TUCSON, Ariz. ― A 2010 law passed by Arizona Republicans to ban a Mexican-American studies program in public schools here was an overtly discriminatory act that destroyed a program credited with boosting Latino student achievement, a team of six lawyers argued Monday.
But over the course of the two-week bench trial, the state of Arizona hopes to convince U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima that the law was necessary to stop ethnic studies classes because they politicized students and made them resent white people.
The Arizona trial strikes at the issue of how to teach students about race and social injustice in public schools that often exemplify the country’s inequality. After Arizona conservatives moved to eliminate the classes, Hispanic educators and activists have come to Tucson to champion the battle over ethnic studies as one of the country’s most pressing and under-the-radar civil rights issues.
“This was an innovative program, your honor,” Jim Quinn, a lawyer representing Tucson students, told Judge Tashmina. “It was snuffed out for all the wrong reasons.”
The classes began when a group of mostly Mexican-American teachers came together in the late 1990s to create courses to try to close the wide achievement gap between the district’s Hispanic and white students. They sought out works written by Mexican-American authors and other writers of color that rarely appeared in traditional classes.
“Many of my students would say it was the first time they saw themselves in the material,” said Curtis Acosta, one of the program’s founders and the first witness to testify. “For many of them, it was the first time they read a book at all.”
The group also used unconventional means to reach students. They added a social justice component to their classes, urging students to get involved in civic life. They delved into contentious issues like racism, colonization and unauthorized immigration. Some classes began with a “unity clap,” a nod to the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez.
Acosta described the unusual methods as part of a strategy to build confidence in students alienated by traditional curricula. “Their self-esteem was really low,” Acosta said. “We wanted to work on that self-image while giving them an academic foundation.”
The approach appeared to show results. Independent research led by University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera showed the program’s students graduated at higher rates and performed better on state tests.
Neither side disputes how the controversy over the program erupted. Dolores Huerta, the civil rights leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers, came to give a speech to Tucson students in 2006. Referring to the heated immigration debates of the time, she told the group that “Republicans hate Latinos.”
That comment touched a nerve with then-Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne. He sent his deputy Margaret Dougan, herself a Latina Republican, to deliver a follow-up speech to counter Huerta’s provocative statement.
But when Dougan spoke, students weren’t allowed to ask questions, as they did when Huerta visited. As Dougan delivered her speech, a group of students rose and put blue tape across their mouths in protest. The demonstration infuriated Horne, who accused the Mexican-American studies teachers of organizing the protest.
The teachers denied it. But in 2010, Horne and then-state Sen. John Huppenthal responded by passing a law prohibiting classes that encouraged the overthrow of the U.S. government; encouraged racial resentment; treated students as members of a group rather than individuals; or were aimed at a specific ethnicity.
Huppenthal succeeded Horne as state superintendent in 2011. He commissioned an audit of the classes, which found they were in compliance with the new law and lauded them for teaching college-level critical thinking skills. Still, Huppenthal decided the Mexican-American studies program violated the law.
Facing the threat of losing 10 percent of its state funding for breaking the new law, the Tucson school board voted 4 to 1 to eliminate the program in January of 2012.
Huppenthal testified Moday that he campaigned for election by vowing to “stop la raza.” The term, with origins in Mexico, is generally translated loosely as “the people” and often used in the Southwest as a synonym for “Latino.” The original title for the Mexican-American studies program included the word.
Huppenthal described the slogan as a “shorthand” for the problems he associated with the classes.
“The idea that you have oppression taking place in society ― I thought that was a dominant idea of the classes,” Huppenthal said. “To get the message that you’re oppressed or that you’re a victim, I don’t think that’s a healthy message to have about everything.”
Steven Reiss, one of the lawyers for the Tucson students, read off a litany of findings from the audit Huppenthal ordered. In a lengthy line of questioning, Huppenthal repeatedly confirmed he was aware of the findings that contradicted his recommendation to shut the classes down.
In court Monday, Huppenthal didn’t discuss some of his more controversial comments that surfaced in the fight over the program. In 2014, local media revealed he had adopted pseudonyms to leave inflammatory comments on blogs, including one in which he called for the elimination of all Spanish-language media, with the limited exception of Mexican restaurant menus. He lost his re-election bid that year.
The subject will surely come up when Huppenthal retakes the witness stand on Tuesday. One of Arizona’s lawyers, Rob Ellman, hinted at Huppenthal’s defense, describing his English-only comment as a “racially neutral” belief that speaking the country’s dominant language ultimately helps students. (Huppenthal offered a similar defense in a 2015 interview with HuffPost.)
If Huppenthal expressed himself clumsily, Ellman argued, it was likely because he was writing “in the rhetorical street-fighting that is blogging.”
The trial has drawn dozens of educators and ethnic studies supporters to Tucson for what they view as a historic showdown. The Librotraficantes (Spanish for “book smuggler”), a group founded to protest the elimination of the Tucson program five years ago, traveled more than 1,000 miles from Houston, carrying books from the forbidden program to establish underground libraries in several cities.
At an event Sunday ahead of the trial, several people said Arizona’s ethnic studies restrictions had prompted them to become politically active for the first time.
Claudia Macias, a former Houston principal who began her career two decades ago as a bilingual education teacher, said she only began confidently speaking her name to strangers with the Spanish pronunciation ― CLOW-dia, rather than -CLAW-dia ― after taking Mexican-American studies courses in college. Reading authors like Sandra Cisneros and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz led her to shed reservations she’d inherited from her parents, who didn’t want her to stick out as a Mexican-American in Texas.
“They wanted to protect me,” she said, “because they had their hands slapped when they were in school for speaking Spanish.”
As the battle continues over the Tucson classes, other districts around the country have adopted similar programs ― largely because conservatives here inadvertently publicized the idea.
In California, several districts now offer high school ethnic studies courses, and the state assembly passed a law last year ordering the creation of a model ethnic studies curriculum that all districts can draw from. Educators across the state of Texas have begun offering Mexican-American studies classes in public schools. And Indiana passed a state law last month requiring public high schools to offer an elective ethnic studies course at least once a year.
“This un-American, discriminatory law was supposed to destroy our community,” said author and Lone Star College professor Tony Diaz, who co-founded Librotraficantes. “We found out about it and united in time to keep it from spreading the way Arizona’s anti-immigrant law spread.”