Threatened In Tucson: Mexican American Studies

An Arizona administrative law judge recently ruled that a program in Tucson's public schools violates a state law banning classes that 'promote resentment toward a race or class of people.' But program supporters say the courses teach a neglected history and inspire Latino students to excel. The Los Angeles Times' Stephen Ceasar has reported this issue and speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this program, we often talk about the people and ideas that are changing this country and how many of us are adjusting to these people and ideas. In a few minutes, we'll hear from Ibtihaj Muhammad. She is hoping to represent the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics in fencing, but she is also hoping to represent her Muslim faith. We'll find out more about her in just a few minutes.

But first, we got to Tucson, Arizona, where the Mexican American studies program taught in public schools is in danger. In June of 2010, the state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, said the program violates a state law banning courses that promote resentment toward another race or class. The school district appealed, and in late December, state administrative law judge Lewis Kowal affirmed Mr. Huppenthal's decision.

Now, the superintendent has to make a final decision on whether the program violates the law. If he does do that, it could cost the school district millions of dollars. We wanted to know more about the situation, so we have called upon Stephen Ceasar. He's been covering the story for the Los Angeles Times.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

STEPHEN CEASAR: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: We should probably just back up a second and say that the state law, in fact, was aimed at this particular program, was it not?

CEASAR: Right. Well, let me trace this back to 2006, when well known activist Laura Suerta(ph) spoke at Tucson High and in her remarks to students, she said that Republicans hate Latinos. And the then state superintendent of schools, Tom Horne, who is the current attorney general, tried to counter that message by sending his then deputy, who is a Latino Republican, to speak to the students. And while she was speaking, some students stood up, turned their backs, lifted their fists in the air. Some covered their mouths in tapes, others walked out.

And, you know, Horne came back and wrote a letter to citizens of Tucson saying that he believed that the students did not learn this rudeness from home, but rather from their Mexican American studies teachers. And so he began crafting a law that went into effect January of last year, and his successor, Huppenthal, decided that the classes were indeed in violation of the law.

MARTIN: But you can understand how, you know, oftentimes, you know, political leaders don't appreciate the way students behave in public forums, but what about the classes themselves that are actually taught? Can you just give us an example of...

CEASAR: Sure.

MARTIN: Or are there some specific examples that are cited about what exactly these officials find inappropriate in the curriculum?

CEASAR: Well, Huppenthal likes to mention an occasion where he sat in on a Chicano literature class and he mentions, on the wall, there is the image of Che Guevara and that a lecturer cast Benjamin Franklin as a racist. And he mentions that, while this lecture did not directly portray Mexican-Americans as an oppressed minority, there's this sort of implied framework that, in his words, Hispanics are the oppressed and Caucasians are the oppressors.

MARTIN: Well, actually, we had a chance to speak with the superintendent yesterday. He wasn't available to join our conversation, but I'll just play a short clip of what he told us. Here it is.

JOHN HUPPENTHAL: The consistent pattern that we found in the lesson plans was that they characterize historical events in racial terms. Absolutely, we have to study historical injustice, but we need to do that within the context of creating a better society, not creating racial resentment that leads students into an attitude of getting even as opposed to getting ahead.

MARTIN: Does that represent the perspective that you've been hearing from him?

CEASAR: Yeah, definitely.

MARTIN: And I know that you said, though, he has sometimes in the past expressed this in terms that he now regrets and that he has himself used language that he now regrets. That, for example, I understand that he said that, at one point, he compared this curriculum to, you know, the Hitler Youth being indoctrinated.

CEASAR: Right. And in my interviews with him, he admits that that was an inflammatory comment. He doesn't use it anymore and that it was - when he did use it, it was on a purely academic basis and that, you know, when these historical events are placed in the context of race, they inflame certain passions.

MARTIN: But what if race is, in fact, the truth? I mean, what if race is, in fact, the issue? How does he recommend that these matters be taught? I mean, for example, you know, slavery in the United States at one point, well, did become racialized. What is his recommendation about how - I mean, I know that's not the issue in the Mexican American studies program, but how does he feel that should be addressed?

CEASAR: Well, you know, he hasn't been exactly specific with how this should be taught so much that it shouldn't be taught in the way that Tucson goes about it. You know, he mentioned that these classes, you know, teach these narratives that can, you know, promote this sort of group thing and victimhood among this group of students who, while...

MARTIN: And what do the...

CEASAR: Sorry.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. What do the supporters say?

CEASAR: Well, supporters argue that, you know, it does none of that and that these classes actually push these marginalized Latino students to excel and that they teach these long neglected slices of American cultural heritage, you know, Chicano perspectives on literature, history, social justice. They argue that they aren't trying to change the narrative so much that they're trying to be included in it.

And on the sort of larger sense, for many Latinos, it's not just about the program. They believe that this law is just sort of another method in which Arizona's attempting to rein in the burgeoning social and political influence of Latinos in the state, along with SB1070, which is the strict immigration law they passed in 2010.

MARTIN: That, certainly, many people are familiar with it. It's been covered extensively, both in the local and in the national media.

Now, I understand that some students and teachers filed a federal lawsuit saying that the law banning the program is unconstitutional. What are their arguments?

CEASAR: That it infringes on their First Amendment rights and they argue that they could possibly lose their jobs should the program be dismantled and so they've asked the federal court to place an injunction on the law, which would, you know, supersede anything at the state level.

MARTIN: Are there any, you know, bystanders here? I'm just sort of wondering if there is a middle. I mean, you've got, on the one hand - well, actually, really, I'm also interested in whether - are the Latino parents supportive of the program, who are also taxpayers in this community? I'm just curious about whether - what is public opinion saying about this?

CEASAR: It's mixed, you know, between Latinos and other parents. It's not really clear cut. There's a lot of, you know, white students that are in these classes and white parents who support it. The community - it's sort of a very rich history in this community. Tucson is very proud of its place in the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s and so it's mixed in the community. Tucson's more - you know, it's different than Phoenix. It's more of a liberal area in sort of a red state.

MARTIN: What is your sense of where this...

CEASAR: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Forgive me, Stephen. What is your sense of where this goes next?

CEASAR: Well, you know, Huppenthal has a chance - has 30 days from when the judge came back with his ruling to make another final decision. When he does, the district can decide either to, you know, accept the ruling or work the program into compliance or appeal again to superior court. And it's not exactly clear what they'll do.

MARTIN: It's a very rich story and we do hope you'll keep us posted.

CEASAR: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Stephen Ceasar is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He's been covering the story in Tucson closely. He was kind enough to join us from NPR member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

Stephen, thank you.

CEASAR: Thank you.

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