DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on Arizona's controversial immigration law. The law, known as SB 1070, generated headlines last year because of its harsh and wide-ranging approach to immigration enforcement.
This morning, we're going to learn about another measure in Arizona that's angered the Latino community. That law, which went into effect last year, essentially ruled that the Mexican-American studies program offered in the Tucson public school system, was divisive and should be scrapped. The school board decided not to risk losing a good chunk of its overall budget, to fight for courses that only served 1 percent of Tucson students. But since the board ended, the classes' hard feelings have lingered.
We sent Al Letson, host of NPR's State of the Reunion, to Tucson to see how the sensitive debate has affected the community.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS AND AN ALARM)
AL LETSON, BYLINE: It's the last week of school at Cholla High; the end of classes for the year, and the end of the first semester without Mexican-American studies.
LORENZO LOPEZ: Lorenzo Lopez. I am a former teacher of Mexican-American studies. Currently teaching traditional social studies - history, government.
LETSON: For eight years, until this past January, Lopez had taught Mexican-American studies at Cholla High in Tucson, the very school from which he graduated in 1992. After that, he spent a couple years working odd jobs - miner, a factory worker, anything to pay the bills. But then he enrolled in college to get ahead, and he was doing all right. But there was one class that changed everything - a course on Chicano literature.
LOPEZ: It validated the struggle of folks who were just like me; the immigrant story, and the story of not quite fitting in to this American fabric.
LETSON: Before this class, Lopez felt alienated by what he was being taught because he couldn't see his own reflection in the classes. But the Chicano literature brought all that in focus. It made him feel like he was a part of the story that is America. And so after graduating college, Lopez jumped at the chance to pass that sense of empowerment onto a younger generation of Latino students.
LOPEZ: It's a process of consciousness building. And that process begins with themselves as individuals.
LETSON: Lopez says he tried to instill in his students a sense of pride in their Latino heritage in the hopes that it would them in their own lives. He used music, literature and current events to awaken kids to politics and civil rights. And his students loved the class. But in January, after a contentious community debate, the school board handed down an edict. They told Lopez and the rest of the Mexican-American studies instructors to stop teaching the class and switch to a more standard curriculum.
LOPEZ: It was horrible. It was malpractice. It was heartbreaking to have students who have experienced this class in the first semester and know the potential and know what they should be getting. And then January 11th comes around and that has to stop. And you have students who were basically pleading, come on, mister, you know, we're not going to tell nobody. Just do what you have to do, just teach. I can't.
CAMILLE CHANTHARATH: So, it starts off slow and then, you know, more people start getting into it. And then, it ends up like us being united as one.
ADILENE VIRAMONTES: And then we'd all go crazy and have...
VIRAMONTES: Hey, we're all smiles.
LETSON: Camille Chantharath and Adilene Viramontes are classmates showing me what they call the Chicano Clap, an attention grabber that Lopez often used to open and close his lessons at Cholla High School. For these girls, going into Lopez's class was like flipping on a light switch.
CHANTHARATH: We actually had a 10-page assignment to do about our family's history beginning to end, to how far we can go back to our ancestors to see where they started. And then our teacher would always talk about the rights that we had. So, it would explain to us what our families went through, like what our history was like.
And we would have fun in class and everybody would participate, would do the work.
LETSON: That work turned into political action when the cancellation was announced. Camille and Adeline helped organize a student walkout from their school. But it was that very activism that fueled the anti-Mexican-American studies argument, especially following a raucous event last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)
LETSON: A mob-like scene, a school board turns chaotic as TUSD faces a tough decision on what to do about some controversial classes. Protesters rush in and take over, some chaining themselves up.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)
LETSON: Those protesters were mostly students trying to save their courses, which were voluntary and open to all. But not everyone was sorry to see the classes discontinued.
IRENE CORELLA: She came home and telling me that the teacher, his focus was on Republicans; his hate for Republicans, saying that all Republicans are white and that they hate Mexicans.
LETSON: Irene Corella is the mother of Mariella, a rising senior at Tucson High School. Early on in our conversation, she identifies herself as a conservative Republican. Her daughter had hoped to enroll in a regular English class at Tucson High, but the course was full so they put her into Mexican-American studies. Mariella says she thought it she'd be learning about her Hispanic heritage.
MARIELLA: Immediately, when I got into the class, they weren't really on that topic. They'd just talk about that immigration shouldn't be illegal and anyone who disagrees is like bad person. I mean, people have come up to me and like they're like, oh well, you're racist.
LETSON: This sounds different from what was happening in Lopez's classes at nearby Cholla High School, and that's the rub. Like any school district, there are good teachers and others - not so good. And it the strident nature of some of those classes that led the then-State School Superintendent Tom Horn and his successor, John Huppenthal, to push for a law that eventually killed Mexican-American studies.
They found an unexpected ally in Loretta Hunnicutt, a self-confessed liberal Democrat from Tucson who has been involved in school reform for 30 years.
So really, like a class like this in theory sounds like its right in line with the type of work you do?
LORETTA HUNNICUTT: It would be everything I would defend normally. And I came out in defense of the classes. That's how I got pulled into this who situation. And I said you have to do whatever you can to save these classes.
LETSON: But two years ago, Hunnicutt began talking with other teachers and parents, and she started rethinking her opinion of the program.
HUNNICUTT: It had morphed into a very political class that had virtually no emphasis on culture or history. And it seeped into every single one of the classes' offerings, unfortunately. So, even when you had really conscientious teachers, it couldn't help but become political in nature.
LETSON: Now, keep in mind, this is going on right around the time when the Arizona legislature introduced SB 1070, the law aimed at stopping illegal immigration. And to many in the Latino community, it felt like they were under siege.
For their part rising high school seniors Adilene Viramontes and Camille Chantharath are proud of the history and activism they absorbed in Lorenzo Lopez's Mexican-American studies class. And they think that even 20 years from now, it will still be a part of who they are.
VIRAMONTES: Like a good memory that motivated me to fight for what I thought, and like a class that I was actually learning what I wanted to learn, 'cause I picked it 'cause I wanted it.
CHANTHARATH: Well with me, what did you say 20 years? I'll look back on it and just be like, I did that. I walked out. And I'll tell my kids, be like, yeah I did that. But I'll be really happy and really, it was like the best year of my life because I learned about so much things from Mexico and from just my culture. And I wish they would have the opportunity to learn that too.
LETSON: And maybe they will. There is a chance that down the road perhaps a less political version of Tucson's Mexican-American studies program will be reintroduced. But before that can happen, however, this community will need to mend. Tucson's struggle over the classes was a fight that quickly turned nasty and personal. Latino school board members who voted to terminate the courses were called sellouts by their neighbors. Good teachers found themselves facing disheartened students. And many, on both sides, felt like an opportunity had been wasted.
For NPR News, I'm Al Letson.
GREENE: Al Letson is the host of NPR's State of the Reunion. And that story was produced by Peter Breslow.