On August 22, 2017, Federal Judge Wallace Tashima ruled that the Arizona law banning Mexican American Studies was unconstitutional. Although delivered on a single day, this decision marked a watershed moment in a battle for ethnic studies that had been raging since the 2010 laws were enacted in reaction to the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. The struggle to reinstate this program has been championed by students who enrolled in the courses, teachers who designed and taught the curriculum, and community members. It’s been some months, and the central figures in the legal battles gathered recently to reflect on the struggle, the victories it wrought, as well as some of the damage sustained through struggle.
Below is an abridged version of that conversation with teachers Curtis Acosta and Rene Martinez, program director Sean Arce, and lead attorney Richard Martinez.
What is the significance of the court’s ruling?
Sean Arce: I think it’s really further legitimized ethnic studies, Chicano studies. And then with Richard Martinez, his communication to California Latino School Board Association last night that this ethnic studies and Chicano studies can move forward. There are actions moving forward, they’re setting a policy and creating departments like these that are protected by the first and fourteenth amendment.
Richard Martinez: There are a number of legal significance issues. One is we took away the impediments to Mexican-American studies and cleared the path for ethnic studies to grow across the country. And these court decisions will be an important precedent in stopping the inevitable movement to end ethnic studies, which will surface in other places but under the same kind of arguments. And I think that the other that happens as the resurgence occurs, they will continue to use code words. Judge Tashima’s ruling on the way that we used code words as evidence of racial bias. The judge saying I came to that conclusion on my own and then goes on to no end, that was further affirmed by all the work of Dr. Pitti. So I think that there’s significant importance in the use of code words, because we all know that means that’s a bias statement, a racially charged bias statement that the courts have been looking to embrace and here you have a decision that embraces it.
And then the third thing that I think that’s critical is that absent a legitimate pedagogical reason then it clearly implies the racial bias, both in the context of denying equal protection and in the context of the first amendment, the right to receive. So, it’s critical the school boards adopt these curriculums, they understand what they’re adopting, why they’re adopting it and then grow it. Mexican American Studies in TUSD you had 10 to 12 years to grow it.
One thing the court cases do, both the ninth circuit and Judge Tashima’s ultimate decision, is that it reverses that whole stream of losses that we had regarding bilingual education. And those decisions that looked at those propositions or those initiatives and said no that’s not the product of racial bias. That those were somehow political decisions outside of the racial context, I think everybody knew that wasn’t true.
What did you learn in the process of fighting this in the legal system, in the media, and in communities?
Curtis Acosta: I think Richard hit on a real important point about needing to be diligent, needing to be exhaustive in what these actors, these racist actors are doing. And our collective was definitely on top of it, from you and the legal arm all the way to us in the classroom and making sure we knew what they were saying about us. And to be honest that’s not a fun part of the job, is to look at what they’re saying about you in the media, social media, and how they’re building their case, they’re narrative. You talked about the importance of us getting the narrative back last night during our talk. But that’s all part of it, understanding what the narrative is against you as well as the narrative that you know is in your heart and what you’re trying to do.
What does this mean for academic freedom?
Richard Martinez: Not only being inclusive, but always being open ended, and evolving, and contemporary. So I think that even though there was attached a negative view about how you used to occupy America, or if you wrote a poem, if you used hip-hop, whatever. It came back to if you contextualize the state has no ability to take away the efficacy, the educational efficacy of what you are doing. Legally, that’s how you defend that because they have to be able to then deconstruct you, your program, your curriculum, your curriculum units. And in the absence of that, whether it was Kathy Hrabluk (Associate Superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education) or anyone else, they don’t have your expertise, they don’t know how to deconstruct Mexican-American studies or ethnic studies. They don’t even know what it is, all they know is they don’t like it.
What are the implications of this decision for what teachers can do? What should they be careful of?
Richard Martinez: I think that many teachers agree with it, but in terms of making it a mandate on the school district it’s at the local level. They must develop a curriculum in this manner. Where I disagree or think the mistake is to assume one class anyway comes close to what was occurring in Mexican-American Studies. Much more comprehensive.
Sean Arce: That’s not systemic. You’ve got classes here and there it’s not systemic.
Richard Martinez: The other thing is I think it’s a mistake to make the classes compulsory. I think they should be voluntary, those who want to take them fine, those who don’t. Because to the extent you make them compulsory and thus those individuals are students and those parents and those families that don’t want their child, their student in that class, they become your enemy. And that’s I think a problem. You’re building in an enemy that’s going to attack that school board, that superintendent, that site administrator, that teacher.
Curtis Acosta: Yeah there’s antagonism already built in.
Sean Arce: But yeah, we have to be cautious. We have to be, what’s the word that I used Friday? We have to be strategic on how we do this shit. Alright, we’re going to make it mandatory, where are the teachers at? Where’s the teacher training?
Rene Martinez: And then what do you do when the pushback happens? Do you change the curriculum or do you just like, you know?
Rene Martinez: But I think we’re only beginning to feel what the implications are.
Curtis Acosta: Yeah, I feel like, I felt this sense of end in the micro. Cause if we can’t escape the macro of where we’re at as a nation. What we did in the classroom is what we do everyday now. And we just do it in different ways. So it’s not like anything ended in that sense but this particular story has a beginning, a beautiful beginning. Has a beautiful growth period of us all growing together as maestros, and maestras, as friends, as compañeros. I mean we went from strangers to beyond any relationships that many people will ever understand because we were, for lack of a better word, we were in the fox hole together for a long, long time. And you just don’t give up on each other. And when you don’t give up on each other you create a different kind of bond, but it’s forever.
Sean Arce: That’s why we do it, and we do it for our own personal children. On personal level, but the meaning behind it is for our entire community cause we know the history of our community. We know that anti-Mexican, anti-Raza, anti-Black, anti-different color in this country is real, man, and we engage in that. We stood up to that. And the reason why we did that is for our own children, but for all the children in our community.