front of the class and has all the knowledge while the student is just empty and waiting to be filled. Freire wrote that students are the “co-creators of knowledge.” Freire also explores the relationship between the “colonizer” and the “colonized,” and his work is one of the foundations of critical pedogogy. Mr. Gonzalez, a teacher and star of the “Precious Knowledge” film, used Freire extensively in his classroom. This textbook is widely used throughout the world and we even have the Paulo Freire Freedom School in Tucson, a charter school focused on social justice and environmental sustainability. Interestingly, this charter school has not ever been attacked or even questioned by our state legislature.
The politicians used this textbook as a symbol and also as leverage in their campaign against the Mexican-American studies program. Former Arizona State Senator and now Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said, “There is a real fear when we see books like the ‘Pedogogy of the Oppressed,’ that is Marxist, Leninist, collectivist. There is a real fear that the message is going out that you can’t get ahead in life and that there are people out there that are stopping you.” I have always thought that it was a bit odd for Huppenthal to be invoking cold war era politics.
Karlin: The fact is that the high school graduation rate for Latinos enrolled in the Mexican-American studies program was nearly twice that of those who weren’t. Isn’t it a bit shocking that politicians who constantly talk about a crisis in our schools would outlaw a program that was almost doubling graduation rates for Latinos?
McGinnis: It is horrible that a program that helped students and their families so much would be outlawed. This has been extremely hard on our community here in Tucson and really upsets audiences across the country. The audience is very emotional about “push out” rates and the achievement gap and can see by watching the movie how the program really engaged the students. The year we filmed the senior class of 2009 they had a 100% graduation rate.
One of the anti-curriculum politicians ,Tom Horne, talked incessantly about there, “being better ways to energize our students,” but never presented the better way.
Karlin: A couple of the political figures openly attacked the curriculum as being an alleged assault on “Eurocentic culture.” Weren’t the Mayans, Native-Americans and other indigenous people here before white people showed up? And wasn’t Arizona part of Mexico before the Mexican government was forced to give up the land to the United States?
McGinnis: Tucson, Arizona was a part of Mexico not so long ago. All this hateful rhetoric to “go back to where you come from!” does not work so well in Tucson since a lot of people are exactly where they came from and do not have any place to go back to. The United States purchased southern Arizona and the southwest of New Mexico from Mexico with the Gadsden Purchase or the “Venta de La Mesilla” and this was ratified in 1854.
Karlin: One of the politicians opposing the curriculum was very upset that there was a poster indicating that Benjamin Franklin was a bit bigoted – and called the assertion Un-American. Are these people so clueless that they don’t realize slavery was allowed under the original Constitution, that blacks were considered 3/5’s of a person, and that many of the founders of the US including George Washington owned slaves?
McGinnis: Our founding fathers have been deified in some circles and it is popular to reinvision our complicated history. My son was a senior at Tucson High School last year and was taught in his Advance Placement (AP) American History class that our founding fathers were opposed to slavery.
The students in the Mexican-American studies program are taught to look at our history as being complex. As Sean Arce, the former Director of Mexican-American studies says, “It’s not a disregard of those founding fathers, but we try to encourage in our students, and facilitate a process to examine our history for what it is. We need to have real courage to look at the good and the bad with our own history.”
Karlin: Let’s return to the educational oppression issue. Isn’t one by-product of the ban on the Mexican-American curriculum basically the white power structure hoping that the Mexican-American students don’t succeed educationally because that will delay them assuming more power in the state?
McGinnis: It is interesting because the politicians often commented on how the students were being taught excellent leadership skills and I could tell the politicians admired that. One-on-one they liked the students and their skills, would smile and cut up with them, and then 30 minutes later would vote to shut the program down. It was clear that no amount of dialogue or negotiating would change their mind. The decision to shut the program down seems to have been made prior to all the numerous testimonials and evidence in favor of the program and makes one wonder how and where these decisions were made and also by whom. Audiences often ask, “Who is really behind this and how can we follow the money?”
Karlin: Describe some of the direct action, the participatory democracy that the students participated in to save the curriculum?
McGinnis: The students did hundreds of actions to save their beloved classes. The direct action grew due to their absolute frustration with the system and from not being listened to at all. These are committed students who did a ceremonial run from Tucson to Phoenix in the summer time. Phoenix is 121 miles away from Tucson and it was very hot and dangerous to do this run in the Sonoran desert. It was a grand gesture to show how much they love their classes and will go down as an important part of our collective civil rights history. More examples of direct action included, sit-ins, blockades, walkouts, civil disobedience, and countless other actions. Keep in mind, this battle has been going on for years and continues only because of the work of the students.
Plans are simmering for a “Freedom Summer” to take place in Tucson with organizers and activists busing in from all over the country to work together with activists in Tucson. They will use Freirian techniques and learn from each other. There will be many goals, but some will include intense voter registration, a keen focus on our upcoming school board election, and to really educate voters about issues that deeply affect our community. Each year 500,000 more Latinos will turn 18 and be able to vote for the first time and this trend will continue for the next 20 years.
Karlin: What a delightful, inspiring group of dedicated teachers who taught in this now disbanded program. How were they recruited? Their heads and their hearts were in the program.
McGinnis: Mr. Arce started recruiting for the program many years ago by sharing ideas with a group of curious teachers about this innovative curriculum. It was in the Tucson High School library at 7:00am and they shared coffee and their frustration about the achievement gap. Their critically compassionate curriculum was developed by a dynamic group that included high school teachers and academics from the University of Arizona. This curriculum continued to evolve over many years and was shared in the summer during the once annual Institute for Transformative Education, where the teachers continued to learn from academics outside of our community.
Karlin: And the head of the program was fired a short time ago. Truthout reposted an interview with Sean Arce not too long ago, and he said the “fight is not over.” What are he and the teachers doing to try and reverse this injustice?
McGinnis: The fate of the program is now in the hands of Tucson based lawyer Mr. Richard Martinez and we are all waiting to hear from a federal judge, who is expected to make a summary judgment about the constitutionality of the law that dismantled the program. It is a dramatic legal battle that could potentially go all the way to the Supreme Court. The teachers and Mr. Arce are doing everything they can to help Mr. Martinez with this lawsuit by spreading awareness and letting others know how they can help. Potentially the federal government could step in and the classes will be reinstated.
Today is the last day of school for students in the Tucson Unified School District and this has been a very tough spring semester for the teachers and also the students currently enrolled in the Mexican-American studies program since the classes were shut down in January 2012.
Mr. Acosta, in addition to being a high school teacher, is also working on his Ph.D and Mr. Gonzalez has aspirations to earn his Ph.D. As you can see in the film, the teachers have a lot of energy. I have hope that the classes will be resurrected.
Karlin: In my own eyes, your film was symbolic of the current clash in the United States as whites slowly slip into being a minority of the American population. This has already occurred in some states, including our largest: California. Was the suppression of the Mexican-American studies program part of a rear guard effort to try to ensure that the white power structure stays intact, a companion to the draconian Arizona anti-immigration bill and other such initiatives in the state?
McGinnis: Yes, there is a culture clash in the state of Arizona and beyond. However, it is a false and dehumanizing attack against immigrants. My father is an immigrant from Mexico and I prefer to keep my focus on the beautiful and positive things that immigrants bring to our country.
Fear is a powerful emotion and this fear can mislead and encourage people to vote for a power structure that keeps the status quo and continues to exploit immigrants and others while keeping profits high for those in power.
Karlin: Finally, you’ve been screening “Precious Knowledge” around the nation. What has the reaction been?
McGinnis: The screenings have been incredible and good for the soul. I travel with the stars of the film, the teachers, and the students. When the audience sees one of the teachers or students in the film, there is such an incredible wave of love, pride, and emotion. I have enjoyed absolutely every location and have met some of the most dynamic educators and students of our time. Since we are buried under a cloud of bad news and decision-making in Tucson, it is wonderful to see such passion for progressive education on college campuses. There is a lot of frustration with standardized testing and a one size fits all model for our education system and an incredible hunger for social justice and ethnic studies curriculums. Since I am on the road a lot I know this hunger is very real. The sheer numbers of students and teachers with a desire to make change makes this transformative movement within reach. It is an exciting time to be on college campuses because the students have the power and the numbers to create this change.
Some screenings that stand out include the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which was organized by a filmmaking friend of mine. Dream Act students, playback theater actors, and artists were all inspired to go on creating and organizing by the “Precious Knowledge” film. Students from Michigan State University took it upon themselves to create a Wiki page for our film! Smith University in Massachusettes was incredible. Some universities are very strict about keeping the aisles and walkways clear since most screenings are really packed. At Smith, there were people crammed in the aisles, standing in the back, shouting to the screen, laughing, and crying. The film provides a roller coaster of emotions for an audience. We had a surprise when an alum of the Mexican-American studies program was in the Smith audience and she was surprised to see herself in the film.
Napa had over 500 in the audience and it was a historic event in their community. People of all ages showed up, from little ones to grandmothers. I also loved Athens, Georgia since they did a pre-screening collective cheer and dance. A young musician in Madison, Wisconsin wrote and performed a song inspired by the film. San Diego, which is my hometown, has gone above and beyond the call of duty, hosting countless screenings and being very supportive of the movement in Tucson. The “Precious Knowledge” film inspires audiences to help the students and teachers in Tucson, Arizona and to create positive and progressive change in their own communities.
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