The attempt to outlaw the Mexican American studies programme in Tucson schools has mobilised a powerful new movement
o Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
o guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 April 2011 16.49 BST
The students wanted to be heard and so they chained themselves. The symbolism at the emergency meeting of the Tucson Unified School Board – held, in effect, to destroy the nation’s premiere K-12 Mexican American Studies programme – could not have been more powerful. And yet it was more powerful. Leading the charge of the mostly Mexican American students from the high school group Unidos was an African American and Native American student.
African American, Native American, Mexican American and Central American students intentionally chaining themselves, along with white students, too? Chains have a special meaning for people of colour: they oppress, imprison and dehumanise – and yet these students decided that after continually being silenced and after being subjected to years of continual attack, chaining themselves to the school board members’ chairs was the means to achieve voice. And they were definitely heard.
The symbolism doesn’t stop there. Akin to the Los Angeles high school walkouts of 1968, among the student leaders was also a Chilipina (Chicana and Filipina). Leaders in the years-long struggle include Yaqui, Tohono O’dham, Mexican and Chicana and Chicano students. This is the Tucson community.
The action this week has come after students and community members have testified before the state legislature, after having run from Tucson to Phoenix, after getting arrested en masse inside the state building, after having walked across the city, after countless protests, vigils, rallies and marches … and after having attended numerous school board meetings where the board members hear, but do not listen, and where they seemingly always act against the interests of the majority (about 80% of students being of colour).
While this was primarily a high school student planned and executed action, hundreds of middle school, high school, community college and university students and community members of all races and cultures laid siege to the TUSD headquarters. All risked arrest, but rather than getting arrested, they shut the meeting down.
The massive, yet peaceful takeover of the TUSD headquarters, was precipitated by the school board capitulating to the efforts to terminate ethnic studies statewide via HB 2281. The bill, shepherded by former state schools superintendent, Tom Horne (now state attorney general) and passed by the state legislature, was signed by the governor last year. On 3 January of this year and minutes before leaving office, Horne declared TUSD’s highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) programme out of compliance with HB 2281. Per Horne – who claims to be guided by Martin Luther King Jnr’s philosophy – the only means to comply is by elimination of the programme. Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, who campaigned to “eliminate La Raza” soon chimed in. His response has been to audit this highly successful programme, while leaving untouched the state’s many failing programmes.
The initial response by the school board was to declare that the MAS-TUSD was already in compliance. However, after 3 January, the new mantra from the board is that it will do whatever it needs to in order to ensure that MAS-TUSD will be in compliance with HB 2281. This has culminated in a series of efforts, by what amounts to an apartheid-style school board, to appease the state. The latest move by the board is a resolution that calls for designating MAS courses as electives – as opposed to core curriculum courses. This would cause students to take double courses, which amounts to the first step towards elimination.
Despite the huge protest, the board meeting has been rescheduled for 5 May, yet the resolution has not been withdrawn.
The untold story here is the rise of youth community leadership; the takeover and occupation showed evidence of disciplined organisation. And now, added to this story is the solid support by the all-important Native and African American communities, which are denouncing the efforts to invoke the name of Martin Luther King to destroy ethnic studies. All communities of conscience appear to be coalescing against the state’s efforts to demonise and dehumanise the brown peoples of this state. This includes the state’s business community. The anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous (“racial profiling”) laws attack the physical characteristics of brown peoples ,whereas HB 2281 is an assault on their intellectual and spiritual being.
It is no coincidence that in this struggle, it is the students who have invoked both the UN’s declaration of human rights and the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. They see these as the moral and legal documents that guarantee and safeguard this embattled studies programme. But they also understand that no one gives human rights away; we may be born with them but it is up to people to assert them. In Tucson, in Arizona, they will continue to be asserted – with or without chains.
Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at: XColumn@gmail.com
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