Precious Knowledge Director on the Front Lines of Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Wars

In January, the Tucson Unified School District ended its highly successful Mexican American Studies program after state officials threatened to withhold funding from schools that taught ethnic history and literature in a manner they contended encouraged race resentment and revolution against white people. As the political rhetoric was just heating up in Tucson in 2009, directors Ari Palos and Eren McGinnis trained their cameras on these classrooms, interviewed the players, and ended up documenting one of the last years of the program, as well as the beginnings of a complex civil rights struggle in Arizona. We interviewed McGinnis to get a state-of-the-issue update and some insight into the making of the film. Precious Knowledge premieres May 17 at 10 PM (check local listings).

What impact do you hope Precious Knowledge will have?
One goal is to help bring the extremely beneficial Mexican American Studies classes back to students in Tucson and anywhere ethnic studies curricula are needed. The second is to have our nationwide audience begin to think of creative solutions to re-engage students. The ‘push out’ rates for youth of color are very high and for Mexican American students, the drop out rate is above 50 percent.

What led you to make the film in the first place?
My son was a student at Tucson High School and I was more than upset the state government wanted to shut down ethnic studies classes. I was an overly involved PTA mom with a camera! Plus, I was motivated by a report that the corporations that build prisons look at data on the number of children of color in the 2nd grade to determine how many prison cells they will need when those 2nd graders become adults.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making Precious Knowledge?
The myth of what ethnic studies actually is, and fears of multi-culturalism were huge challenges.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
My kids were the same age as the students in the film and therefore, I have a lot of experience with students in this age group. Plus, I am Irish Mexican, with my father being an immigrant from Mexico, and I am very comfortable in many different cultural surroundings.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Tom Horne is a classically trained pianist and he played a composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff for us. I thought this footage really added to his character, however, our fantastic editor Jacob Bricca reined us in.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Watching footage from the ceremonial run from Tucson to Phoenix is a beautiful experience. The students and teachers ran 113 miles in the middle of the summer in the Sonoran desert. It was very difficult to see how tired the students were after running this far and in such intense heat. It was a spiritual journey and the runners feel that each footstep brought healing and positive change to communities in need. My pride in and emotional tie to this footage is very strong because my son was also a runner. Plus, I knew we were filming important civil rights history and this footage will endure.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
I have been touring, with the students and teachers featured in the film, to college and university campuses for almost a year. The stars are very proud to travel all over the country with the film and it is enriching beyond belief to see how this film affects an audience. People cry, they shout, and talk back to the screen. The audience really does get emotional.

Could you give us a quick update on where things stand since shooting wrapped?
The classes were officially closed in January 2012 and Mr. Acosta is no longer allowed to teach Latino or social justice literature. Books by Latino authors were boxed up and removed from the classroom. Even William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, have vanished for fear students might use critical race theory or a social justice lens to analyze these texts.

Mr. Gonzalez can no longer teach American Government from a social justice perspective and can only teach American Government. The school board is monitoring the teachers and the student’s work is collected periodically to make sure they are obeying the new law. This environment is incredibly stressful for the teachers and also the students. Mr. Gonzalez, after teaching for 20 years, might be let go this summer. Sean Arce, the state director of Mexican American Studies, has already been laid off.

The students are continuing their education at our local community college, the University of Arizona, or with online classes. We saw one alum at a Smith College screening recently and she told us the main reason she was at Smith was because of Mr. Gonzalez!

The fate of the program is now in the hands of lawyer Richard Martinez and we are waiting to hear from a federal judge, who is expected to make a summary judgment about the constitutionality of the law that dismantled the program. It is a dramatic legal battle that could potentially go all the way to the Supreme Court.

The independent film business is no cake walk. What keeps you motivated?
Our fans and the audience are incredible! Right now I feel very energized by the screenings on campuses. The college students and the professors and their intense desire to improve their own communities have provided me with a lifetime of energy and inspiration.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is the only real outlet for independent documentarians and it is perfect for documentaries like the ones we make — local stories with national resonance.

What do your audiences most often ask at screenings?
Most audience members want to know how such a thing could happen and how to prevent these things from happening in their own communities. The documentary shows the process of politicians creating policy that shuts down a beneficial program and how this can lead to banning books.

What didn’t you get done when you were making the film?
I missed precious time with my family in Southern California and cooking sumptuous meals and delectable birthday cakes for friends and family. Some of my favorite things to do when I feel freer and less burdened by deadlines include biking and gardening. I am most happy walking and meandering on a trail in the mountains or any place visual and pedestrian-friendly.

What are your three favorite films?
My tastes skew towards foreign film and especially the work of filmmakers from Mexico. I also enjoy the films of Werner Herzog, Kristof Kieslowski, Michael Moore, Kar Wai Wong, Mira Nair, Fatih Akin, Lucrecia Martel, and many others.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Mix up your computer time with travel, lengthy outdoor meals, and hiking mountains. Nature will calm and inspire. Do not let anything stand in your way, or as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!”

What do you eat to keep your inspiration and energy going?
A perfect cappuccino at a cozy café with a gal pal inspires me. Or a sandwich with fresh basil, mint, and jalapeños from my garden.

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  • Catryna White

    What was the word “equity” doing on the black board? Was it a misspelling of equality? Anyway, aside from that, I’m all for teaching the true aspects of American history and that would encompass, Hispanic, Native American, Black, Asian as well as European peoples. This country is made up of every form of nationality, but the ongoing representations have never been addressed and they should be! Good job popping this pimple.

  • Busund2

    I watched the show and believe that the course would be better taught at a college level.
    The teachers thought that they toned down their social justice agenda but having pictures of Che and teaching Marxist philosphy while a member of the board is there was not very smart.

    The attack on Ben Franklin and by extension America’s founders killed the studies right there.
    That is what the board member remembered.
    Did the teacher realize that this was an “in your face” moment? If he does this while I am here what does he teach when there is no supervision?

    Propaganda 101
    The incarceration percentages of blacks, whites and latinos Showed prejudice teaching.
    If you go back to the turn of the last century the majority of prisoners in New York were Jewish and Irish
    What he should have said is that poor people are more likely to commit crimes because of their economic circumstance. Instead the inference is: the Anglos want to keep us down.

    The immigrants that succeed in the USA stress education.First generation Asian Americans have done very well because they stress education. Why not Latinos?

    The film maker agreed with the agenda that America is a bad place… If it is so bad. Why does everyone want to come here?
    As for opportunity for Native peoples: Mexico celebrates three races the majority of the population are Mestizos Not natives or Spanish

    Where is power in Latin America?

    Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales look “native”.


  • Mcnelle

    What is the poem the students recite?

    • Eren

      Tu eres mi otro yo (You are my other self)
      Si te hago dano a ti (If I hurt you)
      Me hago dano a mi (I hurt myself)
      Si te amo y te respeto (If I love and respect you)
      Me amo y me respeto yo. (I love and respect myself.)

      By the Chicano author Luis Valdez

  • Bparker1880

    This video is a waste of time. Liberals will see it and think, “Tucson is a terrible place for doing away with that wonderful program.” Conservatives will see it and think, “Its a good thing they nipped that anti-American program in the bud.”

    For thinking people the video fails because the producers had an agenda but did not present it in a convincing manner. To have a meaningful impact the producers would have sent a student into the class undercover to report on what actually went on in the class, not what was presented when the cameras were present. They did not do that because it would have shown the classes to be un-American.

    In the video the Latinos come across as the new Blacks, stuck in the sixties, and biting the hand that feeds them. Why is it that Mexicans are the only ethnic group that comes to America and can’t thrive? Penniless Cubans have come to America by the millions, kissed the sandy beaches of Miami, and a year later they can speak English, they have a business of their own, and they are living the American dream. The same is true for everyone who comes here except Mexicans.

    Mexican immigrants are, by definition, a people who cut and run from their home country, turn their backs on their heritage and culture, rather than work to fix what is wrong in their country. They have no national consciousness while in their home country but when they come to America they suddenly become patriotic Mexicans. If Americans were as weak-willed as Mexicans America would never have come into existence.

    Now that America’s economy has taken a serious downturn Mexicans are, true to form, returning to Mexico. We can only hope that this trend continues.

    • Denise

      What would you know about Mexican pride? Mexican people are smarter than most people can even imagine, and because of the influx of new generations of Mexicans into this country, there will always be a learning curve going on as far as education and learning the customs and climbing a social ladder (which by the way is not important to immigrants). Many young Mexicans are already college educated (in Mexico) before they get here, and are much more mature than the knuckleheads growing up here. Racism is ridiculous here when it promotes that Mexicans are not intelligent enough because they live and think differently than “Americans” and all that can be done with them is put them in prison or deport them! Ha!
      Asians are never seen begging on the streets of this country and neither are Mexicans (or other Latinos..) because they are quietly working hard and Saving money. Mexicans don’t flaunt their wealth and pretend to be better than everyone else because they have dignity. “Americans” will never understand the Latino unless they are immersed in Latino cultures. The generations of Mexican Americans of the past are the reason Latinos continue to come here, not because of NAFTA or any other agreement. Most Mexicans see American culture as ignorant and so weird it is hilarious to them..if only you knew the truth. What they love about the USA is it’s energy and the unlimited possibilities, just like the rest of us. Mexicans are survivors and know ways of surviving, the big whining babies of the USA have never learned or have forgotten…

  • roundelay78


    Exactly what the hell is un-American about teaching American history from a Latino viewpoint? NOTHING! Not a damn thing–basically that whole situation started because ex-super Tom Horne has a grudge against a classroom of students that he had some issues with. You could stretch that to say that African-American history is supposedly anti-white because there is a whole hell of a lot of criticism of white supremacy in it. BTW, the main reason Mexicans have been flocking to the U.S. is because NAFTA pretty much damn near killed their economy back in 1994 (do the research). Also, in the film (which I watched the other night) both Horne and the man that replaced him as superintendent admitted that they hadn’t even spent enough time in the classes to even justify their accusations of what they claimed the teachers were teaching. Honestly, I’ve never heard of a school program shut down because it supposedly taught kids to “hate their government” or to be anti-white,without any REAL, solid proof of whether it was actually doing that or not. Sounds like a bunch of pissed-off white folks who just didn’t want the kids to learn the TRUE history of this country and not the watered-down BS we’re always been taught.

    Some Mexicans are going back home because the economy is bad here,not because they’re weak-willed or lazy. Also, a lot of those “penniless Cubans” were middle-and upper-middle class people BEFORE they immigrated here. Asian-Americans emphasize education, but so what? That’s no different from what African-Americans or Latinos do (I know,because I’m black and education was ALWAYS emphasized in my home,contrary to stupid, ignorant racist stereotypes that claim black people only want to be on welfare and get handouts–I’m so sick and damn tired of hearing that BS. People also conviently forget that even to this day, Asian-Americans still have to fight against racism and discrimination, you just don’t hear it reported as much. And the funny thing is, a couple of years ago, when AA’s started dominating this one school in California, white parents actually PULLED their kids out of the school simply because they didn’t want their kids to have to actually compete with the Asian-Americans kids–so much for being the model minority,huh? No matter how smart you are, if you non-white and show you’re just smart as the white folks around you, they STILL can’t handle because they’re been taught ALL their lives that THEY have to come first no matter what!

    The truth is, the only reason that stupid law banning the class got through is because of those equally bad immigration laws the Arizona govenor kept passing one after the other, when it was open season on immigrants. Also, I’m tired of EVERY damn film, or piece of media that dosen’t tow the conservative line being denounced as “liberal”. I mean, what the hell–since when the hell did EVERY have to start being conservative and just fall the hell in line without actually having to think about why the hell we have to think a certain way? Get out of here with that bulls***.

    Black people aren’t stuck in the Sixties. Also the battles that were fought in the Sixties for civil rights did not end and are still having to be fought due to institutional racism. FYI, racism did not just up and disappear simply because we have a black president–in fact there are a lot of folks who STILL haven’t yet accepted the fact that he is black AND that he is our President. I’m tired of conservatives like you who talk junk and assuming this and that about liberals, and don’t even want to understand ANY points of view different from yourselves. Since when the hell did conservatism become a club to beat liberals and everybody else with that dosen’t agree with your blues.

  • Jay

    If you don’t want the big bad white man “oppressing” you, go somewhere else, such as, you know, Mexico.

  • Jay

    “And the funny thing is, a couple of years ago, when AA’s started dominating this one school in California, white parents actually PULLED their kids out of the school simply because they didn’t want their kids to have to actually compete with the Asian-Americans kids”

    Those parents exercised a fundamental right of theirs. It wasn’t right, wrong, or otherwise. Oh, and Asians are being discriminated against in favor of blacks and Latinos. I say just let in the most qualified regardless of race and if it’s 50% Asian and maybe 1% black then so be it.