Mexican American Studies classes have been dropped

Mike Madriaga

The students weren’t clapping for applause at the MS-162 Hall on Sept. 22. It was more of a ceremonial “unity clap,” similar to ones that Caesar Chavez did, to start off the mind-opening presentation that was about to ensue.

How would you feel if your favorite class in school was removed from the curriculum? With budget cuts affecting the cancellation of classes, many students at City College know the feeling of not being able to attend the class that will help them transfer to a university and overall better their life-odds.

Now imagine if you can, being enrolled in a unique class, one that is only offered in six of 100-plus schools in your city, being forcefully removed. This may sound like an older civil rights scenario from the 1950s-1960s, but this just happened a few years ago in Tucson, Ariz.

The Student Affairs, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A.) Student Club, and Rene Zambrano sponsored and presented the documentary film called “Precious Knowledge.” Erin McGinnis produced and Ari Palos directed this film in 2010-2011. It’s a “David and Goliath” themed documentary where the teachers and students of Tucson High School go ‘mano a mano’ against the state of Arizona.

Who won the battle? Goliath did, and the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program was removed from the Tucson district high schools.

“We felt the need to show this documentary since we are starting the semester with new college students and it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, therefore, we wanted to educate those who are not aware of the ethnic studies ban that happened in Arizona,” Juanita “Joanie” Lopez said. Lopez is the current president of M.E.Ch.A.

For one year, the Dos Vatos Productions filmmakers followed Curtis Acosta and Jose Gonzales, both former Raza Studies teachers at Tucson High School. The two Mexican American teachers were depicted throughout the movie fully engaging in not only critical thinking assignments, but ceremonial rituals once performed by their Mexican ancestors.

On the Dos Vatos Films website, their synopsis reads: “While 48 percent of Mexican American students currently drop out of high school, Tucson High’s Mexican American Studies Program has become a national model of educational success, with 93 percent of enrolled students, on average, graduating from high school and 85 percent going on to attend college.” The filmmakers spent an entire year in the classroom filming this innovative curriculum, documenting the transformative impact on students who became engaged, informed, and active in their communities.

Many students in the film were also interviewed and followed throughout the movie. Crystal Terriquez, a shy senior with braces, explained how her father was arrested and incarcerated for not being of legal status in the U.S.

As the movie unfolded, Terriquez became bolder and more assertive in class discussions, then towards the end, she is shown leading a group of fellow demonstrators with a megaphone. Her mother also makes a cameo in the movie, validating how her daughter has evolved thanks to the MAS program, then graduating and going to college after.

John Huppenthal, the current Arizona State Superintendent of Education, is shown in the movie stating that “parts of our neighborhoods” have been “nuclear-bombed by the effects of illegal immigration.” He and the former State Superintendent of Education, Tom Horne, are the giants in the movie who ultimately won their cause. In May 2010, Arizona Governor, Jan Brewer passed a House Bill 2281 which banned classes designed for students of a particular ethnic group. This law prevented the MAS program to operate.

“I’m calling on Tucson Unified School District to shut down the ethnics studies program and start teaching kids to treat each other as individuals and not on the basis of what race they were born into,” Horne said to a lineup of cameras in the documentary, “… the chanting behind us I think illustrates the rudeness that they teach to their kids.”

Acosta was the hero in the movie, courageously facing his defeated students, and still teaching them how to remain positive despite being victims of hate and online trolling.

“We can talk about the walkouts in 1968, and then we can look at 2011, and we see the same story repeated again, the youth come together and empower themselves … and how does that translate to the communities,” said Rene Zambrano, a member of the Association of Raza Educators (A.R.E) chapter, and a teacher at Bell Middle School, “… that the youth if they see some injustice, they can act and organize collectively and not individually through groups such as High-School/College M.E.Ch.A. and they become agents of change, that’s something that the youth can take away from this documentary.”