That Moment in History
Choice: Hero or Scab
Rodolfo F. Acuña
On Tuesday, April 26, 2011 ten Tucson high school and university students took over a meeting of the governing board of the Tucson Unified School District, chaining themselves to the board members chairs. Immediately about two hundred persons in the boardroom closed ranks as did an equal number in the foyer and a larger number of supporters in the parking area. The protestors were not all Mexican Americans and they were not all students. Showing solidarity were elected officials, parents, grandparents, professionals and workers of all colors.
This is one of those transformative moments in history when people are forced to make a choice. The students knew that the deck was stacked and moved to defend their program:
It was obvious that three of the five votes on the board were committed to killing La Raza studies, a successful program that has dramatically stemmed the dropout of Mexican Americans and motivated them to enroll or think about attending college. The community had a clear grasp of history and had a strong sense of the importance of the moment. They wanted a quality education for their sisters, brothers and cousins.
Michael Hicks, a manager for Tucson’s Department of Transportation, had been against the program from the beginning. A tea partier, he made no secret of his antipathy toward Latinos. Two other board members appeared to be ready to vote with Hicks for a resolution by Mark Stegeman that certainly would kill Mexican American Studies.
Stegeman, a minor University of Arizona economist, wears his PhD as a badge, clinging to the title doctor to give the impression that he is an educator. The truth be told, Stegeman’s publication record would not qualify him for the rank of assistant professor at most research institutions. He has yet to publish a book or an article in a refereed journal. Stegeman ran as a Democrat and gave the false impression that his title qualified him to pass judgment on pedagogy.
Miguel Cuevas, 24, is a Mexican American. He is listed as a graduate of Tucson Unified’s Cholla Magnet High School. As in the case of Stegeman, Cuevas ran as a progressive and a Democrat.
Naturally the electorate expected both these two candidates to defend programs benefiting the majority of the TUSD students who are of Mexican American extraction. They expected them to respect their history as well as the importance of education to a poor community. It had become apparent that the brands had no meaning to Stegeman and Cuevas.
The moment was historic, it was now or never for the students. The moment was similar to when Carmelita Torres refused to disrobe and take a gas bath before crossing bridge from Juárez to El Paso in 1917; Rosa Parks’ refusing to give up her seat in 1955; and the Reverend Martin Luther King crossing the bridge at Selma in 1965. Like these heroic figures, the Tucson students grabbed the moment.
The students inspired the Tucson community to fight back!
For the past fifty years Latinos and other minorities have proposed and implemented educational reforms designed to curb the horrendous push out of their students. Over 60 percent of Latina/o students dropped out of school in the 60s.
There were illusionary gains: the courts desegregated the schools. However, today schools are more segregated than in the mid-50s. A 1966 National Education Association report, The Invisible Minority, indicted the schools for providing inferior education to Mexican American children. The NEA report inspired reforms such as bilingual/bicultural education. Even conservatives such as Ronald Reagan endorsed the reforms. However, bilingual education was later attacked and eliminated under the pretext that it was un-American.
Latinos supported affirmative action but that was declared unconstitutional. Although the history of American education had been an affirmation action program for white people, the courts ruled that affirmative action discriminated against whites.
We supported head start, and in fact, in 1962 I walked barrios recruiting people for mommy and me classes; it was a precursor to head start. Today head start is dying a slow death for a lack of funding.
We proposed the equal funding of schools but again barrio schools are dilapidated, have less certified teachers, and charter schools are accelerating white flight.
In 1968 students walked out of schools in Los Angeles, Tucson and Texas. The Lone Star state was the home of almost 50 walkouts. Students sacrifice established Chicano and Latino studies. Today these programs are under attack. The pretext is that they are un-American.
The Tucson Unified School District ethnic studies classes address the dropout problem. La Raza Studies offers some 45 sections per semester. Its holistic course of study specifically encourages critical thinking and motivates students to learn. A byproduct is that students score higher on reading, writing and even mathematics tests.
Why then is Mexican American under attack? It is a mean spirited plot agitated by racists to disenfranchise working class people through inferior education. In this way the upper middle classes and the super rich are absolved from paying taxes to educate those who fight their wars.
For proof of the disparate standards witness the reaction of the media and the public. Racists panic when Mexicans say ya basta! In contrast, they applaud tea partiers and so called minutemen for carrying weapons. Pistol packing Tea Party fanatics parade in public and so-called minutemen shoot down 9 year old children without the press uttering a wimper.
What choice does the community have but to defend its right to an education? Let’s be frank, with the rising tuition costs working class students will be eliminated from higher education if something is not done.
Instead of money for education people like Stegeman and Cuevas support the alternative which is more prisons.
Stegeman, Cuevas and Hicks are not educators. They are politicians who know that the political apparatus of the state of Arizona is in the hands of extremists and they do not want to go against the tide.
The truth be told, Mexican American Studies is a success where supported. At California State University Northridge in the past forty years, Chicana/o Studies has taught more Mexican American students from the barrios who have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, judges, and so on than the University of Arizona during this same time period.
The Hicks, the Stegemans, the Cuevases and their gaggle of administrators want Mexican Americans to fail, who else but blacks and Latinos will fill up their prisons?
Board takeovers will only delay the perfidy of the gang of three. The community has to go beyond these takeovers. We cannot be gullible and believe in Democratic Party and ethnic brands. Stegeman is more of a Republican than a Democrat and is compatible with the ideology of former Republican Pete Wilson.
As for Cuevas, he is a scab. Arizona has a rich history of mine union struggle. In the camps of Clifton, Morenci, Globe and elsewhere, the miners and their families defended their interests by imposing a code of silence. They isolated scabs and their families by declaring them non-persons and, in some instances; they would hold mock funerals for their souls.
Brands such as Democrat and Mexican American should not be used as commodities that persons such as Cuevas can sell. They represent the historic struggles of a people.
The students knew the odds and they acted. History with time will recognize them as heroes and the names of Stegeman and Cuevas will go into the dust bins labeled "opportunists." Their names will go down in infamy.
The students during the takeover chanted Fight back! To do something else would be to have no pride and return to the days when a 13 year old Tucson child wrote:
To begin with, I am a Mexican. This sentence has a scent
of bitterness as it is written, I feel that if it were not for my
nationality I would accomplish more. My being a Mexican has
brought about my lack of initiative. No matter what I attempt
to do, my dark skin always makes me feel that I will fail.
Another thing that "gripes" me is that I am such a coward.
I absolutely will not for something even if I know I’m right.
I do not have the vocabulary that would take to express
myself strongly enough.
NEA, Invisible Minority, 1966.
The Tucson students and community feel pride in themselves and are fighting back. They are here and they won’t go back. The time has come.