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Tucson students confront loss of their Chicano studies class

A day after the Tucson Unified School District board votes to suspend Mexican American studies classes to avoid losing state aid, students are angry, sad and confused, a teacher says.

January 11, 2012|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Students and faculty members at Tucson High Magnet School in 2010 protest the Arizona law targeting ethnic studies programs. The law has prompted the Tucson Unified School District board to suspend the district's Mexican American studies classes.
Students and faculty members at Tucson High Magnet School in 2010 protest… (James S. Wood )

On Wednesday, 28 seventh- and eighth-graders at Tucson's Mansfeld Middle School followed their familiar routine. They walked into Room 306, sat at their desks and greeted teacher Rene Martinez.

But the class they'd known the day before had vanished.

No longer can the students discuss Chicano perspectives on history. And no longer can Martinez teach Mexican American studies.

After the Tucson Unified School District board voted late Tuesday to suspend the controversial classes to avoid losing more than $14 million in state aid, the students' world shifted.

Course titles and curriculums changed immediately. Chicano history became American history. Chicano literature became English literature.

State law bans classes that are primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people." Last week, state Supt. of Public Instruction John Huppenthal ruled the Tucson program in violation. The board chose not to contest his decision in court.

That left the classes' supporters grasping for what comes next in the emotional conflict, which has prompted raucous protests as well as accusations of cowardice and racism, brainwashing and sloppy academics.

Many of his students were angry, sad or confused, Martinez said.

"My students asked me, 'Why are they getting rid of this class? Can you explain?' " he said. "We do our best to explain the history of the law, but it's hard to comprehend how we've come to this point."

Proponents say the classes push Latinos to excel and teach a long-neglected slice of America's cultural heritage — Latino perspectives on literature, history and social justice.

But its critics, led by Huppenthal, say framing historical events in racial terms "to create a sense of solidarity" promotes groupthink and victimhood.

For many Latinos, the controversy is broader than the Mexican American studies program. It encompasses identity, and the suspicion that Arizona is trying to rein in Latinos' social and political influence.

"Unfortunately, our local school board cowered to the political pressure and the racism of our state Legislature, superintendent of schools and attorney general," said Sean Arce, the program's director.

Miguel Cuevas, a school board member who joined the 4-1 majority voting to suspend the classes, was asked at Tuesday's meeting how he could consider himself Latino. Another person in the crowd called the board majority members cowards.

On Wednesday, Cuevas said he expected that reaction, but the school district simply could not afford to lose the state money.

"A good portion of the criticism is because I am Latino," he said. "But I am here to serve all students."

The board suspended the classes and ordered district staff members to develop a more comprehensive social studies curriculum incorporating more Mexican American history.

The Mexican American studies program survived, however. It will work toward closing the achievement gap for Latinos through counseling and tutoring, among other strategies, said Cara Rene, a district spokeswoman.

Adelita Grijalva, the only board member who voted to keep the classes, said she wanted the school board to challenge the law's constitutionality in federal court. The measure is only being applied to Mexican Americans, she said.

But the board would have to agree to the court challenge, and the cost of litigation could be an issue.

"I just wish that the majority of the board would think of the long-lasting impact that a law like this can have," she said — not just in Tucson, but around the country.

One legal challenge remains: a federal lawsuit filed by 11 teachers and two students who contend that the state law violates their 1st Amendment rights.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima in Tucson refused to grant an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect but allowed the suit to continue. He ruled Tuesday that the students had standing to sue but the teachers did not.

One of the plaintiffs was Arce, the program director.

"Mexican Americans have historically advocated for quality education," he said. "No matter what happens, we will continue to do that."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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