Bridging Divides or Banning Discussion?

Bridging Divides or Banning Discussion?

by Navya Dasari, age 16

In 2010, Tucson’s controversial Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program was shut down, and several books about Latin-American history were banned from Arizona’s schools. In October of 2013, the Arizona Department of Education approved the program’s replacement, “culturally relevant” classes, and the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) reintroduced the books into its classrooms. To some, the fact that the program and books were ever banned at first seems shocking, especially given that Tucson’s population is 42 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the United States Census Bureau.

With books like Occupied America: A History of Chicanos and Critical Race Theory, classes entered a discussion of race far removed from the mainstream of ethnic studies in public schools, focusing on topics such as white privilege and modern oppression. According to students and teachers who supported it, the program inspired a strong sense of cultural identity and encouraged students to represent their ethnicities positively, motivating them to achieve in school.

MAS program creator Miguel Ortega, in an interview with journalist Jeff Biggers, asserted that “gang violence on our Tucson streets might be better mitigated by celebrating the cultural and historical assets” of Mexican-American cultureBut, according to Tom Horne, Arizona’s current Attorney General and former Superintendent of Schools who launched opposition to MAS, it was too divisive.

As reported by the Huffington Post, the law passed to ban programs like MAS in Arizona (House Bill 2281) targets such programs as promoting resentment, addressing students of a particular ethnic group, and inappropriately advocating ethnic solidarity.

Justification for banning the books was that “any book can be inappropriate in a classroom if it’s inappropriately used,” said current Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, when interviewed by Fox News Latino. His objection was to the program, not the books, but banning the books was the option chosen.

However, this reasoning did not just include books about Mexican-American history. One banned book was Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, due to its themes of colonialism. Such vague reasons for a book ban automatically span a wide variety of books, none of which are inappropriately subversive.

Unfortunately, the situation seems to point to continued resentment and distrust between Arizona’s politicians and its Mexican-American population, fostered by miscommunication and a lack of understanding.

According to some, “the race you are born into isn’t relevant,” but to many Americans, especially the ones involved in ethnic studies programs, their cultural history is an important aspect of their identity.

Reconciling ethnic and national labels may be complex, but need not be negative; it’s about celebrating the different parts of identity and how they make us unique.

A new cultural studies program has been returned to schools, and the banned books are back in some classrooms, so it seems that the clashing sides have begun to find middle ground. Both perspectives are understandable.

On one hand, it is important that Mexican-American students in Arizona are encouraged to succeed, feel pride in their cultural identity, feel safe to explore their history, and discuss topics like racism and oppression. On the other hand, it is important they feel confident in their American identity as well, and that racial divisions are not fostered between students. There is a careful balance that needs to be struck, and hopefully, the new ethnic studies program becomes one step closer to it.

 2014 Scholastic Writing Awards Silver Key

Works Consulted

Biggers, Jeff. “Defying Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban: Tucson

Freedom Summer Draws on Mexican American Studies History.” Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 27 July 2012. Web. 3 November 2013.

Liu, Eric. “The Whitewashing of Arizona.” Time. Time Magazine, 1

May 2012. Web. 3 November 2013.

Planas, Roque. “Arizona’s Law Banning Mexican-American Studies

Curriculum is Unconstitutional, Judge Rules.”HuffPost. The Huffington Post, 14 March 2013. Web. 3 November 2013.

Planas, Roque. “Neither Banned Nor Allowed: Mexican American

Studies in Limbo in Arizona.” Fox News Latino. Fox News, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

“Tucson (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Tucson

(city) QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau, n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.



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