Neither Banned Nor Allowed: Mexican American Studies in Limbo in Arizona

Public high school instructors who want to teach Latino literature here have few other options besides “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros.

Other books may not be banned, but they aren’t allowed either.

In the wake of Tucson’s suspension of its Mexican American Studies program in January, a web of censorship and confusion has entangled the city’s public schools. While the district has not expressly banned any books, it has implemented a series of restrictions ranging from outright prohibition of some books from classrooms, to new approval requirements for supplemental texts, and vague instructions regarding how texts may be taught.

The result, some teachers and students say, is an effective in-class deterrent to broaching  the topics of racial discrimination and socioeconomic inequality from a Mexican-American perspective. Compounding the problem, the curriculum restrictions are not applied with the same rigor to all subjects or teachers – they apply specifically to Mexican American Studies and its former faculty, almost all of whom are Latino.

“To tell teachers they cannot use books, that they cannot reference books, that they have to be removed from the classrooms—I find it disingenuous of the district to talk all this gobbledygook that they aren’t banning books,” said Sally Rusk, a Tucson social studies teacher since 1990 who taught three Mexican American Studies courses prior to the suspension of the program.

Not Banned, But Not Allowed

On January 10, the TUSD’s governing board voted 4 to 1 to abandon its controversial Mexican American Studies courses in order to bring the district into compliance with a new law forbidding classes that advocate the overthrow of the United States, promote racial resentment, or emphasize students’ ethnicity rather than their individuality.

The law, HB 2281, specifically targeted the district’s Mexican American studies program, which supporters accused of politicizing students and breeding ethnic resentment.

That Friday, the district removed seven book titles from its classrooms.

The seven books had been cited in a Dec. 27, 2011 court ruling that upheld the Arizona Education Department’s order finding the Mexican American Studies program illegal under HB 2281. Almost all of them were written by U.S. Latino or Latin American authors.

Nicolás Domínguez, 18, watched as one of the former Mexican American Studies teachers came into his classroom at Tuscon High to pack up the books and take them to storage.

“They did it in a very dirty way,” Domínguez said. “I felt like I was watching the slave-owners sending the slaves to get more children.”

A multitude of Latino organizations, progressive political groups and free speech advocates accused the district of banning books—a charge the district denies.

“I think where it originated is that books were taken out of the classrooms—that was part of the state ruling,” TUSD spokeswoman Cara Rene said during a visit to the brick warehouse where the removed books were stored. “So people say ‘well, you’re taking books away, that must be a ban,’ but that is not true. The books were not banned, they were put in libraries.”

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who authored HB 2281 while serving as Superintendent of Education, took a less nuanced view.

“We were shocked by the racist nature of the curriculum,” Horne said in a telephone interview with Fox News Latino. “The books were taken out of classrooms because the courses were suspended.”

Horne cited Salomón Baldenegro’s columns for the Tucson Citizen as an example of the Mexican American Studies mindset.

“I found his writings very troublesome. I thought they were very racially oriented and designed to create negative feelings about the United States,” Horne said.

Baldenegro, a retired University of Arizona professor who helped design the curriculum for TUSD’s Mexican American Studies program, rejected Horne’s interpretation.

“Granted I wrote from a Chicano, leftist perspective on political issues, but I’m willing to bet my next pension check that reasonable people would not find my columns un-American,” Baldenegro wrote in an email. “Horne obviously didn’t read my columns.”

The man who replaced Horne as state superintendent, John Huppenthal, says Arizona did not prohibit books from Tucson’s classrooms because of their content, but because of the way they were taught.

“Any book can be inappropriate in a classroom if it’s inappropriately used,” Huppenthal told Fox News Latino.

Nevertheless, one book in particular caught Hupenthal’s attention back when he led the drive in the State Senate to pass HB 2281: Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

Born into a middle class family in the northeastern city of Recife, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s family slipped into poverty during the Great Depression—an experience he said inspired him to take an interest in poverty and inequality.

Viewing education as a political act, Freire argued that the Brazilian education system oppressed the country’s poor majority by keeping students in a subordinate position, rather than teaching critical thinking skills and engaging students by relating lessons to their lives. In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Freire developed a pedagogy aimed at leveling the relationship between students and teachers.

Freire was also a Marxist and an admirer of the Cuban Revolution. Those elements of his thought troubled Huppenthal, a conservative career politician who has held an elective office since 1984—rising from the City Council of the town of Chandler to the Arizona State Senate in 1992, where he took a leading role in passing HB 2281.

“The title of Paulo Freire’s book is ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed,’ and so the question is, who is the oppressed?” Huppenthal said.

“And as we looked at what was going on in the classroom and looked at what was in the materials, we saw that they were putting together a Marxian model in the classroom in which the oppressed are the Hispanic students and the oppressors are the white Caucasian power structure,” he said. “We came to the conclusion that it wasn’t O.K. to be preaching that model in the classroom.”

“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is among the seven books seized and removed from TUSD classrooms.

The curriculum’s designers, however, say they adopted Freire’s work because of his ideas about education, not his politics.

“They banned the book because Freire quotes Marx and was a socialist, but that’s not why we adopted the book,” said Julio Cammarota, a professor of Education and Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona, who helped design the suspended program. “Why aren’t they talking about Jack London? Why aren’t they talking about Steinbeck or Orwell? All of them were open socialists.”

The news that TUSD had removed books from its classrooms fed rumors, often exaggerated, that the school board had banned dozens of titles.

Lists of allegedly banned books burned their way through the blogosphere. The most commonly cited one was taken from the appendix of an independent audit on the TUSD Mexican American Studies Department from 2011—six months before the district suspended the classes.

The lists of supposedly banned books became a rallying cry for HB 2281’s opponents.

Writer Tony Diaz, multimedia artist Bryan Parras and independent journalist Liana Lisa Lopez joined together to found the Librotraficante caravan, which “smuggled” purportedly “banned” Latino literature to Tucson to start community libraries.

It became a point of pride among some Latino authors to see their book appear on one of the lists.

“I’ve been banned with two books, so I felt like we should come out and celebrate,” said novelist Rudolfo Anaya when the Librotraficante caravan arrived here on March 16. “I think it’s so great they gave us the opportunity to show the world who we are.”

A New Approval Process

TUSD protested, saying any book approved by the school board other than the seven books cited in the court order can still be used for lessons.

The school district provided Fox New Latino the list of over 5,000 titles approved for schoolroom use as textbooks or supplementary texts. But the list includes very few titles by Latino authors—fiction or non-fiction—that touch on issues of race and ethnicity from a Mexican American perspective. “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, for example, is one of very few works of Latino literature approved for high school classroom use.

There are more options available for younger students, such as the coming-of-age novel “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Mexican folktale adaptation “Borreguita and the Coyote” by Verna Aardema.

Supporters of the law, including former Education Superintendent Tom Horne and current Superintendent John Huppenthal, point to the lack of oversight of curriculum as one of the problems that caused the Mexican American Studies controversy.

“There was such a weak process here over curriculum,” said TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone, who took over in December 2010. “Some of these books were never approved.”

But teachers say the new requirement has no precedent in the district.

“In my 23 years here, we’ve never had a discussion here in the English Department about getting books approved by the district,” Tucson High literature teacher Chris Goldsmith told Fox News Latino. “But now because of this law, there’s a hoop they have to jump through.”

Goldsmith, who never taught Mexican American Studies courses, sees no reason to stop teaching unapproved books, including works by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

“If I’ve been teaching the same books for 23 years, for me they’re pretty much approved,” Goldsmith said. “It’s just dotting i’s and crossing t’s with the state.”

Much Scrutiny, Little Guidance

Unlike Goldsmith, the former Mexican American Studies teachers say they face intense scrutiny over what and how they teach. And, regardless of whether the books have been approved by the board, they say the entire ethnic studies curriculum remains off limits for them.

At least six teachers of the suspended Mexican American Studies program say they have been instructed to abandon the curriculum they developed over the last decade and not to teach from the Mexican American Studies perspective –a concept the teachers say administrators did not clearly define.

“I’ve never taught out of a textbook before, and now I’m directed to do so. And I can just see the students’ resistance to it,” said literature teacher Curtis Acosta.

After the vote to suspend the program, Mexican American Studies teachers received a printed sheet of unsigned paper with no letterhead outlining the new directives in a series of bullet points.

“Assignments cannot direct students to apply MAS perspectives,” the paper says, referring to Mexican American Studies. “The teachers cannot use the MAS curriculum designed individually or by MAS staff in TUSD.”

“Race can be taught and discussed,” the paper said. “However, context is important and the focus should be on using literature content as the teaching focus relative to race or oppression.”

When they asked administrators how to teach Mexican American history or literature without adopting a Mexican American perspective, teachers say they did not receive clear answers.

“They would call us in and they would talk for hours and they wouldn’t explain what this means,” Acosta said, referring to the bullet point directing teachers to avoid Mexican American Studies perspectives. “If you don’t know exactly what you can and can’t do, you can’t even be creative.”

For history and government teacher José González, the unspoken message was clear.

“I’m not supposed to teach anything that has to do with Mexican American history,” González told Fox News Latino. “I have emails asking my principal for instructions, and they don’t know.”

A Tempest in the Classroom

The controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” — originally reported that the district had restricted the play’s use— illustrates the confusion surrounding which books TUSD allows in its classrooms and which teachers can teach them.

No prohibition exists on teaching the 17th-century play specifically, as TUSD hastened to point out. (“The Tempest” does not appear on the list of approved books provided to Fox News Latino, however.)

But Acosta says the new rules bar him from teaching the unit he developed, which relates themes in the work to modern day issues of race and inequality.

When students write their essays, they have the choice to analyze the play from a critical race theory perspective, a feminist point of view or a more traditional lens.

“What do I do?” Acosta asked the then-principal of Tucson High, Abel Morado, in a January meeting that Acosta recorded.

“Do I void all that? Do I just scrap ‘The Tempest’ and go to something super-duper safe because the only way I want and know and am prepared to teach it is through this critical view,” he asked Morado, “because I think it’s the most engaging to my students because it’s about their socially relevant lives now?”

“I don’t know that you have to eliminate ‘The Tempest,’” Morado says in the recording.

But Morado, who did not return requests by phone and email for comment, warned that if Acosta touched on the sensitive themes of race and oppression, he might run afoul of the new law.

“Once you begin to describe the natives and once you begin to delve into issues that are going to be from a critical race theory perspective, that’s when you’re not in that safe harbor, so to speak.”

Acosta dropped ‘The Tempest’ from his class.

Illustrations by Arnie Bermudez. Film shot by Julian Ybarra.

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