Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jeff Biggers Headshot

College-Bound Students Defy Arizona's Witch Hunt with Boycott: Exclusive Interview with Ethnic Studies Students

Posted: Updated:

When the shoutin' is over in the never-ending saga of Arizona's Canadian-immigrant Attorney General Tom Horne's thinly veiled witch hunt of Tucson's Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies, the most important voice will seemingly have been left out of the discussion: The very students in the Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies programs.

In fact, there will be a row of empty seats at tonight's Tucson Unified School District board meeting: Outraged by the lack of consideration of student concerns and data, the "UNIDOS" coalition of students from local Tucson high schools, alumni and community members, have called for a boycott of the school district's meeting and increasing capitulation to a political stunt from the extremist politicians in Phoenix.

In effect, the kids have had enough. Or, as Rincon High School student Mayra Feliciano simply puts it: "The witch hunt has got to stop."

And can you blame them?

Thanks to the success of their acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, the college-bound students are fed up with the machinations of a faltering Tucson Unified School District school district and board that appears to have acquiesced to demands to tear apart the acclaimed Ethnic Studies Programs and turn them into non-accredited electives.

Reproached yesterday by the courts for the controversial anti-immigration law, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is considering a court-defying bill today to gut public education through an extraordinary private voucher program, on the heels of last month's massive budget cuts in education, as the Tucson Unified School Board entertains the latest episodes in the costly "audit" of the district's very successful Mexican American/Ethnic Studies Program.

The students are not alone: Teachers and leading civil rights lawyers and community activists with the Save Ethnic Studies have also announced their refusal to even meet with the embarrassingly bungled investigation of the out-of-state auditors.

Feeling silenced by the TUSD school board, Ethic Studies/Mexican American Studies high school students Mayra Feliciano and Lisetta Cota from Pueblo High School took part in this interview on the impact of the program on their educational success, their view of the controversy, and what students with UNIDOS plan to do next.

JB: Can you give me a little background on UNIDOS and your own participation?

MF: UNIDOS is a youth coalition that was formed in response to HB 2281. UNIDOS first started out as a simple meeting that just trained us (students) about more organized protest. When we saw how big and how powerful our group could be, we decided to start meeting more often.That is when we started meeting every Saturday from 12-2 p.m. at CPLC. I have been a very active member in UNIDOS. Me and Daniel Montoya came up with the meanings to every letter in UNIDOS (United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies). I have been to the school board meeting that UNIDOS has attended. I participate in speaking to the media and also writing letters. In UNIDOS we all get roles so we all can do something so not only one or two people have the weight on their shoulders. I have updated people and helped facilitate meetings. Basically we ALL work together to make the things happen.

LC: UNIDOS began just this past January and I have been apart of it since the beginning. Our first big accomplishment was putting together a community celebration back in February. We had speakers -- open mic included -- music and poetry outside of TUSD's headquarters. It probably seems odd to celebrate, but we wanted to make it clear that Ethnic Studies is here to stay. We have been fighting to keep our classes for over 10 years and we celebrated the fact that despite everything, we haven't lost hope in our cause.

JB: How have you benefited from the Ethnic Studies Program? What are your future plans after graduation?

MF: I have benefited from the Ethnic Studies Program. In the beginning of my senior year I didn't know whether I was going to be able to graduate or not. I saw how important education is and school that I immediately started making up my credits. Also, I began to be more active in my community. I started reading the paper more, researching more and caring more about what was going on. As for my plans after graduation, I am going to Pima and then transferring to the U of A. I want to become a civil rights lawyer and continue to help the community in which I live.

LC: Personally I have benefited from the Ethnic Studies program more than I have benefited from any class all my four years in high school. These classes not only teach you history on a more personal level, but also teach you life lessons. I have discovered myself through my history. I have discovered a new way of thinking -- critical thinking, I have established relationships with my teachers on a whole new level, I have built bridges within my community, and learned to love the world, flaws and all. I completely believe that you cannot help the present without knowing the past; history will, without doubt, repeat itself. Which is why when I graduate, I am attending the University of Arizona to major in Psychology, minor in Mexican-American Studies and go on to graduate school to become a librarian.

JB: In the announcement of your boycott of tomorrow's TUSD school board meeting, UNIDOS states that it has exhausted all other means of protest. Describe your past actions to appeal to the TUSD school board?

MF: UNIDOS has written letters to the board members, spoke to them during Call to the Audience stating our demands, UNIDOS has had meetings letting them know what our demands are and what complying with the law will do to it's students and the future. We've gone to the board meeting. So now we are tired that not ONE of our demands were met. We asked to meet with the ALL the board members, we only got to meet with two. We asked TO KEEP OUR CLASSES AS CORE CLASSES- But no, they are wanting to turn the classes into electives. UNIDOS asked them to PUBLICLY DEFY the bill no matter what the state may say or do, that wasn't done either.

LC: In the past, youth and community members have done: 1) Walkouts 2) 13 mile march 3) Run from Tucson to Phoenix 4) Political teatro 5) Stood up in protest during speech (Margaret Garcia Dugan) 6) Attended school board meetings 7) Talked during Call to the Audience 8) 24 hr. Human Chain 9) State building occupation - (Sit-in) 10) Press conference 11) Student Teach-in.

JB: Why do you feel the TUSD school board should not comply with HB 2281 -- or the audit in progress?

MF: One of the clear reasons is because it violates our human rights. The bill is UNCONSTITUTIONAL. And those in the TUSD governing board should be benefiting the students and the value of education, not just focusing on the money aspect. The audits are just there to dig up dirt because Tom Hornes statement don't mean anything now. they need to find more dirt to use against us. The process can't be unbiased because the auditors are being hired by State Superintendent John Huppenthal, who ran his campaign promising to "Stop La Raza" teachers or students shouldn't have people invade the class just to look for dirt, in my opinion. The witch hunt has got to stop.

LC: TUSD works for the students -- our classes, our teachers, OUR education. It's ridiculous that they have let it get to the point of educational invasion, making students and teachers uncomfortable in the learning environment. In my opinion, they can audit our classes all they want. We are in compliance with state standards, and do not violate any sort of law. They will not find what they wish to.

JB: Why do you feel students should have a voice in your own studies and school policies?

MF: Simple, it is OUR education. No one ever asked the students if the Ethnic Studies Program should be eliminated. We [students] are the ones going to school and it is our future. The students are the ones mainly impacted by the laws or new policies that come up.

LC: President Obama said it himself, students are the future. It's as simple as that.

JB: After this boycott, what is next? And if TUSD opts for devolving the Ethnic Studies Program into electives, what do you see as UNIDOS' next actions?

MF: After the boycott, we have got a lot to do still. Our plans are to get more students involved as well. If the Ethnic Studies classes are turned into electives, better bet that UNIDOS will be fighting to turn them into core classes again. Our actions will be bigger and our fight will be stronger. UNIDOS will do the impossible to turn it all around. Not only just fight for our future generation but for those who fought for these classes in the past.

I don't dare give away much of UNIDOS future surprise attacks but I will warn, this boycott is the quiet before the storm. If TUSD does decide to make Ethnic Studies electives, UNIDOS will not give up our fight. History is history, a core class. Currently we are taking everything step- by-step, carefully watching the school board's actions. Our future plans are not set in stone, but we definitely have rebuttals in mind.