RAY SUAREZ: Welcome to Need to Know. Thanks for joining us. President Obama’s re-election last November was fueled in part by his overwhelming support in the Hispanic community. Ever since, there’s been a great deal of talk about what the GOP needs to do to capture a bigger share of the Latino vote. Probably, not coincidentally, the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech earlier this week was delivered by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants. All of this political maneuvering has observers speculating that Congress might finally pass major immigration reform.
But even as both Republicans and Democrats angle for the support of the Latino vote, there is little talk about an important fact of life in that community: a very high high school dropout rate which inevitably is linked to long-term poverty. Tucson Arizona, with its large Mexican-American population, tried to address that problem by creating a Mexican-American studies program in the 1990s. The idea was to help student achievement by making learning more relevant. But what many there viewed as a big success, others saw it as nothing more than a program that is anti-American, even subversive, and had to be stopped. John Carlos Frey has our report.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: THE SUN IS SETTING IN TUCSON ARIZONA AND SOMETHING IS HAPPENING ON THE ROUGH, IMPOVERISHED, SIDE OF TOWN.
CURTIS ACOSTA: You finished your research…You finished this? You have finished your research paper.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: A HANDFUL OF LATINO HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS ARE ABOUT TO START CLASS. TONIGHT THEY’RE READING POETRY AND ESSAYS THEY WROTE THEMSELVES … INSPIRED BY THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES.
STUDENT: A rose that can see her life coming to an end. She won’t live to see another summer.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: IN A CITY WHERE HUNDREDS OF LATINOS DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL IN 2012, THIS IS NOTEWORTHY. BUT WHY IS THIS TEACHER CONDUCTING CLASS IN A YOUTH CENTER AND NOT IN A HIGH SCHOOL?
CURTIS ACOSTA: It’s an absolute tragedy. It’s traumatic, what happened to our students.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: BECAUSE ETHNIC STUDIES PROGRAMS, LIKE THIS ‘MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES’ CLASS, HAVE NOW BEEN OUTLAWED BY THE STATE OF ARIZONA.
CURTIS ACOSTA: Right when they gaveled us dead on January 10th of 2012, I– you know, I can’t live like that. I couldn’t let that happen.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: CURTIS ACOSTA IS A HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH TEACHER WHO USED TO TEACH ‘MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES’ IN TUSCON’S PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT. A PROGRAM CREATED TO REACH OUT TO ‘AT RISK’ LATINO STUDENTS. THE IDEA: TO IMPORVE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE BY TEACHING LITERATURE AND HISTORY THEY COULD PERSONALLY IDENTIFY WITH. BUT CRITICS ARGUED THAT THE PROGRAM PROMOTED RADICAL IDEAS… ANTI-AMERICAN IDEAS… SO AFTER COMBATIVE SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS AND MASSIVE STUDENT PROTESTS, THE PROGRAM CAME TO AN END A LITTLE OVER A YEAR AGO. NOW CURTIS ACOSTA TEACHES THIS OUTLAWED CLASS ON HIS OWN FREE TIME TO STUDENTS WHO STILL CRAVE THAT COURSE OF STUDY.
CURTIS ACOSTA: The kids are coming to l– to our Sunday class because it’s important to them, because it’s a space where they feel that they are valued, that their stories are valued. And it represents the last ember of what we were.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES WAS FOUNDED IN TUCSON IN 1997, WHERE MORE THAN 60% OF THE STUDENTS ARE LATINO. SEAN ARCE CO-FOUNDED THE PROGRAM TO ADDRESS WHAT HE DESCRIBES AS AN EDUCATION CRISIS IN THE MEXICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY.
SEAN ARCE: Mexican-Americans are, in fact, second highest– the second highest push-out or drop-out rate in the nation. That accompanied with– the fact that we are the fastest growing demographic in this country– with the lowest educational attainment that’s a crisis not just for the Latino community but for all communities.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: HE COULD HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT STUDENTS LIKE, MAYRA FELICIANO. SHE AND HER FAMILY IMMIGRATED TO THE UNITED STATES FROM MEXICO WHEN SHE WAS JUST A YEAR OLD. ALL LEGAL RESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES NOW, HER FATHER IS A GARDENER AND HER MOTHER CLEANS HOUSES.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Can you give me, like, the list of the kinds of grades that you got on your report card?
MAYRA FELICIANO: It was just, like, Fs everywhere and it’s just– might as well just put, like, a huge “F” on like my transcript.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Why were you ditching school?
MAYRA FELICIANO: Because I didn’t feel like I had, like, a purpose there. You know, part of me kind of felt like I wasn’t smart enough to be in school in the first place.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: IT WAS THIS SENTIMENT THAT THE MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAM WAS DESIGNED TO ADDRESS. MOSTLY FOR HIGH SCHOOL JUNIORS AND SENIORS, IT ALLOWED STUDENTS TO OPT OUT OF THEIR REGULAR ENGLISH AND SOCIAL STUDIES CLASSES TO TAKE LATINO ORIENTED CLASSES.
SEAN ARCE: We had to provide an educational experience wherein our students saw themselves in the curriculum, where their histories, where their cultura, their culture, their lived experiences– were in fact validated.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: SO INSTEAD OF ROMAN HISTORY THEY LEARNED AZTEC HISTORY. INSTEAD OF “THE GREAT GATSBY” THEY READ BOOKS LIKE “IMMIGRANTS IN OUR OWN LAND” BY CELEBRATED AUTHOR JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA.
AND BY MANY ACCOUNTS THE PROGRAM WAS WORKING. STUDENTS WHO NEVER HAD AN INTEREST IN SCHOOL STARTED COMING TO CLASS. A UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA STUDY FOUND THAT IN 2010 STUDENTS IN THE PROGRAM WERE 64% MORE LIKELY TO PASS STANDARDIZED TESTS THAN STUDENTS OF A SIMILAR ETHNIC BACKGROUND NOT IN THE PROGRAM.
MAYRA FELICIANO SAYS THAT HER GRADES AND TEST SCORES IMPROVED ONCE SHE ENROLLED IN MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES AND TOOK AN AMERICAN HISTORY CLASS FROM A “CHICANO” PERSPECTIVE…
MAYRA FELICIANO: Just, like, there’s so many peoples’ histories, like, not just European-American, but African American , you know– Mexican history. And– they’re all tied into what has helped America grow. And when I started seeing all these authors, I started reading all these stories of people who’ve had, like, the struggles, like, that I had too, I was just, like, “I’m not the only one who, like, goes through this.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: MAYRA WAS READING MATERIAL THAT TOOK A CRITICAL LOOK AT THE UNITED STATES. BOOKS SUCH AS OCCUPIED AMERICA AND RETHINKING COLUMBUS THAT EXPLORE ISSUES LIKE RACISM AND OPPRESSION. IT STARTED TO RE-SHAPE HER VIEW OF AMERICAN HISTORY.
MAYRA FELICIANO: For me my thought was just like, “Christopher Columbus did all this amazing stuff.” And America is, like, completely innocent of any other things. You know, America never did anything bad. There’s history behind there that you have to understand.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I’m under the assumption the reason they got rid of Mexican American Studies is ’cause they were also teaching you how to hate the government and how to be rebellious.
MAYRA FELICIANO: I don’t agree with that. And I was never told, like, “Oh, you have to hate America, because America is– the government is totally trying to screw you over. I learned that in these classes, you have to, you know, understand that not everything goes, you know, like, perfectly. For me, now that I know this, it’s my duty to find how to make it better.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: TUCSON’S MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAM WAS RECEIVING RAVE REVIEWS FROM STUDENTS. BUT IN APRIL OF 2006 CONTROVERSY ROCKED THE PROGRAM WHEN MEXICAN AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST DOLORES HUERTA WAS INVITED TO SPEAK AT A HIGH SCHOOL ASSEMBLY. SHE WAS RECORDED SAYING THIS:
DOLORES HUERTA: Republicans hate Latinos, ok? Republicans hate Latinos. Now we know that first of all…
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: AT THE TIME OF HUERTA’S STATEMENT, REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS WERE TRYING RAISE PENALTIES FOR ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AND CLASSIFY UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS AS FELONS. THIS LED TO PROTESTS NATIONWIDE, INCLUDING TUCSON.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: You’re okay with the statement Republicans hate Latinos? Don’t you think that that’s a problem?
SEAN ARCE: I’m okay with her stating that– given the context that– understanding– the context– that we’re operating in right now.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Don’t you think that that kind of strong language doesn’t really foster discourse? Could she not have used a better word?
SEAN ARCE: I think it really fosters discourse. It really pokes at– the students’ intellect, the students’ critical thinking,
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: THAT EXPLANATION WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH FOR REPUBLICAN ATTORNEY GENERAL TOM HORNE, THEN SUPERINTENDENT OF ALL OF ARIZONA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS. SO HE SENT HIS TOP DEPUTY, A CONSERVATIVE LATINA REPUBLICAN, TO GIVE A REBUTTAL SPEECH TO THE STUDENTS.
TOM HORNE: She said that– she was a proud Latina and a proud Republican and she didn’t hate herself. In the middle of the speech the students in the– what the call the Raza studies program, which is the Latino– Latino part of– ethnic studies– stood up and turned their backs to her and put the fists in the air. Principal asked them to sit down and listen and they walked out on their principal. I’ve never seen kids be rude to a guest speaker before that incident or after. It was the only case that I’d ever seen that.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: DISTURBED BY THE INCIDENT, HORNE STARTED TO INVESTIGATE TUCSON’S MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAM AND CAME TO BELIEVE THAT THE COURSE MATERIAL AND THE TEACHERS THEMSELVES WERE INDOCTRINATING STUDENTS TO RESENT THE UNITED STATES, TO RESENT ANYONE THAT WASN’T LATINO.
TOM HORNE: And I was very shocked by what I saw. The materials are extremely racist. People would be very surprised to hear this.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I mean you state in some of your literature and some of your writing that the program was geared specifically against white people.
TOM HORNE: To cause re– resentment against other races, yeah.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Can– can you understand my confusion?
TOM HORNE: Well, yeah, that’s why I said—
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Would– would teachers really wanna do that?
TOM HORNE: Yes. Yes. They’re very radical these teachers.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: But to what end?
TOM HORNE: –they are people to whom race is very important in self-identity. And they want to in– instill that in the kids. My view of what America is all about is the opposite. I believe that what’s important about us is that we’re individuals. And what matters is what we know and what we can do and what is our character and not what race we happen to bor– been born into.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: HORNE SPENT FOUR YEARS BUILDING A CASE AGAINST THE PROGRAM, AND IN MAY OF 2010 A BILL BANNING ANY CLASS “DESIGNED PRIMARILY FOR PUPILS OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP” WAS SIGNED INTO LAW BY ARIZONA’S REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR JAN BREWER. ONLY A MONTH EARLIER ANOTHER LAW HAD PASSED IN ARIZONA: THE MOST SWEEPING ANTI-ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION MEASURE IN THE COUNTRY AT THE TIME… IT INCLUDED GIVING POLICE THE POWER TO DETAIN ANYONE SUSPECTED OF BEING IN THE COUNTRY ILLEGALLY.
SEAN ARCE: Given– the anti-immigrant, the anti-Mexicano, the anti-Latino sentiment in the state of Arizona and the slew of– current laws that we’re facing here in Arizona. They’re really dehumanizing laws. It’s– it’s really of no surprise to us that– he would go after a program that was– providing equal educational opportunities
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: TUCSON STUDENTS, TEACHERS, AND RESIDENTS PROTESTED THE NEW BAN ON ETHNIC STUDIES. AT THE BEGINNING OF ONE SCHOOL BOARD MEETING, STUDENTS CHARGED TO THE FRONT OF THE ROOM AND CHAINED THEMSELVES TO CHAIRS IN AN ATTEMPT TO STOP A SCHOOL BOARD VOTE. THEY SUCCEEDED… THAT DAY. ONE OF THE STUDENTS WAS MAYRA FELICIANO.
MAYRA FELICIANO: When I, you know, saw that somebody wanted to get rid of them, I was just like, “How can that, you know, be possible if these classes are, you know, amazing?” Like, how far do students have to go in order for, you know, a government or a district to understand that they care about their education?”
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: THE TUCSON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, LED BY SUPERINTENDENT JOHN PEDICONE APPEALED THE BAN ON MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES AND ARGUED THAT THE PROGRAM DID NOT “PROMOTE RESENTMENT TOWARD A RACE OR CLASS OF PEOPLE” AS THE LAW SUGGESTED. BUT HE WAS OVERRULED BY THE STATE.
JOHN PEDICONE: The perspective was that we’re teaching students to– not only march and express their opinion, but sedition. To– to– argue against the principles of this nation.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: And you saw that evidence in the course? You saw teachers teaching kids sedition?
JOHN PEDICONE: When I went into those classes, I never saw that. And that’s what I testified to in the hearings, all right. I never saw it, nor did the deputy superintendent in this district, who was charged with curriculum and instruction.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Okay, so if you didn’t see it, and the deputy superintendent didn’t see it– the people who are closest to the coursework, how is the state 100 miles away going to see it? And how are they then going to rule on something that you haven’t even seen?
JOHN PEDICONE: There was testimony from across– a spectrum of witnesses that said that they experienced it or saw it.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: IN FACT ATTORNEY GENERAL TOM HORNE TOLD US THAT HE NEVER STEPPED FOOT IN ONE OF THE CLASSES ASSUMING THAT THE TEACHER AND STUDENTS WOULD “WATER DOWN” THEIR RHETORIC FOR HIM. SO IN HIS INVESTIGATION HE RELIED ON TESTIMONY OF FIVE TEACHERS, THREE OF WHOM ARE NOT IDENTIFIED BY NAME. ONE TEACHER SAID THAT STUDENTS WERE BEING TAUGHT “THAT THE UNITED STATES WAS AND STILL IS A FUNDAMENTALLY RACIST COUNTRY”. ANOTHER CLAIMED THAT A TEACHER TOLD STUDENTS TO “TAKE BACK THE STOLEN LAND AND GIVE IT BACK TO MEXICO.”
FACING THE LOSS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN STATE FUNDS IF THE TUCSON SCHOOL DISTRICT DID NOT COMPLY WITH THE ETHNIC STUDIES BAN… THE SCHOOL BOARD CONVENED ON JANUARY 10TH, 2012 FOR A FINAL VOTE…
MYRA GAVE ONE FINAL PLEA TO SAVE THE PROGRAM.
MYRA FELICIANO: We demand the state immediately withdraw the ban on ethnic studies. We have the right to culture history identity, language and education. We want an educational system where all cultures fit. Unidos we stand or divided we fall.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES WAS CANCELED BY A VOTE OF 4 TO 1.
MAYRA FELICIANO: It makes me– it makes me sad because, you know, I learned so much from it. It changed my life around.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I met a girl. Her name is Mayra. She’s actually telling me that she was a lost cause and lost in the system and now Mexican-American studies is turning her around. Is that not the case?
TOM HORNE: We– we call that the fallacies of small sampling techniques.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: This is a rare anomaly?
TOM HORNE: I would say it’s– it’s an anecdote. It’s not data from which you can make a decision.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: IT TURNS OUT, THERE IS DATA. THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA STUDY FOUND THAT IN 2009 STUDENTS IN THE PROGRAM WERE 51% MORE LIKELY TO GRADUATE THAN STUDENTS OF A SIMILAR ETHNIC BACKGROUND NOT IN THE PROGRAM.
MYRA IS NOW ENROLLED AT PIMA COMMUNITY COLLEGE AND PLANS TO TRANSFER TO A UNIVERSITY AT THE END OF THIS YEAR. SHE’S STUDYING SIGN LANGUAGE BECAUSE SHE WANTS TO WORK WITH UNDERSERVED POPULATIONS…
MAYRA FELICIANO: Discrimination doesn’t have to do just with the color of your skin. You also have discrimination against people who– who can’t hear, who can’t speak or who can’t see.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: AND SHE WORRIES ABOUT HER TWO YOUNGER SISTERS, MELODY AND CELINE, WHO AT THIS POINT, WONT HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES. MELODY, NOW A SOPHOMORE IN HIGH SCHOOL LOOKS UP TO HER OLDER SISTER FOR STANDING UP FOR WHAT SHE BELIEVES.
MELODY: I see all those people out there fighting over like stuff that they really care about and it makes me think about what would I think if I was in that class. So, it makes me want to take it even more.
MAYRA FELICIANO: Like when you figured out that you couldn’t sign up for that class like what was your reaction to it? Like how did you feel?
MELODY: I was kinda mad that they wouldn’t like keep it if it wasn’t causing any harm to anyone and it would help a lot of people
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: AS FOR SEAN ARCE, THE CO-FOUNDER OF THE PROGRAM, AFTER TEACHING FOR 17 YEARS IN TUCSON HE WAS FIRED. HE SAID IT WAS RETALAITION FOR HIS CONTIUNED ADVOCACY FOR THE MEXICAN AMERCIAN STUDIES PROGRAM. THE SCHOOL DISTRICT DISPUTES HIS CLAIMS.
SEAN ARCE: How you doing, this is my last day in the oficina. I’ve given all these years to the district to our students. We’re packing it up brotha.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: BUT WHEN ALL HOPE SEEMED TO BE LOST FOR MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES, ADVOCATES OF THE PROGRAM WENT TO FEDERAL COURT DEMANDING THAT THE TUCSON SCHOOL DISTRICT BE REQUIRED TO CREATE CURRICULUM REFLECTING THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF THE MEXICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY. AND JUST LAST WEEK THE JUDGE RULED IN THEIR FAVOR. THAT MEANS MEXICAN AMERICAN STUDIES WILL BE RETURNING TO TUCSON SCHOOLS, IN SOME FORM, NEXT FALL.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: The feds have it wrong?
TOM HORNE: Well, not only wrong, perverse, evil. I find that unbelievably horrible that the federal government is doing that.
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: ATTORNEY GENERAL TOM HORNE SAYS HE’LL FIGHT ON, TO THE SUPREME COURT IF NECESSARY, TO STOP ETHNIC STUDIES FROM RETURNING TO TUCSON.
CURTIS ACOSTA: I want Sunday to be revising and polishing…
JOHN CARLOS FREY [narration]: BUT FOR THE TIME BEING IT LOOKS AS THOUGH THIS TEACHER, THESE STUDENTS, AND THEIR COURSE WORK WILL BE ABLE TO RETURN TO THE CLASSROOM.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s go beyond the Arizona case now and get a bigger picture of how ethnic studies is being redefined across the country. To help us we are joined now by Claudio Iván Remeseira, editor of “Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook,” and professor at Columbia University’s Center for American Studies.
INTERVIEW WITH CLAUDIO IVÁN REMESEIRA
RAY SUAREZ [narration]: THIS WEEK ONLINE, TAKE PART IN OUR WEEKLY POLL. THE TOPIC: ETHNIC STUDIES IN ARIZONA. ALSO, JOIN THE DEBATE. IS THERE A FUTURE FOR ETHNIC STUDIES IN AMERICA? VISIT PBS.ORG/ NEED TO KNOW.
RAY SUAREZ: That’s it for this edition of Need to Know. On our next broadcast…
a school shooting in a small New England town…
JOSH FABER: There was never any – any warning signs whatsoever. In the end, I was shot twice.
RAY SUAREZ [narration]: TWENTY YEARS LATER THE DAMAGE LINGERS.
GREG GIBSON: We miss him, we didn’t have a chance to see him grow into what we think he could have been. How many times do you wish you could have gone back and moved that bullet?
RAY SUAREZ: Next week’s Need to Know is part of “After Newtown” – a week of special PBS programming. Check your local listings. Maria Hinojosa will be with you then. I’m Ray Suarez. Thanks for watching.