Saturday, January 21, 2012

Censorship and Mexican-American Studies in Tucson

I generally don’t talk about current events or politics on this blog. I’m pretty content to yak on about books and awards given to books and sometimes information about movies made from books. Narrow but deep, that’s my focus.

But something happening in my immediate vicinity has been making national news. The word has gone out that the largest school district in Tucson has been banning books related to the Mexican-American Studies program, which it's in the process of removing from high schools. Read TUSD's statement in reaction to their sudden notoriety. Bonus: it includes the list of books to be removed.

Banning is actually an inaccurate depiction of the situation. They're being removed from the former MAS classrooms, but they're available at the school libraries and, oddly enough, in other social studies classrooms that were not MAS studies classes. Mind, I'm not saying that's not censorship. It's just not the full-on book-burning that is being portrayed nationally.

This is my hometown, one I love very much, warts and all. This is about censorship, which as a librarian strikes at one of my core values. This is about ethnicity and pride, which as a Latina woman and proud to be so, is also one of my core values. (To those who have met me: yes. I am. We come in all shades, you know.) And finally, this is about our kids and teens and what they’re learning, what they’re permitted to learn, what identity they are forming for themselves and what identity is being formed for them, which as someone who loves kids’ and YA literature, is something I’m thinking about all the time.

This is about more than books, although as always, the books are an easy target. They're physical objects which can be removed from a curriculum, but as in all censorship cases these objects represent ideas. Removing the books is an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Here's what Arizona is trying to control, and why a simple change of venue for a few books is just the tip of a particularly vicious iceberg.

As a result of a state law, the board of the Tucson Unified School District recently voted to end the Mexican-American studies classes at local high schools. This is not just a school district cutting out a class or two. This is a school board surgically excising an entire curriculum that seeks to study the history and culture of Mexico, the United States, Mexican-Americans, and how our countries interact up to the present day.

The state law in question is Arizona House Bill 2281, specifically the following passage.
(Sorry for the caps, guys. That's the way it's printed on the bill.) For those more thorough-minded, here's the full text at the Arizona Legislature's website. And read also Janni Lee Simner's much more cogent post, On Tucson's Ethnic Studies program, and a little on Arizona politics. (ETA: Holy crud, even the New York Times has thrown in an editorial.)

Basically, what they're saying is that by choosing to study the culture and history of a country other than America, teachers are creating a seething mass of future revolutionaries instead of educating our young people on a history and culture that's going to have an enormous effect on the world they stand to inherit and ultimately, run. By the way, my understanding is that this program was not limited to those of Mexican-American origin, but rather open to any TUSD student who wanted to sign up. Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong on that.

Understand: I am not placing all the blame onto the TUSD board. They're doing their best to comply with state law, which is, y'know, the law. My ire is aimed more at the lawmakers who wrote HB2281 in the first place.

What lawmakers forget (or want everyone else to forget) is that Arizona wasn’t part of the United States until the Gadsden Purchase. We just barely became a state in 1912. In our 100th year of statehood, we are effectively denying that Mexico and its people ever had any important effect on our town, on our state, and on our country. Which is bullshit.

I’ll say that again.


We are a border state and have been for generations, the border gliding back and forth across the mountains and the desert. Tucson has existed under no fewer than four flags in our 236 years (yep, that number is correct) of existence as a city.

And yet, we are being forced to deny our very nature as a border town by denying any views of history and literature other than the standardized, mainstream America one.

You know what these kids are hearing? “You (or your friends or your neighbors) are not worth studying.”

“Your (their) background is not as good as our background.”

“You (they) are controversial. We don’t want to talk about you (them). When we talk about you (them), people get resentful. We don’t want that.”

“So stop talking.”

“It’s better for you (them) to lose your heritage, lose pride in your history, then for us to face that this is a border town in a border state and that we’re marbled through with all different colors. We don’t want all those colors. They’re untidy. They make messes.”

This is about more than Mexican-Americans, though. Tucson has refugees from countries all over the world. In my library, I can hear a veritable Tower of Babel in one hour at the desk. If Mexican-American studies are deemed illegal and controversial, then what about kids from Nepal? From Somalia? From Vietnam? Believe me, they're all in my library, all struggling to make sense of themselves, their backgrounds, their old country, and their new. Consider what does it do to your heart when your new country says, basically, "Forget about your old country. It doesn't matter to real Americans."

They hear: You don't matter. If you want to be a real American, you have to forget who you were.

That's not my ideal of America. But today, that's the reality in my Arizona.


Storied Cities said...

Ugh, sounds like bullshit to me, too. Also I fail to see how a Mexican-American studies class promotes any of those 4 points. Sounds like such a class would promote KNOWLEDGE and TOLERANCE. But then, we wouldn't want that, would we?

Mike Mullin said...

This post is the best commentary I've read on this issue. Thanks

Kat said...

I'm also concerned because they shut down the entire ethnic studies curriculum...which was doing its job by improving the critical thinking, test scores, and likelihood of graduation for those students inside it. It's like, "Hey! You guys are doing better than your classmates. That's CLASSIST."


Loved this blog post. Rocked my socks off.

Regina said...

I just do not understand the level of intolerance that would fuel public decisions that the legislators have to own up to. I have a M.A. in Latin American Studies, which I focused on Mexico, Mexican History, Immigration, and Development and it should go without saying, but critically thinking about topics from all perspectives and all sides is how humans and society move forward. But for me, this is more than academic for me, it is personal as my husband is from Mexico and my 4 children are Mexican-American.

Great discussion and perspective, thank you for sharing.

P.S. Thanks to Mike Mullin for tweeting this blog, as I would not have seen it otherwise.

JenFW said...

Thanks for making an exception and writing about politics here. The national spotlight isn't flattering Tucson, but I hope it gives you the support you need to fix the problem.

Keep fighting the good fight. Let us know how we can help.

Bibliovore said...

Thank you everyone for your wonderful input, and those of you who shared this in other venues.

I think the best thing people can do is keep talking about it, keeping the injustice and inequity of such a law fresh in people's minds. Maybe that way the people who can change this will. People have such a terrible tendency to accept what they think they can't change.

Regina, I found your comment especially poignant. This is NOT an academic debate for so many people in Tucson, and in Arizona.

KateCoombs said...

Students should study the whole world, not just their own country. Bullshit, indeed. Considering the recent brouhaha over that anti-immigrant law in Arizona, I don't think people have trouble reading between these particular lines. Next they'll be using my pre-1980 high school textbook for world history--I'm pretty sure it had nothing (or next to nothing) to say about the histories of Asia and Africa. Sigh. "State's rights" seem to highlight bigotry, just as they did back in the Civil Rights era. Thanks for this very clear post!