07/27/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

Defying Arizona's Ethnic Studies Ban: Tucson Freedom Summer Draws on Mexican American Studies History

As Arizona awaits an impending decision from federal court justice Wallace Tashima on the constitutionality of the state's controversial law that effectively banned Tucson's Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies program, education activists and civil rights advocates are not taking a vacation this summer.

Nor is the school board of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), which dismantled the program last January. Still saddled with an embarrassing desegregation order, the TUSD school board stumbled through another blunder on Tuesday, as it failed to gain a motion for a largely denounced and inconsequential resolution that admittedly recognized the disgraced school district's ban on Mexican American Studies books.

The cynical move, which would have ended "special treatment" of seven Latino history and literature textbooks confiscated last semester from Tucson classrooms, failed to address the larger issue of the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies program and the firing or removal of teachers.

In defiance of Arizona's law, and as part of the "Tucson Freedom Summer" events, an extraordinary series of workshops, readings and cultural programs, Tucson education activists will be sponsoring a special program -- "How We Won in the 1990s: The Mexican American Studies Victory on the Shoulders of Giants" -- on Monday, July 30, 2012, 6:30 pm, at the Access Tucson TV Studios -- to provide a historical overview of the 1990s movement that led to Tucson civil rights victory and establishment of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program.

While few other high school programs have drawn the national media attention of Tucson's embattled and now outlawed Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies program in recent years, the origins of the celebrated education initiative have remained overshadowed by the state's relentless witch hunt campaign.

Thanks to a decades-long movement in Tucson, according to education activist Miguel Ortega, a "perfect storm" in the 1990s of "grassroots advocacy, a legal challenge, sound academic arguments and, mostly importantly, crossing the finish line along the path already paved by veteranos and veteranas before us," brought the Mexican American Studies program into Tucson's schools -- and the attention of the nation.

I caught up with Ortega, a long-time education activist in Tucson, for an interview on the upcoming event, and a look at his own involvement.

Jeff Biggers: Give us a little background on your own background and how you got involved in the Mexican American Studies program.

Miguel Ortega: In the late '80s, I remember I could not believe our governor actually rescinded the MLK holiday. I remember that really bothering me. But, at that time, I was mostly involved as a theater artist and student (at Pima College and, later, at the University of Arizona). I talked about politics with my friends at cafes and in theaters backstage during plays throughout town.

So, as soon as I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1991, I formed a political street theater group called The Screaming Javalinas. The fact that I later changed the name to Teatro Javalinas indicates my shifting interest to Chicano issues. That came mostly from my experience as a substitute teacher at TUSD & SUSD during that same period. Just talking to kids every day at schools throughout Tucson made me think a lot about how Mexican kids perceived themselves and about the kind of education they were receiving.

Later, we formed the Tucson Xicano Coalition that then evolved into the Tucson Xicano Mexicano Committee for Self-determination (TXMC). While we used satire and direct action via Teatro Javalinas performance to advocate for social justice and to educate the public about other community issues, we took things a step further with the TXMC by actually organizing forums, attending City Council and TUSD meetings, leading marches, etc. It was through the TXMC that we seriously began to push for MAS at TUSD.

JB: When you look at Tucson's (and southern Arizona's) rich cultural and political legacies, who do you recognize as some of the key cultural and educational leaders, innovators and risk-takers that shaped our understanding of the history of Mexican Americans and all Arizonans?

: I remember learning about the 1980's Sanctuary Movement and how courageously Tucsonans advocated for Mexican immigrants. The way they put so much of their personal lives at risk in order to help desperate immigrants really moved me.

Many of us also had access to local professors and activists like Lupe Castillo and Salomon Baldenegro. I remember Lupe allowing me to sit in and audit her Chicano history classes at Pima. She was also the one who personally picked me up after a night in jail for a peaceful civil disobedience action I was involved in. To this day we laugh about it because the jail official thought she was picking up her husband.

"Domestic violence?", he asked.

"Nope." she said, "Social justice."

Another source of inspiration in the '90s came from local, Chicano hero Salomon Baldenegro. We all knew about his epic, Chicano battle for El Rio. We adopted that battle as our very own Chicano Moratorium or our Crusade for Justice. It gave us a local connection to Chicano history and made us feel like we could repeat something like that again here in Tucson.

More recently, I remember my little teenaged brother-in-law Eric used to walk over to talk with Salomon Baldenegro at his house when they used to live near each other on the west side. Salomon would be smoking and writing something, as usual, yet he would always have time for Eric. Interestingly, Sal has also been a mentor to many of Eric's teachers at Tucson High School (some MAS teachers). I have always admired Sal for that generosity.

Hank Oyama is also someone who has inspired many of us. You can't talk about education and Mexican Americans in Tucson and Southern Arizona without considering Hank's overall impact and his continuing commitment to education. To this day, whenever I bump into him at an event, he draws me close to him by whispering consejos and asks how I am involved politically lately.

To this day all three of these leaders remain engaged politically and accessible to anyone needing guidance. That is amazing to me.

During the '90s, we always tried to incorporate the teaching of local history in everything we organized. This was especially important when we worked with Chicano youth because we wanted them to relate to local, organic heroes and demystify the possibility of them doing the same work as leaders themselves. We did this even though many of us were in our 20s and not that much older than the youth we worked with.

JB: What circumstances served as the impetus for building the MAS program in the 1990s?

MO: In many ways it was a perfect storm that led to the successful establishment of the MAS program at TUSD. And it really was on the shoulders of giants that we were finally able to make it happen.

With the TXMC we kept forcing politicians and bureaucrats to recognize that the disparities our local Chicano youth were experiencing were connected to the lack of a quality education within our public schools; we made the case that our kids were not really dropping out in droves - they were being pushed out. Our events and actions pointed to the fact that our kids did not have enough to do; that gang violence on our Tucson streets might be better mitigated by celebrating the cultural and historical assets of Raza so that they didn't have to belong to the dangerous and dysfunctional gangs that were beating us to the punch.

Of course, there was also the lawsuit by TUSD board member Rosalie Lopez that helped make the legal argument. And former Mexican American Studies director Sean Arce played a significant - I would say a critical - role with his creation and leadership of the group CONMAS. Sean made the specific academic arguments we needed. While the TXMC was gathering broad support from barrios and agitating the right establishment leaders and organizations, Sean was slowly piecing together the nuts and bolts of the future program. Because he understood that the program would not survive long without truly relevant curriculum and programmatic structure, MAS was able to really take off once it was established.

Really, the perfect storm was made up of grassroots advocacy, a legal challenge, sound academic arguments and, mostly importantly, crossing the finish line along the path already paved by veteranos and veteranas before us. We knew we were right. We knew we could do it. Our mentors taught us and encouraged us. We had the data and we methodically eliminated arguments against establishing the program.

JB: How was the shaping of the Tucson MAS program unique to the city, and placed Tucson in the forefront of such educational innovations?

MO: This was mostly due to the shoulders of the giants I keep mentioning. MAS was always a work in progress being developed over the decades prior to the 90's. I don't think the idea was to necessarily build something unique. I think we thought of it more as something we should have always had at TUSD in the first place.

However, as it evolved under leaders like Sean, the program did become so successful that it began to really shine as a unique example of what really works for Latino youth.

But, from my perspective, the best explanation of why the MAS program was so unique and effective is because the program's roots came from the teachers and their strong community organizing backgrounds. Or, at the very least, they all had a sense of urgency and a sense of obligation given that most were directly involved in advocating for it in the first place. It was organic. It was not something created within the bureaucratic structure of TUSD. In a way it was brought to TUSD as something very authentic, created by the very community it was supposed to serve.

We did not treat this program as you would a rental car - it was ours and we were going to build it ourselves and protect it. Over the years, Sean Arce has embodied this kind of community ownership that ultimately led to something very special. I don't think anyone was consciously trying to make it a nationally renowned program. We just didn't know any better than to do that, I guess.

JB: Do you see cycles of conflicts in Tucson's nearly 150-year history of education, in terms of the denial/dismissal of Mexican American history and the arts, and the marginalization of certain Latino communities and initiatives?

MO: Yes. Of course. Unfortunately, some people have a distorted view of history. They say that certain unpleasant periods in our history were too long ago to be considered relevant- so they could not still causing certain Mexican American disparities. Jim Crow somehow just doesn't seem possible now. Not even a little bit to some. The challenge is that there is so much more that is positive we can talk about but many want to ignore the entirety of our experience. So we end up with this strange situation where the atrocities of the Holocaust are somehow relevant within the entirety of the World War II story but none of the unpleasant periods in Mexican American history are considered relevant. Imagine trying to learn about World War II without including Nazi Germany.

Actually, I am so sick of talking about MAS. Seriously. While I know we have to keep doing it, I am tired of talking about why we need this program. But I am tired of it for reasons not expressed by those that want to do away with it. There is so much we need to improve about public education as a whole and yet we are spending so much time on MAS. There are so many great teachers, schools and programs we should really be focusing on and building on to move forward. The sad irony is that the political obsession to eliminate MAS has distracted us from addressing many more issues that also directly concern the larger Mexican American student population. MAS was only supposed to be a start in addressing the district-wide problems. MAS should have been a no-brainer and just left alone to continue succeeding and growing. The rejection of MAS turned out to be the canary in the coal mine that exposed a much deeper disdain for Latinos at TUSD. Wrap your mind around that!

Really, it is certain Phoenix politicians and others that are obsessed with MAS. They are obsessed with denying Mexican American youth what they will ultimately get anyway. There is a misplaced fear of the inevitable. The math clearly concludes that Latino youth in Tucson will eventually become the political leaders, artists, entrepreneurs and just plain citizens that will shape the direction of this City.

It's like standing in an empty wash as you see that monsoon coming. You hear the thunder and you see the dark clouds. Soon that empty wash will become a powerful river. And if you really understand the beauty of our diverse desert land, the monsoon is nothing to be scared of so long as you understand it, respect it and appreciate it. And, more importantly, don't try and stop it. Because either way, like it or not, it's coming.

JB: In this period of impasse, as we await the federal court decision on the constitutionality of AZ's outlawing of Mexican American Studies at TUSD and the school district's subsequent dismantling of the program, what can today's MAS students, teachers and advocates learn from past movements to apply to the future?

MO: We have to take responsibility for collectively allowing the TUSD board membership to become a super majority that does not understand Tucson. Yes, we can say our program has been targeted and that several, intentional actions and laws harmed us. But, ultimately, over the years, we allowed our board membership to become what it is today. A different board - like our past boards - would have fought back under the banner of local control.

We also need to recognize that our elected officials are only as good as the level of engagement their constituents are willing to provide.

Central to everything we did in the 90's was the concept of community self-determination. For the most part, we successfully pushed for the creation of MAS independent of traditional, establishment methods. It was a controversial idea then and not many politicians wanted anything to do with it. We did it anyway.

Today we need to bring back our program in the same manner. If we build it, they, the elected officials, will come - so to speak. This approach is happening as we speak and that is why it will ultimately succeed.

There is one important lessons from the 90's that I would like our youth - especially those involved in advocating for MAS - to understand. First, they should know that there was just as much infighting among MAS advocates in the 90's as there is today. We too had many camps arguing with each other about what the proper strategy or message should be. Or who is taking too much credit or how much we should push or when to push. And, yes, the men had the biggest egos and wanted the most credit. Unfortunately, that seems to always be the case.

But infighting is nothing new. In fact, if you talk to those involved in the 60's you will probably get similar stories. This is just part of the process and it should not discourage or distract our youth. It should help knowing that - like actual families - movement families tend to squabble too. Despite this, we somehow kept things moving forward in the 90's and many of us at odds then are now working side by side for the same purpose today.

JB Other comments?

MO: On Friday, January 29, 1999, the TXMC hosted an event we called "Celebrating the Chicano Studies Victory: 4th Annual Restoring Unity in Aztlan". It was held at the John Valenzuela Youth Center in South Tucson. To this day it bothers me that we failed miserably with one detail- our dinner included half frozen rice! We all really wanted everything to be perfect for our celebration. But the rice was cold. Yet no one complained

Despite the rice, the celebration turned out ok. More than ok. It was well attended and everything else went smoothly. I also remember that we recognized 17 people for their contributions to the MAS victory that evening. We recognized teachers, artists, community activists, union leaders and attorneys. Many of those in attendance knew of several strained relationships that developed over the grueling years fighting for MAS. But, again, to this day so many of us are still advocating for the program.

This event 13 years ago also makes me think about what our victory celebration will be like this time around. Because, make no mistake, there will be a victory celebration.

At this party I hope there will be even more people.

I hope we will have many business owner that care about our local economy at our party. I hope they will be there because they want to embrace our future entrepreneurs as well as celebrate a program that will help build a more qualified workforce. After all, we are not just consumers anymore. Our Latino youth will be your future bosses, partners, investors and CEO's.

Also in attendance, I hope we will have many elected officials representing many offices. I hope they will be overwhelmed and inspired by the people and all the joy expressed. And just as we now remember the rescinding of the MLK Holiday more as a distant nightmare, so too will the elimination of MAS begin to fade from our memories and become just a bad dream.

This time, however, independent community ownership of MAS must continue to be paramount.

Community self-determination is what pushed MAS past the finish line in the 90's. That same community self-determination will be what brings it back for good.