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Intro: "Amid Arizona's crackdown on people of Mexican descent, state officials are closing down Mexican-American studies programs and banning history books that tell of white oppression against Native Americans and Chicanos, a topic that Dennis J. Bernstein discussed with author Rodolfo Acuna."

Rodolfo Acuna, Ph.D., professor at California State University at Northridge-Department of Chicana/o Studies. (photo: Arizona Public Media)
Rodolfo Acuna, Ph.D., professor at California State University at Northridge-Department of Chicana/o Studies. (photo: Arizona Public Media)



Arizona Shuts Mexican Studies Classes

By Dennis J. Bernstein, Consortium News

26 January 12

 

r. Rodolfo Acuña - author, educator, historian and social activist - has been on the front lines in the battle over Arizona’s banning of books on Chicano history and the shutting down of Mexican-American Studies programs in the state’s public schools. The banned books include his landmark work, Occupied America, A History of Chicanos.

Often referred to as the father of Chicano Studies, Dr. Acuña co-founded the Chicano and Chicana Studies Department at the California State University at Northridge in 1969. He has taught for over 40 years at California State University, Northridge, and has become the standard-bearer in Chicano Studies classes throughout the United States.

Occupied America was first published in 1972 and is currently in its seventh edition, an exhaustive work that documents the history of Chicanos. He has also authored The Story of Mexican-American Community Under Siege, A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945 – 1975, and most recently The Making of Chicano Studies in the Trenches of Academia.

Much of what Dr. Acuña has done in his life is now under assault in Arizona where right-wing officials have clamped down on classes teaching public school students about the history of white oppression directed against Native Americans and Chicanos. Claiming that this teaching of history stirs anti-white resentments, the state officials forced the banning of certain books and termination of the classes.

DB: What was your initial response when you heard that your book, a crucial book in terms of this history was banned in Tucson.

RA: First of all, they have been trying to do this now for many years. It is not something that is new. Since at least 2006, they have been trying to ban the book. But I was a little bit irritated when it happened, but I knew it was coming.

DB: Alright, say a little bit more about what you think is behind this. Why do they want to get rid of such a landmark book that has meant so much to so many young people in this country and who really needed their history told? Tell us about what you think is going on here.

RA: Well, I think right now there is anti-Mexican climate there, but even more fundamental is that Arizona has almost been completely privatized. How do you keep the prison industry going? By having people inside them. So you have the anti-immigrant feeling and also the anti-Mexican feeling because they fill up the jails.

For example, in the schools, the charter schools are mostly white. And who go to these mostly privatized schools are white kids who are afraid that they are going to go to school, or their parents are afraid they’re going to go to school with Mexicans.

So consequently it’s a, just a Catch-22 situation. And I think that there’s an awful lot of money behind it, also hate sells. If you want to go to political office, higher political office in Arizona, you do Mexican baiting. And this is what you do. You bait Mexicans. You are pro-immigration, you see the Republican candidates today. I mean everybody is afraid to say, “Let’s have some equity." Everybody is anti-Mexican. Build higher walls, electrify them, do this and do that. So it’s an opportunism of the politicians.

Also, it keeps money coming into Arizona. The Tea Party, for example, is under the control of the Koch brothers. And the Koch brothers, even [Mitt] Romney says are the engine of the Tea Party. So there are many reasons why you have these anti-Mexican things. They say that the law 2281 was passed and it was supposed to include all ethnic studies, but it’s only being enforced against Mexican-Americans. Why? And I think that it’s obvious. Is that they are the largest group, they are the most threatening group, and they are the group that are the most vociferous.

DB: You know, professor, when I was down in Tucson broadcasting from there, we interviewed a number of students about how important these books were and we heard the story from one student who said that she had actually tried to take her own life growing up as a young Chicana in that state, and then came along this history, and this book, and she said it was a life-saver for her. Could you talk about what you understand, how this book has had an impact, and why you wrote it particularly for the young people. You are still a teacher now.

RA: Yes, I still am. I’m 79. But you know, it’s not only the book, it’s the whole program. What people don’t understand about the Mexican-American Studies Program there is that it’s a pedagogy. It’s a way to get people to feel proud of themselves, to motivate them to stay in school and motivate them to go on. You have hardly any drop-out. It’s negligible with the Mexican-American Studies Program. In Arizona, you have a 50 to 60 percent drop-out rate of Mexicans and this is the only program that has been successful in keeping them from dropping out.

And it’s a tragedy because most people know that people who drop out of school have a higher propensity of going to jail and to prison than people who finish high school and go on to college. And so I think that what this book does, it motivates people, it put them into history, a history, they are part of history. And this is very important for them. It’s very important for anyone. It’s important for a black person, it’s important for an Asian person, it’s important for any person to feel that they are part of society.

DB: You wrote this book in 1972. What was the initial response? Was there anything like it at the time? And what was the initial response when it came out?

RA: Well, the response was mixed. I think among Chicanos it was very good. It was not very good with many of the professional historians at the time although I now do reviews for The American Historical Review, for the Pacifica Historical Reviews, and an awful lot of reviews. But I remember at this time people would ask me questions at conferences, “Why do you write with such emotion?" I told them because I’m not a prostitute. I do the act with emotion and when there’s people being hanged, lynched, when there are people that are being subjugated, then I get emotional about it and I want to change it.

DB: Can you talk a little bit about what was there for you when you were coming up. Does this, does the writing of this and the creating of this history come out of your own experience of a need for something like this, and did you have something in your time?

RA: What motivated me is that I’m a teacher. I’ve been teaching for over 55 years and I saw the need for students to have books, my first three books were for the public schools. The first two books that I wrote were for elementary schools and the third book was for high school. I had to have a tool that I could use to supplement my classroom activity.

The same thing with Occupied America. I was teaching in Chicano Studies, some of the first Chicano classes. I had classes of mostly Mexican students and I wanted to motivate them to go on to college, to graduate school, when I was teaching at the university level. And so consequently I had to have an instrument and I looked around and the only book that was around was [by] Carey McWilliams, a very good book but it didn’t cover the Fifties and it didn’t cover the Sixties. So I had to have something more current.

That’s why I wrote the book. I wrote the book so it would supplement my teaching. Later on the book changed. I’ve written seven editions. Every edition is different and it reflects the questions that are brought up in the classroom.

DB: You’ve always seen activism and education as deeply intertwined. After the official banning of the books, students in Tucson are mobilizing to defend Ethnic Studies, in an attempt to shift the anti-Mexican climate in Arizona and throughout the country. Do you think it’s important and how do you see fight unfolding? Is it time to gather in Tucson? What kinds of actions do you see as important in this context?

RA: Well, first of all I wish the professionals, the Chicanos who are professionals were as committed as the students. I think the students are doing something that is vital. … Arizona, right now, is being picked off. And the thing that most people don’t understand about it is that most of the legislators in Arizona are in the process of trying to nullify the U.S. Constitution. … And the only thing that students can do, and this is their motto “Fight back." And they are fighting back. They’ve taken over the school district, they’ve taken to the streets. They know if they don’t fight back they are going to be led to those intellectual ovens.

DB: You said “those intellectual ovens" … say a little bit more about that image and why you are using such a strong image.

RA: It’s a very strong image and I think that when you don’t have a future, when you can’t go on to school, when you are stuck and the only alternative that you have is prison I think you are in an intellectual oven. I think a person who is taking drugs because of low self-image because of just, the times, the hopelessness is in an intellectual oven.

DB: I think that what is extraordinary is how successful this program was in Tucson. In the Tucson public school system, which is about 61 percent Mexican-American, Chicano, Chicana people. It was incredibly effective at keeping kids in school, in inspiring and encouraging them to go on to higher education. By every standard, it measures up to what we would want an effective program to be. So it would appear that they are trying to shred kids where they live and learn and grow. Could you talk about what that means to you, and just comment on that?

RA: [Arizona’s superintendent of public instructions John Huppenthal] ran on the ticket that he was going to abolish Ethnic Studies or Mexican-American Studies. Once he got in he said, I’m gonna have a private study, I’m going to commission a study, I’m going to pay $177,000 for this study and in this study I’m going to see if the program is effective, if the program is un-American, if the program is patriotic, if the program is racist.

The study came back afterwards, and it said that the schools were patriotic, that the schools were American, that they were not racist. Then they went through books like mine. And they said Occupied America is a standard American text book. And so consequently he says it is not racist, it is not unpatriotic, it’s not un-American and it is a very respected text book. So the report goes back to John Huppenthal, who had said that he’s going to base his opinion on this study. …

And so he then said “Well, I don’t believe it because I’ve heard" … you know hearsay … "I’ve heard that it’s not." Then he takes it up to a commissioner. … A commissioner is somebody who is appointed, usually with the support and the imprimatur of the attorney general. Well, the Attorney General is Tom Horne who had introduced this law, 2281. So then he says well the commissioner came back and he said “Well, I think that Huppenthal is right." Duh.

And so consequently then he abolishes the program. He abolishes the program although the program was endorsed by Unitary Plan that the Tucson Unified School District was under. And this Unitary Program said that they should have a Mexican-American Studies program as a way to desegregate the schools and to improve the education of Mexicans. And it’s still under that order but the federal courts are not enforcing the law. So consequently it gets to be very frustrating.

DB: You were referring to Tom Horne, he’s the current Attorney General. Many attribute this action to a vendetta that he has been holding against Dolores Huerta for going to Tucson and pointing out that in her perspective that the white people here hate brown and black people, indigenous people and she was, from her point of view, calling it like it was. Now Tom Horne comes back and ends this system. Do you see this as part of sustaining that vendetta?

RA: Well, it went before, beyond that vendetta. Tom Horne was a failed lawyer. … And so he wanted to get elected to office. And he found that the best way to do it was to bait Mexicans. And the best way to get money was to sell himself. So even before Dolores said that, he looked at it as a method or way of improving his career. And this is the reason that he used it. And you have to look at Arizona. You have an awful lot of people over 55 who have come here from other states, who have gone there from other states, they are afraid of Mexicans. Mexicans make up about 43 percent of the school children today in Arizona. And they know that they are going to be the majority and so running for white xenophobes…

DB: And in Tucson it’s over 60 percent in the school system, in Tucson, yes, go on.

RA: And the Phoenix school is less, but the Tucson schools are way more than a majority Mexicans.

DB: Now one really has to ask the question, in terms of the real politics going on here. …

RA: I think [President Barack] Obama doesn’t want to do anything that is going to upset any of the white establishment there. The best thing that Mexicans could do is take to the streets when he’s in Arizona to show their displeasure with his policies and the lack of enforcement of federal laws.

DB: And finally, the brutality here of the action is amazing in which they have teachers having to boxing these books up in front of these students. One teacher we interviewed last week said she was given 48 hours, two days off, they got a substitute for her, to think about what she’s going to teach because they essentially stripped her of her curriculum and took away the books. We hear reports of kids crying in the classroom. This is a pretty brutal message and now they want, I guess they want to institute, and this is coming up, the Newt Gingrich policy of having these kids become janitors in the schools. … What would your advice be to teachers who are teaching in classrooms all around this country?

RA: Well, first of all, the other teachers in other places should support the Tucson people. They should do something about it. They should be visible, they shouldn’t be quiet because this is going to happen to them. And they are quiet, they’re not doing, I don’t know of a teacher organization that has come out against this. I don’t know of a library association that has come out against censorship.

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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+10 # grouchy 2012-01-26 11:22
The wonderful Molly Ivans warned that the Republicans, traditionally inclined to mug some minority group during an election, were going after the Mexican American prior to the first election of Shrub Bush and a few months before her own death from cancer (I miss her greatly!). She hit the target right in the middle. It has been a great topic from them ever since even though Mexicans had been part (and a much needed part too) of our work force for generations and have made a great contribution over those decades. But they have now been scapegoated for several decades and this piece illustrates how far it has gone. The Republican crazies have honed their theme with great skill, backed up by their massively funded propaganda machine which has convinced a lot of middle America that they are correct. What a shame. And soon these scapegoats will form the majority in this country. I wonder just what kind of revenge they might take then! Since the Republican machine primes the fears of the public, I expect this to continue for some time. Disgusting!
 
 
+7 # reiverpacific 2012-01-26 11:33
"Then they'll come for YOU"!
I wonder how many of these dictators from on high would care to glance into the kitchens of the mid-to-higher-e nd restaurants they no doubt frequent.
The best revenge that the Mexican-America n community could wreak on them is to produce a "Piss-in-their- food" list to pass around the food service communities -and they can do a lot worse than that (evil chuckle)!
You don't want to piss-off your server or kitchen staff; and as no less a personality than Anthony Bourdain has stated in print and correctly, "Most of the better restaurants (and even regular ones) in this country would have to close down if these anti-immigratio n goons got their ways", or words to that general effect.
So occupy schools AND restaurants and food-service.
American Indians are used to this kind of thing but strong native leaders like Wynona La Duke (formerly Ralph Nader's vice-presidenti al running mate), Russ Means and John Trudell should be able to get Obama's attention and keep him faced with it until he does something positive to rescind this blatant violation of the first amendment, also under the shredder these days.
-And try to catch Bernstein's "Flashpoints" on your closest community radio station. It tackles issues that don't even get close to the owner-media infotainment networks.
 
 
+2 # Daisy 2012-01-26 13:22
FYI, One can google "Flashpoints" and find how to listen online or archives online. Thanks for pointing that out.
 
 
+5 # Douglas Jack 2012-01-26 11:45
Wonderful article. Chicano/a are First Nations and hence have greater citizen rights than invaders. An apology is due to First Nations and Chicano/a mixed race people as descendants. This apology is due from each existing person and their governments hemisphere-wide . Sustainability of people and land today is bound with the 'indigenous' (Latin = 'self-generatin g') knowledge and practices of First Nations. Europeans illegally invaded these continents, even though we were welcomed by First Nations to come and live among them. Chicano/a are most often examples of that proportion of immigrants who attempted to respectfully integrate with First Nations here and so an example to us all. As respectful immigrants we would have honoured the customs and laws of the people here, but instead most as feudal serfs chose aggression, hence our illegality as a nation. Europeans who were once 'indigenous' peoples as Celts came as economic refugees from destroyed eco-system biospheres. However Celts carried over the abuse and aggression which Celts suffered at the hands of Greek and Roman empires to the Americas. 3-dimensional polyculture orchard food, material and energy production of indigenous peoples worldwide is 100 times (10,000%) more productive than 2-D 'agriculture' ( L 'ager' = 'field'). 3-D living, relations and abundance penetrate every aspect of life and community. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/design/food-materials-resouces
 
 
+2 # Daisy 2012-01-26 13:27
Many "Mexicans" are of First Nation descent. I remember years ago going to a reservation near Phoenix ordered lunch and saw the taco (frybread-taco) and thought, "Hey, this is Mexican food." Naw, it's First Nation food! Mexicans don't treat the FN people very well either. Take a look at Chiapas and the Mayans.
 
 
+3 # Kootenay Coyote 2012-01-26 11:51
Chained schools produce chained slaves.
 
 
+4 # madams12 2012-01-26 12:00
In typical extremist rightwing action they continue seeking scapegoats....I n no time there will be no one left "safe" except for themselves, of course!.....and eventually will it come down to the last two fascists facing off in a duel, but, alas not soon enough imo.
 
 
+2 # Barbara K 2012-01-26 12:30
I guess they want the children to be as ignorant as the Arizona Gov & her cohorts. History is history whether she likes it or not.

NEVER VOTE REPUBLICAN !!

our future is at stake
 
 
+1 # wendy 2012-01-26 12:56
By itself, this is bad; but taken in conjunction with many other anti-progressiv e moves by other states, such as Tennessee's removal of all mention of slavery in conjunction with the "founding fathers" (and just where are the founding mothers?) this is downright scarey. I see Orwellian notions of "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," all over the place...
 
 
+2 # barbaratodish 2012-01-26 13:10
Rodolfo Acuna said (more accurately his race, and his gender was doing the speaking in PLACE of his humanity) that he was able to write with emotion "...(B)ecause I am not a prostitute." Prostitutes are not prostitues, they are sex workers! Professor Adolfo appears to be saying that anyone who HAS any emotion is a sex worker. That would make just about everyone in the entire world a sex worker, because instead of having emotions, IMHO, everyones emotions HAVE them! What the entire world's people seem to have, (and this goes for all races, from the whitest white to the blackest black, and all hues of human in between), is DRAMA AND EGO instead of emotion! lol
 
 
+2 # John Gill 2012-01-26 13:16
A couple of nights ago I had to run to one of the local supermarkets for something. The checker was chatting with the customer ahead of me in Spanish, (they were both Latina), and when it was my turn the checker asked me, also in Spanish, if I'd found what I needed. I responded in English, (which happens to be my native language). Then she said,
"Oh, sorry. I sometimes forget to switch back from Spanish."
"It's no problem," I said, smiling at her. "I understood you. This is our community, and when I go visiting somewhere else where I don't hear Spanish spoken, I get homesick."
She laughed, and nodded knowingly. "Muchas gracias, y que la vaya bien," she said as I was leaving. (thanks and have a good one)

This is not some liberal's quaint, heartwarming story of racial harmony in Tucson. This is just what it is like living in our community day to day. I relate it here because it fits topically. That these classes were available in Tucson for students K thru 12 when there is, according to Dr. Acuna, no other program like it in the entire nation, speaks to the cultural openness of this community. Local educators fought long and hard against this loss, but Tucson is a small, relatively liberal island in a conservative Republican sea which is Arizona in general. continued below
 
 
+2 # SouthBrun 2012-01-26 13:25
This is a perfect example of the Teapublicans trying to sanitize history to their liking. If Newt were to be elected, Calista will be know as "Firt Concubine" or "First Tramp". Let them try to santize that POS.
 
 
+2 # John Gill 2012-01-26 13:37
continued from above:

It is important to put this in context so we understand what's really going on here. This K thru 12 program was here in Tucson as a result of a lawsuit. Many years ago, locals fought the good fight to show that Hispanic kids were being segregated in schools, in violation of Federal law. This Latino studies program came about as a result of that fight. It was, (and is supposed to be,) federally supported and supervised. Republican governor Jan Brewer is knocking one more stone out of the foundation of the Federal support of the education of our children, and the current administration of Barack Obama is doing nothing about it. (big surprise.) The Corporate Imperium wants to privatize the education of our children. Not to improve the quality of education in this country, (heaven knows we could use that,) but to create an environment better fitting the needs, (and filling the pocketbook,) of the Corporate Oligarchy. THAT is what this is really all about. The whole "white is right, brown better leave town" thing is for them, just icing on the cake.
 
 
+2 # reiverpacific 2012-01-26 19:53
"John Gill"
Thanks for the words from "the front"; always good to see things a bit more up-close and personal in context, just one of many across the country in which many good-hearted folks are smeared with the dirty and mean spirited deeds of their so-called leaders in their attempts to destroy community rather than build it and thereby inter-personal understanding -we are all related.
My daughter is similarly up close in Madison, Wisconsin and keeps me directly posted on her personal involvement in the fight against Walker and his bullies-she was a "food-runner" from the restaurant she works in to feed the occupiers of the Capitol.
Even the best-intended journals don't always get in enough proximity to see and experience the depth of skullduggery being daily enacted state by state, and it's history.
 
 
+2 # John Gill 2012-01-27 00:02
That must have been a really remarkable experience for her. How lucky you were to have that insider's view. Thanks
 
 
0 # colvictoria 2012-01-27 17:11
Thanks John Gill for your observations. In Chicago Obama's pal Rahm Emanuel is trying to "charterize" all of the public schools that is his goal. A Mexican American named Juan Rangel of an organization called UNO has been given the job of taking over neighborhood schools and turning them into UNO charters. Guess what? these schools are in mainly Latino neighborhoods but the teachers they hire are mainly Caucasian females from other states. Mr Rangel is for English only in his schools and kids are reprimanded if they are caught speaking Spanish. Charters are also NON UNION and he makes sure he doesn't hire any "trouble makers"
So this is the state of our schools here in Chicago with the Latino community.
Obama talks a good talk but Arne Duncan and Rahm are for privatizing and crashing the teacher's union.
In addition some of our high schools have close to a 50% drop out rate.
 
 
+2 # jwb110 2012-01-26 14:00
I am not sure how it works in the Arizona School Districts but when I lived in PA the number of students in class as of 9 AM determined how much Federal money the school received on that day. The numbers of students in desk at that time was how the dollars came to the school.
There was some problem between the school board and the parents and so huge numbers of mother kept there children out of school until 9:10 and then gave them notes to give their teachers as to why they were late.
The community got the school board by the wallet and things changed dramatically. I want to let everyone know that this particular area of PA is very Republican. This was no bleeding heart liberal issue this was a grassroots Conservative response. So maybe the maybe the Latinos in Arizona can take a lesson from their opponents.
The Latinos in Arizona should also know that their tax dollars are supporting the very people who oppress than and pay for the privatized incarceration of their own brothers and sisters. Ask yourselves who will clean the white man's houses or pick the white man's crops or fix their cars or any one of a number of things. It is my suggestion that you close ranks, work only for each other, support only the businesses of your own kind. No WalMart, or other big white corporation should get a dime of your money.
The biggest weapon you have is you dollars. Do everything you can to keep the white man's hands off your wallet.
 
 
+4 # John Gill 2012-01-26 15:41
"work only for each other, support only the businesses of your own kind." I get you, jwb, but it's important to understand that here in Tucson, it is pretty much impossible to do this. Latinos and Anglos ride the bus together, work together live next door to one another, usually have brother in laws or sister in laws, etc., of the other group, etc. What's more, as far as boycotting Walmart, yeah. good on you, but why the advocation of such a racially separatist attitude? Mine is an average, middle class Tucson neighborhood. I am a white guy. on my right lives a black family, my left, a latino family. across the street, another black family, kittycorner, a latino family, and so on. The guys who own and work at the tire shop where I buy my tires are Latino. They don't want me to shop elsewhere. They do a good business because they do business in a good way, not because I'm white or because they are Latino. Let's not fall into the trap set for us by the racists. We are ALL "your own kind."
 
 
0 # MainStreetMentor 2012-01-28 07:26
Excellent article, (I’ve read the book referenced within it. I found it to be factual as a history). But … illegal immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, only need to become citizens in order to establish permanent residency within USA borders. My observations and experience show that the illegal immigrants from the country of Mexico only want to establish an extension of Mexico within our borders – not become citizens who pay taxes, help us defend our country and engage in the betterment of ALL citizens, save for only their own (original) countrymen. All other immigrants from the past who came to America, became citizens because the oppression within their country of origin was terrible. Instead of Mexican citizens running away from the a governance that is no longer effective for them, those persons should revolt and create a new governance – just as our forefathers did. Chicanos culture is welcome here – as long as they become citizens.
 

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