12 books expelled from Tucson schools

Seven years after Arizona banned Mexican American Studies, some want it back.

 

On June 26, hearings began in the U.S. District Court for Arizona over Tuscon Unified School District’s banned Mexican American Studies (MAS) program.

For almost seven years, Tucson’s largest school district has been a battleground pitting state officials against teachers, students and parents over whose stories are taught in the borderlands. The trial could bring the fight to a conclusion.

Tucsonans protest in June 2011 in support of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, after a state law ended the program.

The majority of students in Tucson public schools are Latino, with most tracing their ancestry to Mexico. Established in 1998, the district’s MAS program included courses ranging from Latino literature to studio arts. More than 10 years after creating MAS, TUSD expanded the program to help the district meet an ongoing federally enforced desegregation decree dating back to the 1970s.

Students who participated in the courses scored higher on standardized tests, did better in a variety of subject areas, and graduated at higher rates than non-participating students, according to research from an outside consulting group hired by the state and a separate peer-reviewed study. Yet in 2010, Arizona lawmakers passed a law effectively banning Mexican American studies. Teachers, students and parents sued TUSD. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent part of the case back to Tucson to be reheard in federal court. That trial began Monday.

The law, S.B. 2281, outlaws any courses or classes that: “(1) promote the overthrow of the United States government; (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” It’s up to the state superintendent of education to decide which courses fit those criteria. Three succeeding state superintendents of education have found MAS – and only MAS – to be in violation of S.B. 2281, although other ethnic studies courses exist in Arizona. During initial proceedings, both sides concurred that the law was crafted with MAS in mind.

Faced with losing millions of dollars in state funding, TUSD stopped the MAS program in February of 2012. This meant, at times, going into classes and confiscating books in front of students.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that removing books from classrooms – even books available elsewhere in schools – violated students’ First Amendment rights. Teachers may now request that books from MAS be allowed in classes as supplementary material. Still, MAS courses are gone – for now, pending the results of the current court case.

The nonprofit Librotraficante, or Book Smuggler, maintains a list of the more than 80 books that TUSD removed from its curriculum because of the MAS ban. In anticipation of the court case – which is scheduled to last two weeks – here are a few of the books pulled from classrooms to consider reading:

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Baldwin wrote this book in the form of two letters to his nephew in the early 1960’s, as the U.S. grappled with a burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Read more about this classic here.

Drown by Junot Diaz. This critically acclaimed short-story collection, narrated by a young Latino man in New Jersey whose family comes from the Dominican Republic, wrestles with many intersecting ideas of belonging. Diaz’s many awards include a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, MacArthur Genius Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship.                     

The Tempest by William Shakespeare. This well-regarded work by The Bard grapples with European colonization, making this work particularly interesting for borderlands communities today.

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea. This Pulitizer Prize finalist tells the true story of a group of men attempting to cross the border through the desert. Less than half of the men survived the voyage.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. The basis for the movie Smoke Signals, these short stories take place in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation, where Alexie grew up. Alexie is an award-winning writer and performer.

A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca. This memoir describes Baca’s life from his abandonment by his parents at a young age to his eventual incarceration in a violent maximum security prison, where he taught himself to read. Baca went on to become a highly regarded “poet of the people” who conducts writing workshops in schools, prisons, and underserved communities around the country.        

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Required curriculum in schools across the country, Mango Street tells the coming of age story of a Latina girl living in Chicago. Cisneros’s writing is funny, precise and poignant.

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez. This collection of autobiographical short stories describes Jiménez’s life as a child in a migrant family working in the fields of California. Jiménez’s work is the first in a series of books about his life leading to his current career as a writer and teacher.

Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941 by Thomas Sheridan. This well-written account of Tucson’s history spans its time as an outpost of New Spain until the 1940s, when Anglos eventually outnumbered Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the city. For many TUSD students, this is their history. An anthropologist, Sheridan has conducted research in the Southwest and northern Mexico since 1971.

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, one of the country’s most important environmental thinkers. In addition to slavery, this essay critiques the Mexican-American War, an important part of southwestern U.S. history.

Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert by Ofelia Zepeda. Zepeda, a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, has worked hard to preserve the Papago language, producing the first written dictionary. She won a MacArthur genius award and is a former Tucson poet laureate.

Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. First published in 1972, this coming-of-age novel set in post World War II New Mexico is the most widely read and critically acclaimed novel in the Chicano literary canon. Anaya comes from a family of New Mexican ranchers, sheep herders and farmers and taught high school in Albuquerque before turning to writing full-time.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor with High Country News.

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