Hailed as one of the most influential educators and historians in the country, Dr. Rodolfo "Rudy" Acuña has played a major role in redefining national views on ethnicity and historical legacy over the past half century.
Nowhere has this role been more important than in the witch hunt debacle over Arizona's controversial ban on Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies. And in a chilling battle over First Amendment rights and censorship, nowhere has any other historian and his books gone under such scrutiny.
The award-winning author of twenty books, Acuña's landmark text, Occupied America: A History of the Chicanos, has been singled out by Tea Party politicians such as Arizona's former state school superintendent and present Attorney General Tom Horne as "inappropriate" for students. Picking up the Ethnic Studies ban torch, John Huppenthal, the current state superintendent of public instruction who campaigned last fall with the slogan that he would "stop La Raza," has included Occupied America in his often unsubstantiated attacks on Tucson's Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies Program.
Case in point: An independent audit of the Mexican American Studies Program commissioned by Huppenthal specifically refuted his own charges against Occupied America -- and those of Hornes -- and criticized Huppenthal's staff for taking quotes out of context. Specifically, the auditors found:
Occupied America: A History of Chicanos is an unbiased, factual textbook designed to accommodate the growing number of Mexican-American or Chicano History Courses... The curriculum auditing team refutes the following allegations made by other individuals and organizations. Quotes have been taken out of context.
The auditors also noted Acuña's conclusion on page 418: "The challenge of the future for Chicanos will be to sift the realities from the hype."
Winner of numerous honors, including the Gustavus Myers Award for an Outstanding Book on Race Relations in North America, Occupied America was published in 1972, and continues to be used in university and high school classrooms across the country.
On the heels of attending the screening of the celebrated film documentary on Tucson's Ethnic Studies crisis, Precious Knowledge, at the LA Latino International Film Festival last month, I did this exclusive interview by email with the 79-year-old Acuña and asked him about his views on the Ethnic Studies debate.
JB: Can you describe your own family connection to Tucson and Arizona?
RA: My mother's family, los Eliases, were the (Tucson) pueblo since the 1770s. Because of malnutrition the family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1910s. My grandfather was a janitor for the Southern Pacific Railroad and transferred to the roundhouse in downtown LA. I had relatives in Tucson and visited the pueblo since I was five. My teaching experience was in Los Angeles. I married very young and attended LA State College and got my teaching credential there. I earned my PhD from USC attending night school. I have been active since the early '60s, in not only teaching K-12 but helping to set up Headstart programs. This led to the routine activism of the '60s.
JB: Your classic text, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, has been singled out by Attorney General Tom Horne as implying "to the kids that they live in occupied America, or occupied Mexico." Can you discuss the title and its meaning, as it relates to the book's themes?
RA: I have written over 20 books, seven editions of Occupied America alone. None of the other books is even mentioned by Horne and company. They read the title and assumed that I was talking about the occupation of the United States. From the beginning, in the first preface, I made it clear that "America" applied to two continents and the occupation of those continents by western European nations. Argentines, Chileans, and Mexicans are just as much American as the people living here. In the book I condemn not only Anglo American injustices, but also those of middle and upper class Mexicans of the poor working class. In no uncertain terms I condemn the massacre of Apaches at Camp Grant in 1871. My own relatives were among the guilty. Horne says that I lied because I said the US invaded Mexico: It did. It is a linear history with the available documents forming the narrative. I offered to debate Horne. However, I have made it clear that the discussion has to be based on history and not rhetoric. For example, Horne claims he was there when Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech, which I seriously doubt. In my case the narrative is verified by extensive footnotes, not on beliefs.
JB: Now into its 7th printing, Occupied America has been read in schools across the country over the past four decades. Do you think the recent conflicts over Mexican American Studies in Tucson reflect a lingering refusal on the part of certain political leaders, such as Horne or current Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, to recognize Chicano Studies as a legitimate viewpoint or legacy?
RA: They fail to accept the truth. Americans are still fighting the Civil War -- see what is happening in Texas. For them slavery never existed. The South was wronged, according to them. Facts mean little. For example, even the Anti-Defamation League has absolved the Tucson program. Horne resigned from the ADL rather than question his assumptions.
JB: Horne, as you know, is a Canadian immigrant, whose Jewish parents fled Poland before the Second World War II. While Horne has championed his own cultural background as instrumental in shaping his educational views, he has referred to Mexican American and Ethnic Studies Programs in Tucson as based on a "primitive part that is tribal." How would you respond to such allegations?
RA: Horne is an opportunist. I don't believe that a rational man could make such a statement. Would he apply this to Jews in the United States? I hope not. They have a beautiful history and culture, which should be respected and appreciated. His response is also very racist. It comes from the member of a group that has suffered a lot. My early professors were Jews and they always encouraged me to get an advanced degree and to work with Mexican Americans. From that generation they were also clannish and refused to ride in a Volkswagen and married only Jews. I did not criticize them and appreciated that their experiences helped them understand me.
JB: In a letter last month, you called out the Chronicle of Higher Education for failing to adequately cover the Ethnic Studies conflict in Tucson. Do you feel that attacks on the Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, and Chicano Studies in general, continued to be overlooked or downplayed by the national education community?
RA: Yes. Aside from the blatant violations of the First Amendment there is also a pedagogical consideration. Outside La Raza Studies, the drop-out rate among Mexican Americans is over 60 percent. Even the state-commissioned audit says La Raza Studies has been successful. They are doing something right and you would think that they would be curious and study it instead of trying to kill it. What this tells me is that they don't care if Mexican Americans learn. I am convinced that there is a link with the prison industry that has been privatized and educational outcome. Who is going to fill up those prisons if not Mexicans?
JB: In your long-time experience as an educator and historian, how do you think Arizona's ban will be seen in American education history?
RA: Like most everything else it will be condemned. More and more educators are Latinos. They are doing much of the research and asking different questions; for example, people such as Patricia Gandara, Gary Orfield and Danny Solarzono from UCLA. There is a counter narrative that was not there 40 years ago.
JB: At the recent National Writers Union meeting in Detroit, you urged attendees to "learn a bit more about Arizona. The racists are not going to win. But it's going to be very hard." Can you discuss why you think the Ethnic Studies ban in Arizona could have national implications?
RA: Arizona is being replicated elsewhere, in small states. But even in Texas, with all its racist past, they have not been able to pass a 1070 or 2281. There are too many Mexicans. In California the Cal State Northridge program has been tremendously successful. We offer 166 sections per semester. During the past 40 years, Chicano Studies has helped more Mexican students become doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers and teachers than the University of Arizona during this time frame. If the Tea Party comes to Los Angeles, there will be physical confrontations. People have lost their fear.
JB: Other thoughts?
RA: There are 50 million Latinos in the US. If we were a nation we would be the second largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world. By 2050 we will be over 30 percent of the US. In Arizona today, 41 percent of K-12 students are Latino. We would like to talk out our differences but the other side is crazy. Proof, the present Arizona state superintendent of schools commissioned a study, paid $170,000 to find out if the program was unpatriotic and effective. The report came back absolving La Raza Studies and praising the program. The superintendent then dismissed the study saying he had heard otherwise. Evidence has no meaning. I am sorry but I do believe in reason; I do not base my conclusions on opinion. Some people in Arizona think that God is white and related to them, which is for idiots.
Follow Jeff Biggers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffrbiggers