Arizona's Ethnic Studies Debacle: Why There's No Such Thing as Too Much Truth
"Tu eres mi otro yo / You are my Other me"
-Luis Valdez, "The Other Me"
Cesar Chavez. Paulo Freire. Karl Marx. Howard Zinn. Are these authors socialists and communists and, if so, does this mean that they should not be taught to American high school students? Should students be taught that the founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were racist? Is there such a thing as too much truth? Curtis Acosta and Jose Gonzalez, la raza program teachers in Tuscon, Arizona, who are profiled in the film "Precious Knowledge" believe that there is no such thing as too much truth. As teachers, their goal has been to empower their students with as much truth as possible. To these teachers, knowledge is power, and their goal as educators is to empower their students with the knowledge to conquer the world. It is this transfer of knowledge and power that is at the heart of the battle to save the ethnic studies program in the Tuscan Unified School District. It is a struggle that has been beautifully captured in the powerful and evocative documentary "Precious Knowledge."
It is the fight to eliminate Arizona legislation banning ethnic studies programs in Arizona which "Precious Knowledge" captures on film. The film, directed by Ari Luis Palos, was released through Dos Vatos Productions, a company that, from its origins, has dedicated itself to the defense of civil rights movements. And just as the film captured the collaboration of the individuals who are struggling to save the ethnic studies program, the film itself was supported by grants from Independent Television Service (ITVS), Arizona Public Media, Latino Public Broadcasting and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Since 2006, then-Arizona State Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne has personally overseen the crusade to end ethnic studies in Arizona. His efforts were eventually successful when, on December 31, 2010, HB 2281 was signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. The law states its intentions to eliminate "out-of-compliance" ethnic studies programs which are supposedly "promoting the overthrow of the US government."
Horne stated that the ethnic studies program is not necessary. As proof, he said that he himself came from humble origins and that, through hard work, he achieved the American dream. But what is the American dream? And if such a dream does exist, is it attainable for all? The students of the ethnic studies program are perfectly aware that the concept of "equality for all" - which is necessary to achieve the so-called American dream - is not in effect. The students in this documentary are aware of the fact that they live in a low-income area with less than picture-perfect lives. However, what they most spoke of was the sense of disinterest they felt from superiors in school: a palpable kind of apathy. Those feelings changed once those students entered the ethnic studies program.
Politicians such as Horne, now Arizona's attorney general, and the current Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal say that teaching students about Freire and Chavez causes students to hate the United States and ignite revolution, but Horne and Huppenthal are missing entire message. What Acosta teaches his students is that their lives now do not have to be their lives in the future. Gonzalez teaches his students that they are worthy of loving themselves and of loving others, as well. These teachers create an environment where students feel free to ask the hard questions in life. They not only identify the problems in American society, but also create solutions for these problems. As student Mariah Harvey said to an Arizona commission attempting to ban the program, ethnic studies teaches students to love and embrace America, flaws and all. These students do love America; the documentary clearly demonstrates that.
The students want to find solutions for problems in this country. When their program was attacked, students, teachers and members of the community mobilized. These students have protested in a variety of creative ways. They organized a 100-mile community run from from Tucson to Phoenix, staged sit-ins and invited public officials to visit their classes - which Horne, to this day, has not done. Basically, they fought, as American citizens are taught to do, for what they believed in. The students are still fighting because they saw a wrong that needs to be fixed. This comradeship of students, teachers and community was created through a passion for knowledge and a love of community and country.
"Precious Knowledge" demonstrates that the high-school dropout rate among Latinos is over 50 percent. The teachers in the ethnic studies program have managed to significantly reduce that appalling statistic.
The film also profiles la raza studies graduates who become the first members of their families to matriculate to college. These students were spurred to greater academic ambitions because they were inspired by teachers who instilled a sense of pride and belonging among their students. Acosta and Gonzalez tell their students that they, as individuals, are important in a society that has consistently ignored them. Detractors of the ethnic studies program state that teaching students about past oppression is wrong, that it will instill treasonous thoughts in students' minds. This could not be further from the truth.
Learning the histories of the Chicano movement as well as biographies of outstanding individuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X empowers students. These narratives remind students - regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds - that they come from a long line of heroes who have fought to improve an imperfect nation. It lets students know that their ancestors have a history that is deeply embedded in the land of America, and, as such, they are entitled to all of its benefits. "Precious Knowledge" is not just a documentary about protest and lawmakers; it is a film about the human spirit - the eternal strength and beauty of the human spirit.
This is a poem by Luis Valdez, which Curtis Acosta and Jose Gonzalez had their students recite every day before class. It was an integral part of the la raza curriculum, and now it has been banned by the Tuscon Unified School District.
The Other Me
Tu eres mi otro yo
You are my other me
Si te hago daño a ti
If I do harm to you
Me hago daño a mi
I do harm to myself
Si te amo y te respeto
If I love and respect you
Me amo y me respeto yo
I love and respect myself