When the Librotraficante Caravan barreled toward Tucson, Arizona, last March to protest the suspension of the school district’s controversial Mexican American Studies course and the banning of books from classrooms, they aimed to influence an election.
Not November’s presidential election, but rather the less glamorous election for three open seats on Tucson Unified School District’s five-member Governing Board.
This week the candidates responded by email to the Arizona Daily Star giving their takes on the suspended curriculum.
Four of the twelve candidates said they supported reinstating Mexican American Studies, while seven either opposed it or said the district, known as TUSD, couldn’t afford to lose the $14 million over the fiscal year that the Arizona legislature threatened to withhold if the school board failed to discontinue the classes. One candidate did not respond.
“The law that outlawed ethnic studies was created as a wedge issue by Phoenix politicians,” wrote Cam Juarez. “I support MAS [Mexican American Studies] or any other academic program that will help close the achievement gap at TUSD.”
Elizabeth Putname-Hidalgo agreed, writing: “The experiences of Native American, Chinese, African-American and Mexican men and women should be included in our standard (Anglo) history of the United States.”
Incumbent Mark Stegeman defended his vote to suspend Mexican American Studies, saying the program would cost too much money to defend.
Others opposed the program on principle. “Studies of ethnic cultures and diversity should unite our community, not divide it,” Debe Campos-Fleenor wrote, echoing the allegation that the courses politicized students.
Don Cotton, who said he does not oppose the suspended courses, mistakenly referred to them as “Latin American studies” -- a common misconception. The Mexican American Studies curriculum focused on the history of U.S. Latinos and their historical and cultural contributions to the United States, not people in foreign countries.
None of the candidates who wrote in viewed the suspension of Mexican American Studies as the district’s biggest problem. Rather, most candidates mentioned lack of student achievement, dismal finances, shoddy public image and poor leadership.
TUSD voted 4 to 1 to suspend its Mexican American Studies program in January of this year, after a Republican-led effort to ban classes that encourage the overthrow of the government, promote ethnic solidarity or treat students as members of groups rather than individuals. A challenge to the law from teachers and students remains tied up in the courts.
Opponents accuse the Mexican American Studies teachers of politicizing the students, making them rebellious and teaching them they were oppressed. Advocates say the classes emphasized Mexican-American history and culture, while fostering critical thinking. An independent audit commissioned by the Arizona Department of Education recommended expanding the classes.
This year, TUSD has implemented a new, less contentious multicultural program overseen by Maria Figueroa, according to New York Times correspondent Fernanda Santos:
Instead of classes about historical realities and the everyday experiences of Mexican-Americans, once a hallmark of the department, Ms. Figueroa’s program will offer tutoring to Hispanic students who are teetering on the edge of failure. In place of discussions about race and identity, it will recruit mentors from among Hispanic business leaders and college graduates to talk to students.
The Librotraficante Caravan launched a series of events across the country coinciding with Hispanic Heritage Month to criticize Tucson’s banning of Latino literature from classrooms.
“Arizona banned Mexican American History,” Librotraficante co-founder Tony Diaz said in a press release. “We decided to make more. Arizona officials confiscated books near and dear to our hearts from class rooms -- we’re spreading them across the country.”
Read the TUSD candidates’ positions on Mexican American Studies in the Arizona Daily Star.