In this essay, part of our Saving Ethnic Studies series, Prof. Rodolfo Acuña looks at the parallels between the struggles of the poor and the abysmal inequities plaguing the public education system in Arizona. Dismantling the system of segregation from within might seem like an impossible task to Latino communities under siege. But, as Acuña reminds us, every attempt by state authorities to crush progressive education can generate disillusionment and resistance in equal measure.
When you rarely win, you learn not expect much. I never considered myself poor but when I was growing up I never remember my parents telling me that I was going to college or encouraging me to enter a profession. Indeed, when I would read my maternal grandmother who I loved dearly would say, “Hijito, no léas tanto, te vas a volver loco!” (Son, don’t read so much, you are going to go crazy!)
It was only later that I learned that my grandmother, like many others, instinctively did not want to raise my hopes too high and get hurt. What was the purpose of reading if it was not going to put food on the table?
This scenario was played out in many ways. My grandfather, a janitor with the Southern Pacific (SP) roundhouses in Tucson and Los Angeles, got angry with my uncle for not taking his advice and remaining a laborer and becoming a machinist apprentice.
My grandfather knew our limits in this country and knew that my uncle would be the first Mexican American machinist IF he made it through the system. What would happen if his hopes were too high and proved to be false?
Throughout my life, these situations played out thousands of times. I remember talking to an African American mother and telling her that her son was very bright and that she should encourage him to read.
The woman shrugged her shoulders and said, “He’s a big kid, he’ll do well in sports.”
My experiences can be multiplied in the thousands. Hence I was not too surprised at the reaction of many Tucsoneses to the news that the Unitary Plan ordered by Federal Judge David C. Bury had been delayed by two to seven weeks.
Bury, a George W. Bush appointee to the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, granted Special Master Willis Hawley extra time to complete his plan which would mark the future of the education of Latinos in the Tucson Unified School District.
Normally, it would seem no big deal – two to seven weeks. But, this is a community under siege and the delay dashes high hopes that the Mexican American Studies program would be reinstated by the fall. It delays the process which requires mandatory community forums.
Did the group have false expectations of success? Yes, they were probably expecting too much from the system.
Failure makes you gun shy. Fear is the memory of danger. Some people are afraid to be loved. You can see the fear of loving on the faces of adults who were abandoned as children or mistreated by a partner. Fear is like touching a hot iron, it tells us beware. It cannot be dismissed as anxiety or a loss of courage. Fears are real.
When you put the saying “Never trust a Mexican smoking a cigar or a Gringo speaking Spanish!” into the context of Texas history, it makes a lot of sense. It is not so much an expression of anti-white feelings but a warning. Let’s play it trucha (crafty like a trout). Tejanos have good reason to be weary of politicians. Why should you trust a Gringo speaking Spanish or a Mexican smoking a cigar?
Believe in justice? Without even considering history, how many innocent people are sitting on death row today? How many Latinos and blacks are being disenfranchised by the voter ID laws? Should we trust politicos to keep their promises?
Putting Hawley and Bury’s delay into the context of recent Arizona history, are you anti-Gringo if you are weary?
Like my students say, “I don’t theenk so!”
For ninety-years, Mexican miners in Clifton-Morenci-Metcalf struggled for a union. They struggled to end discrimination, segregation, a dual wage system, good schools and representation. By 1983 they controlled the union and local government.
That year a strike was called against Phelps Dodge. The union was broken by the company’s use of permanent replacements; the strike was then suffocated by Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt who sent in the National Guard and Arizona Highway Patrol to support PD. Miners lost their union and the county went Republican.
In Arizona, Mexican American and progressive educators joined to improve education and end segregation and stem the horrendous dropout of Mexican American youth. They achieved some reforms but bilingual education was wiped, declared un-American and dismantled.
Fisher/Mendoza v. Tucson Unified School District emerged from two cases filed in 1974 by African American and Mexican American students who sued the Tucson school system for intentionally segregating and discriminating against Mexican Americans on the basis of race and national origin. Four years later, a federal court found the Tucson Unified School District Schools in violation of Brown v. The Board of Education (1954).
The TUSD was placed under an order to desegregate, which has not been enforced to this day.
In 2008, the Court and the TUSD entered into a unitary plan that supposedly ensured that the TUSD would end segregation. The agreement ended the Court’s oversight with the stipulation that a Post Unitary Plan be developed jointly with Mexican American educators and community.
Judge Bury put it on a fast track and in December 2009 approved the Post Unitary Status Plan effectively ending assurances of the equal advantage of every child. Importantly, the Post-Unitary Plan also required the expansion of the Mexican American studies department. But, was the unitary plan adequate to safeguard equal protection of the students and community? The Fisher/Mendoza plaintiffs did not think so and immediately appealed Bury’s decision.
In retrospect the Mexican American Studies program is the victim of its own success. It had been approved in the mid-1990 as a result of another suit. But, much to the chagrin of its detractors MAS greatly improved student performance. The State’s own audit attests to this. So it was no accident that the MAS program’s success drew fire in 2010 with the passage of HB 2281.
On October 18, 2010, attorney Richard Martíez filed a suit against then Superintendent Tom Horne and the State Board of Education on behalf of eleven TUSD Mexican American Studies teachers and mounted a legal challenge to HB 2281′s attempt to wipe out MAS. It was separate from the Fisher/Mendoza case and litigated in the 9th Circuit in California.
In this charged atmosphere Judge Bury apparently changed his mind. Bury is one of the good old boys, graduating from the University of Arizona Law School. A former partner in the Tucson law firm of Bury, Moeller, O’Meara, & Gage, Judge Bury has maintained his chambers in Tucson. He is well connected with the City’s elites which are led by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council which TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone is a former vice-president.
In 2011 Judge Bury held that the TUSD had made a good faith effort to comply with the Court and lifted government oversight. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund representing Fisher/Mendoza challenged the ruling.
Bury had apparently made a political decision. He knew that Charter Schools were increasing the segregation of Mexican American and other minority students. Despite this Bury ruled that the TUSD had made a good faith effort to comply with the terms of the Court.
A year later the Board violated the Post Unitary Status Plan that described the MAS program as “an organizational contributor to TUSD’s commitment to greater academic and social equity for Hispanic students” and caved in to the State of Arizona and allowed the Plan to be violated.
In January 2012, Arizona State Superintendent John Huppenthal provoked a crisis by ruling that MAS courses were in direct violation of a segment of the Arizona law HB 2281. Meanwhile, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld MALDEF’s appeal and reversed Bury’s decision to accept the Post Unitary Plan. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the TUSD had not made a good faith effort. Bury then appointed Hawley to draw up a new plan.
Suspicions were rife when despite the plaintiffs’ argument, the judge and the special master buckled to the state and agreed that the discontinuation of the classes did not violate the Post-Unitary Plan.
The Mexican American community now awaits the recommendations of the special master.
From all that I have heard, Hawley has worked with black children, a plus. At the same time, he knows nothing about Tucson or Mexican American students. Most of his sources and contacts have been with the City’s white establishment especially John Pedicone who has continuously stabbed the Mexican American community in the back.
At the time he was a candidate for his $300,000 plus position Pedicone sang the praises of the MAS department only to betray it once in office. Mark Stegeman came with his tail between his legs seeking the community’s endorsement when he first ran for the school board, only to betray it once elected.
So, are those fighting to save MAS paranoid? Should they be apprehensive about the Mexicans smoking cigars and the Gringos speaking Spanish?
No one wants to eat “atole con el dedo” (thick hot beverage prepared with corn flour with his fingers) (i.e., to be played for a fool). It is hard to eat atole without a spoon.
From the earliest times, we have made inventions to survive. When we were hungry we reached the apple high in the tree by using a pole. When this became impossible we either walked away or if we expected more, chopped the tree down.