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The Mexican American Studies Program

We awoke on our first morning in Tucson to learn that Roberto Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Arizona, was holding a press conference to address death threats he had received by an apparent white supremacist. Roberto’s writings were part of the curriculum of the school’s Mexican American Studies program, which was dismantled by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in January 2012. Roberto’s unwavering support of the program is believed to have motivated the death threats.

The Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, created in 1998, devotes an accessible curriculum to teaching high school students history from the perspective of the oppressed. The program provided an alternative to traditional high school curriculum that glossed over or in some instances, outright ignored, significant pieces of Mexican American history. While the dropout rate of Chican@ students was 50 percent within the TUSD, those in the program had a 98 percent graduation rate.

Originally known as the Raza Studies program, the MAS program was forced to change its name in October due to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s incessant and ignorant criticism about the word raza, which translates to ‘race.’ Horne, now Arizona Attorney General, was instrumental in devising the constitutionally questionable Arizona State House Bill 2281 (HB2281) legislation passed in May 2010, which sought to ban the MAS program and prohibit Arizona school districts and charter schools from teaching classes that:

  • Promote the overthrow of US government
  • Promote resentment toward any race or class
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of being individuals
  • Are designed for a certain ethnicity

Horne notably and adamantly defended the ban, on the grounds that “they teach them that this is occupied territory that should be given back.” He expressed particular opposition to the word ‘occupied’ as well as the program’s reading list of alternative works like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, and Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.

The MAS program was terminated in January 2012, but due to the fact that it was implemented as part of a federal desegregation court order over 20 years ago, the TUSD is still required to offer what it deems to be culturally relevant classes, including Latino and African American History classes. There is a chance that the MAS program will be reinstated by the TUSD, but until then, the community of MAS graduates and supporters are continuing to resist state bigotry and raise awareness by coördinating things like Tucson Freedom Summer, a month of organized, radical resistance against HB2281. Tucson Freedom Summer allows space for community workshops and a moving, brief, student-led occupation of a school board meeting, and created an empowering way for kids to engage with cultural histories.

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