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Cynical Politicians in Tucson's Ethnic Studies Case Will Be on History's Losing Side

Ethnic-studies hater and state schools Superintendent John Huppenthal, channeling Jesse Helms and Ev Mecham.
Uriel Garcia

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has come and gone. Just another day off for many. For others, a time of reflection.

We all know that enemies of MLK Day, in Arizona and elsewhere, did not want King's or African Americans' struggle for civil rights in this county honored.

Former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham stated infamously that King didn't "deserve" a holiday. He was proved wrong.

But it wasn't just Mecham or Arizona that was intransigent. When a federal MLK Day was in the works in the early 1980s, I recall Jesse Helms, a U.S. senator in my home state of North Carolina, publicly opposing a bill to that end — which ultimately was signed by President Ronald Reagan.

Helms used the issue to get himself re-elected in 1984, appealing to the basest emotions of those in a white majority who did not want King, or the civil rights struggle he represented, remembered.

The senator smeared King as a commie. In fact, it was King who represented the best in the American experience, and Helms, a lifelong race baiter, the worst.

Mecham and Helms, each in his way, used history as a weapon. Forgetting about civil rights was what a lot of whites wanted. Same for the horrors of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, and the tyranny of white supremacy.

Here in Arizona, just weeks away from the state's centennial, a ruling Republican clique has taken a page from the Helms-Mecham playbook. It would like to wipe away the contributions of Chicanos from the history books, and this cabal is getting its way. For now.

Less than a week before the King holiday, the Tucson Unified School District did this clique's bidding and abolished the popular and successful Mexican American Studies program, under siege since House Bill 2281 was passed into law in 2010.

The statute's express purpose was to eradicate MAS, and the law's pimp daddy, former state Schools Superintendent Tom Horne, used its passage to get himself elected Arizona attorney general.

Current schools Superintendent John Huppenthal attained his position through a promise to end MAS, as well. And he's been keeping his promise. Though in this case, that's nothing for him to be proud of.

The statute bans classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment, are designed for a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity.

Overly broad and probably unconstitutional, the law empowers the state superintendent to withhold 10 percent of state funding for any school district that does not comply.

It took about a year of wrangling, but after Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal denied an appeal by the district of Huppenthal's June finding of non-compliance, Huppenthal finally was able to pull the trigger and issue a 10 percent penalty retroactive to August 2011.

That is, unless TUSD buckled, accordingly.

And buckle the board did. It had other legal options. It could have challenged Huppenthal in superior court. But the board was hijacked by quislings willing to do Huppenthal's bidding.

MAS students and the community in general showed up en masse to speak out against the move, but the board did not entertain other options.

As has been documented at length in Tucson writer David Abie Morales' Three Sonorans blog, the results have been immediate and chilling.

Literature and history teachers have been instructed to avoid controversial subjects. Their books have been boxed, confiscated, and hauled off to a depository for storage.

Offending texts include everything from works on Chicano history, such as Rethinking Columbus and Occupied America, to acclaimed coming-of-age novels, such as Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, to even Shakespeare's The Tempest.

The district has denied shelving Shakespeare, but The Tempest — in which the bard addressed the theme of slavery — certainly won't be taught in the context of MAS, which now is verboten. Neither will any of the other texts. But students may have access to some of them via school libraries. In other cases, non-MAS classes may take up the less controversial of the bunch.

Students have told how forbidden books were boxed up in front of them on orders of TUSD administrators. Morales' site features these students' testimonies. Some were emotional as they recounted what occurred.

Chicano literature teacher Yolanda Sotelo explained in one video that she was told that TUSD monitors would visit her classroom to make sure she wasn't venturing into taboo realms.

Sotelo related how she spent a year finding books that her students "really enjoyed," like Matt de la Pena's acclaimed young-adult novel Mexican White Boy.

"But now we can't read Mexican White Boy," she said.

Why? Because it was mentioned in Kowal's obtuse ruling backing Huppenthal.

Essentially, Kowal is a seriously white white boy — so white that, in his ruling, he thought a song by the popular norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, which had been a part of one lesson plan, actually was a poem.

The song, "Somos Mas Americanos" (or "We Are More American"), tells the history of the Southwest through the eyes of migrants.

"America was born free, but men divided it," the lyrics read. "They marked a line so that I [could] jump it, and they call me 'invader.'"

Considering current events in this state, sounds like a perfect song for students to discuss, right?

Alas, for Kowal, whose expertise is in liquor law, the ditty became yet more evidence that the MAS program taught brown kids to hate whitey.

Other such evidence included the Mesoamerican version of the Golden Rule, which teaches, "You are my other self."

Can't have that mentioned in a classroom, now can we?

Because of Huppenthal, Horne, and HB 2281, children in Arizona now have experienced censorship firsthand. Banned books, forbidden topics, and a sanitized, colorless history are de rigueur.

Disgusting. But just as Mecham and Helms were on the losing side of MLK Day, so, too, will Horne, Huppenthal, and their nativist cheerleading squad be on the losing side of the ethnic-studies issue.

First, the underlying constitutionality of the law still is an issue in federal court, in a lawsuit brought by students and teachers against the state.

Though federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima recently denied the teachers' standing in the suit, he agreed that the students' First Amendment rights are at stake, and he denied the state's move to have the case dismissed.

Also, the segregation case that brought MAS into being in the first place recently was reopened before another judge, and a "special master," was appointed.

Perhaps more important, the eradication of the MAS program — which even a $110,000 study commissioned by Huppenthal agreed improved students' academic performance — has invigorated Tucson's young scholars.

Student-led marches and spontaneous walkouts have erupted. And students soon may engage in a massive sick-out to keep themselves from getting "counted" by the district, stats used to justify financial support.

In other words, the students now are looking to impose their own sanctions on TUSD for not standing behind their program.

The irony now comes full circle. The very things HB 2281 was looking to suppress — ethnic solidarity and resentment of a reactionary Anglo hegemony — have been encouraged by cynical men playing racial politics.

MLK himself was fond of saying, "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again."

In Tucson, as elsewhere, its triumph is only a matter of time.

Huppenthal and Horne? Their names now ring with the same infamy as those of Helms and Mecham.


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