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Thursday, April 26, 2012


By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

Arizona's 'Salt of the Earth' Moment

Editor’s Note: While the U.S. Supreme Court this week heard arguments over Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, the fallout of another controversial law – the state’s ban on ethnic studies – is being felt across classrooms and communities in Tucson. If the matter is not resolved, the ethnic studies ban could be the next Arizona law to make it to the Supreme Court, writes commentator Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez.

During the miners’ strike in Grants County, New Mexico in 1951, depicted in the 1954 epic film Salt of the Earth, the striking miners and their families were forced to endure extreme hardship as they struck the Empire Zinc Co. for some 15 months. In Tucson, Ariz., teachers from the recently dismantled Mexican American Studies (MAS) department are fast approaching a similar scenario. This, as the state and nation are seemingly a few inches closer to making racial profiling the unconstitutional law of the land.

In Tucson, the MAS department has been dismantled; the curriculum has been outlawed, its books confiscated and banned; its longtime director has been fired; the teachers have been reassigned; their classes and new curriculum are being monitored and state officials are going into classrooms to ensure that they and their students are complying with the unconstitutional ethnic studies ban, HB 2281. In the past few days, three more of the teachers have been dismissed, with several more to follow.

This is not the 1950s McCarthy era. Nor is it Nazi Germany. Instead, it is Arizona 2012.

Racism doesn’t adequately explain this situation. Try apartheid, vindictive power and ruthless retribution, all due to the fear of a rising red-brown majority. In the district’s assault on Mexican American Studies, the apartheid analogy is easy to see; some 62 percent of the district is Mexican/Mexican American. Demographic trends, along with white flight, indicate that the Tuscon Unified School District’s racial composition will continue to be majority students of color in the foreseeable future. Despite this, the governing school board in no way reflects this reality, treating its majority population as “aliens” in need of “Americanization.”

This demographic reality doesn’t simply apply to Tucson. In the entire state of Arizona, whites have ceased to be the majority in K-12 schools. This is also true of many inner city schools nationwide.

The attack on the body, the mind and the spirit of brown peoples is a continuation of colonial policies that are 500 years old. This is not hyperbole. For 500 years, non-Indigenous peoples have been telling Indigenous peoples where they can and cannot live, where they can and cannot go, what to think and how to think. In Arizona 2012, the battle over Mexican American Studies in Tucson is about what is acceptable and permissible knowledge. If it derives from Greco-Roman culture, the knowledge is permissible; if it emanates from maiz culture (Abya Yalla or the Americas), apparently, it is unacceptable and un-American.

Gov. Jan Brewer, former State Senate president Russell Pearce and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, represent those engaged in a war against Mexicans in this state. State Attorney General Tom Horne, State Schools’ Superintendent John Huppenthal and TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone represent the war against the mind and the spirit of these same peoples.

Without question, Horne and Huppenthal have never been shy about invoking a cultural war in describing what’s at stake. Huppenthal has gone so far as to describe his war against MAS-TUSD in literal military terms. This, from the man who campaigned to “stop La Raza.”

The result of all of this is that the MAS-TUSD department has ceased to exist. It purportedly will be replaced, at the behest of Superintendent John Pedicone, by multicultural studies, a discipline that is despised by conservatives. Mexican American Studies supporters do not object to multicultural studies, as long it is not a replacement for MAS or for other ethnic studies disciplines.

Because the MAS teachers have been sacrificed, the community is prepared to monetarily support them in the manner as depicted in the movie Salt of the Earth (a strike fund) until there is a resolution.

As far as the community is concerned, resolution means reinstating Mexican American Studies and defending it in court, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. For that to occur, the November school board elections loom large. Supporters are counting on these elections to elect school board members who will represent the district’s school children and that will reinstate Mexican American Studies.

One other scenario would be to trust the courts -- which found TUSD guilty of racial segregation a generation ago -- to compel the school district to reinstate Mexican American Studies. At the moment, Willis D. Hawley, a “special master” appointed by U.S. District Judge David Bury, is charged with creating a plan to bring TUSD into constitutional compliance. That remains a possibility as the previous court-approved plan did call on TUSD to expand its highly successful Mexican American Studies Department.

Of course, the culture of Indigenous Mexican peoples is no longer in danger of disappearing in Arizona (despite racial profiling and the continued mass deportations), primarily because the culture has strengthened as a result of this struggle. However, the battle will intensify, and probably will be replicated nationwide, over whether only the dominant culture merits being taught in public schools.

Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at: or

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