Frontera Fund News

Expelling Cultura from Classrooms: The Mexican American Studies Fight Returns to Court

Written by Carmen Cornejo

When teachers and students in Tucson made Mexican-American Studies (MAS) an important part of their education, politicians at the Arizona State Capitol took note and decapitated the initiative. Education, in their view, needed to be sanitized from ethnic and cultural content that connected students with their roots and made them think.

In 2010, the lawmakers created SB 2281, a.k.a. the Ethnic Studies Ban, a law that prohibits state funding for schools offering classes that: “(1) promote the overthrow of the United States government; (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Arizona’s superintendents of public instruction Tom Horne, John Huppenthal and Diane Douglas found that the MAS program in Tucson violated HB 2281. They forced the Tucson Unified School District to end the program amidst intense protests by students and teachers. Never mind the fact that students who participated in MAS scored higher on standardized tests and graduated at higher rates than non-participating students, according to independent research.

Now, five years after the program was dismantled, the Tucson Unified School District is getting its time in federal court. Both detractors and supporters filled the courtroom as lawyers argued that the elimination of the MAS program was racially motivated and discriminatory.

In an open affront to free speech, the TUSD was forced to confiscate books that were part of the MAS program in order to avoid losing millions of dollars in funding.

Among the long list of prohibited books are The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Drown by Junot Diaz, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that removing books from classrooms violated students’ First Amendment rights.

Although teachers may now request that previously banned MAS books be allowed in their classes, the MAS courses are gone in Tucson – unless the judge rules this time that the program can be reinstated. On the positive side, Tucson’s program sparked the creation of numerous similar programs nationwide.

Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund will keep you updated on this issue.