In late January in the United States, hundreds of books on Mexican-American studies were removed from Arizona high schools, packed into boxes and taken to storage units.
Students’ schedules were rewritten to exclude the popular ‘Chicano’ studies, and school administrators were informed that teaching courses on Mexican-American culture was against the law in that it “promotes resentment toward a race or class of people”.
When Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal told Fox News Latino that universities were the root of the problem, some wondered whether the state’s higher education institutions would be next.
“I believe we do have reason to be concerned about the future of Mexican-American studies and other ethnic studies programmes at the university level,” said Andrea Holm, who is pursuing a masters degree in the topic at the University of Arizona.
“One of the biggest problems is that programmes like Mexican-American studies, American-Indian studies, women's studies etc are often challenged on the basis of their academic credibility.
“In states like Arizona, we face the added concern related to the current climate surrounding the fate of ethnic studies programmes.”
Arizona’s ethnic studies ban
The campaign against ethnic studies took root on the heels of legislation meant to deter illegal immigration. Arizona made headlines worldwide when it passed a law granting authorities the ability to make random stops on suspicions of illegal immigration.
The legislation contributed to the tense climate and negative view toward immigrants, specifically Latinos, who are often accused of draining social services and hijacking jobs.
Shortly afterwards, politicians targeted education.
In May 2010, the Arizona state congress approved legislation that banned any K-12 public school class that “promotes resentment toward a race or class of people [and is] designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group”.
Superintendent Huppenthal accused Tucson United School District’s ethnic studies programme, which had been running since the 1990s, of violating this law. He announced in a memo: “My firsthand classroom encounter clearly revealed an unbalanced, politicised and historically inaccurate view of American history being taught.”
In December, he said he would withhold 10% of the school district’s operating budget if the programme was not terminated. A month later Mexican-American studies, which had served 1,500 students a year, was discontinued.
“It’s a real loss for the students,” said Carlos Vélez Ibáñez, director of trans-border studies at Arizona State University. “Now the only history they get is focused on the eastern seaboard. It completely bypasses all the events that took place here before the southwest became part of the United States.
“In order to be historically accurate,” he continued, “you have to include the Spanish American, Mexican and Native Americans. Then you can more fully understand the dynamics of this region.”
Attorney General and former superintendent Tom Horne, who was instrumental in the passage of the ethnic studies law, lambasted the programme for not only teaching kids that they are “oppressed”, but sharing with them a curriculum he said was influenced by the political left.
“The students can choose to take this history instead of an American history or world history course,” he told the BBC. “So they graduate without learning real history. They graduate with only learning this left-wing, race-resentment propaganda, which is totally different from learning history.”
A curriculum rewrite in universities?
Most academics say that universities are safe from the anti-ethnic studies programme.
Buffered by other departments that similarly focus on a class of people – African Americans, women, Asian Americans – and with the support of colleagues in similar departments worldwide, it would be very difficult to ban the instruction of Mexican-American studies in universities.
“[University education] is a whole different ball game,” said Vélez Ibáñez. “You are talking about academic freedom here.”
Although state universities draw a small percentage of their budget from public funds, Richard Ruiz, who chairs the Mexican-American studies programme at the University of Arizona, said he is not concerned about losing his job.
“There is little possibility that they would come after university programmes,” he said.
“Given the fact that Mexican-American studies as a body and area of study is not all that different from African studies, women’s studies and Native-American studies, they would meet much resistance [from other departments included]. If we are in jeopardy, they would be too.”
For any changes to the university programmes, a discussion would first have to take place at the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs higher learning in the state. According to Katie Paquet, spokesperson for the board, the topic has not been broached.
Yet some academics were shaken by Huppenthal’s comments to Fox News Latino.
Huppenthal, who sits on the Board of Regents, said: “I think that’s where this toxic thing starts from, the universities. To me, the pervasive problem was the lack of balance going on in these classes.”
The superintendent could not be reached for comment, but a spokesperson from his office said: “We do not believe this to be expanded beyond K-12 education.”
Mexican-American studies, or some form of it, is taught at two of the three four-year state colleges. Students learn about the culture that has grown up at the nexus of the colonial Spanish, Native American and English-speaking societies.
They apply critical thinking and analysis to literature, historic documents and sociological accounts and eventually pursue careers in education, social work or non-profit leadership, among other areas.
“The most important thing that any academic programme can do is give students the opportunities and tools to become critical thinkers,” Andrea Holm said.
“In Mexican-American studies, this means challenging all students to explore their own ideas and understandings about issues affecting Mexican-American communities as well as [examining] what information there is available about those issues; and in doing so, recognising our history is multi-layered and complex.”
The elimination of Mexican-American studies in primary and secondary school had the unintended consequence of bringing the topic to the forefront of conversation, not only in Arizona but across the country.
Popular Chicano authors and thinkers have since claimed the spotlight, and become a focus of summer concerts, book signings and speakers’ series.
“Folks on the teaching staff have been invited to speak and some courses have been held off campus. This new involvement is one extremely positive outcome,” Richard Ruiz said.
Asked whether the move to remove the Mexican-American studies programme had a strong following in Arizona, a state that boasts a 30% Latino population, or if it was a campaign led by a few powerful voices, Ruiz responded:
“Well, how do you gauge general support? There are school board elections coming up. My feeling is that we will know a little more when those results come in.”
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