Frontera Fund News

Banned Books Spark Mexican-American Studies Firestorm

Banned books

In honor of Banned Books Week, we spotlight the Mexican-American Studies books once banned in Tucson schools – and the students’ ongoing struggle to get their classes back.

In January 2012, Tucson Unified School District students watched with sinking hearts as officials walked into their classrooms, unshelved books about Chicano history, and carted them away to a brick warehouse.

The previous month, a judge had ruled the district’s Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program violated Arizona’s HB 2281, which made illegal any classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government” and/or “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” 

Seven books – including Rethinking Columbus, Occupied America, and Message to Aztlán – were banned from the district’s curriculum. Another 75 or so books – including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street – were forbidden from being taught by former Mexican-American Studies teachers.

Rethinking ColumbusRethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, by Bill Bigelow & Bob Peterson
From Chapter 1:
“In [most books] native peoples of the Caribbean, the ‘discovered,’ are portrayed without thoughts or feelings. And thus children begin a scholastic voyage that encourages them to disregard the perspectives, the lives, of people of color. Both the words and the images of the Columbus myth implicitly tell children that it is acceptable for one group of heavily-armed, white people from a ‘civilized country’ to claim and control the lands of distant non-white others.”

Academically, the MAS program was a wild success. Students enrolled in MAS classes had a graduation rate 5 to 11 percent higher than their schoolmates. The program’s dropout rate was 2.5 percent, about one-tenth of the nationwide dropout rate for Latinos at the time.

The program also engaged students in a way most classes failed to do. “Chicano Studies was my life,” wrote Maria Theresa, a Tucson High School student. “Coming into these classes, I knew little to none about my history and culture… In these classes, we are taught to view the world as it is, with all the flaws and beauties. I learned how powerful and important I am, how one person can change the world. I have learned to critically think for myself and to love one another.”

But threatened with losing $15 million in federal funding, the TUSD dismantled the Mexican-American Studies program, redistributed students to traditional classes, and declined to renew some teachers’ contracts.

Teachers and students filed a lawsuit against state officials challenging the constitutionality of HB 2281. 

In July 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld most of the law. However, the court determined that parts of it violate the First Amendment and that there is sufficient evidence the law was “motivated at least in part by a discriminatory intent.” The court recommended holding another trial soon.

Occupied America

Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rodolfo Acuña
From Chapter 6:
“The reaction of Anglo-Americans to Mexican migration to the United States has been one of “Greasers go home!” – an attitude fomented by the proximity of the border and the anxious feeling that millions of Mexicans are poised just across the border…

As changes took place, Anglo-Americans grew more puzzled and frustrated and, not understanding what was happening, they blamed the destruction of their old ways on Mexicans.”

But if Arizona officials thought boxing up books and axing classes would be the end of the story, they were wrong. In some ways, their plan backfired.

Launched by Houston teacher Tony Diaz, the Librotraficante (book smuggler) movement headed across the Southwest in 2012. Their caravan of cars carried banned books and founded underground libraries, including one in Tucson.

Spurred by the Tucson ban, new Mexican-American Studies classes have spread like wildfire across California and Texas in the last few years. Currently, five California school districts require an ethnic studies class, and 11 others offer it as an elective

On May 1, 2015, Texas passed a resolution declaring the date Mexican-American Studies Day. Tony Diaz is promoting Mexican-American Studies programs and wants 100 Texas schools to teach the classes by January 2016.

Meanwhile, though the Tucson Unified School District has lifted the ban, the seven books are still only optional course material and often difficult to find. In honor of Banned Books Week, September 27 to October 3, consider smuggling up with a once-banned book.

Message to Aztlan

Message to Aztlán: Writings of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez
From the poem “I Am Joaquín”:
I am Joaquín, lost in a world of confusion,
caught up in the whirl of a gringo society,
confused by the rules, scorned by attitudes,
suppressed by manipulation, and destroyed by modern society.
My fathers have lost the economic battle
and won the struggle of cultural survival.
And now! I must choose between the paradox of
victory of the spirit, despite physical hunger,
or to exist in the grasp of American social neurosis,
sterilization of the soul and a full stomach.