From Johannesburg to Tucson

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: Brad Holland

On Jan. 13, journalist Jeff Biggers contacted me with the news that the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus, had been banned in the schools of Tucson, Arizona, as part of that state’s suppression of the Mexican American Studies program.

The state superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal, had found the acclaimed Tucson program out of compliance with House Bill 2281, which outlaws courses that teach “ethnic solidarity” or promote “resentment toward a race or class of people.” On Jan. 10, the Tucson school board had voted to end the program rather than lose 10 percent of its state funding. Biggers was working on a piece for and wanted a quote about the banning.

I had a stew of emotions: Sadness that, in some cases, the books had been boxed up during class time, with students present. As one student said, “It was very heartbreaking to see that happening in the middle of class.” Pride that our book had been honored in this way, alongside revered texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Elizabeth Martínez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, and the granddaddy of Mexican American Studies texts, Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation—all books that I’ve had in my collection for decades. But mostly I felt anger: that our book had been caught in the conservative dragnet that led to the termination of the Mexican American Studies program; that students were being victimized by the anti-immigrant, anti-Latina/o racism that characterized Arizona’s infamous racial profiling law, Senate Bill 1070; that yet one more attack on multicultural, social justice education in the country seemed to be winning. (And this attack now includes the recent sacking of Sean Arce, the program’s founder and director. See (“Sean Arce—Honored and Fired.”)

The only other time I’d had a book outlawed was my curriculum on teaching about South Africa, Strangers in Their Own Country (Africa World Press, 1985), which had been banned in South Africa in 1986, no doubt because it featured a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, quotes from other officially banned individuals, and lessons on the movement to demand corporate divestment from apartheid South Africa.

More than 25 years separates the banning of each of these books, but as events in Tucson have unfolded, I’ve found myself making comparisons between South Africa and Arizona.

Student Courage and Determination

The first similarity to come to mind is the courage and dedication of the students involved in struggles to make education more meaningful, more connected to addressing issues of racial and economic inequality. I traveled throughout South Africa in July and August of 1986, during the State of Emergency, and young people—high school and even younger—saw the struggle to improve schooling as inextricably tied to the broader struggle to improve society. I sat in on a student representative council meeting at a school in Mitchell’s Plain, a so-called “colored” township of Cape Town. These were illegal gatherings of elected student representatives, and South African army troop carriers sat about 100 yards away at the end of the block as a visible warning to youngsters. But the high school kids met together anyway. As one determined teenage girl there told me: “It’s tough for us—such small people making such big decisions.” And big decisions they were: Students inside South African schools risked expulsion for their activism, and students in demonstrations in the streets outside risked their lives.

I have not spent time with students in Tucson, but I’ve talked with their teachers, watched their videos, and read their interviews. Students like Mayra Feliciano, one of the founders of the student activist organization UNIDOS, became politically aware through high school coursework in the Mexican American Studies program, and learned to think deeply about their place in the world. As Feliciano told Biggers in an interview at

Before I took these classes I was ashamed of my culture. Born in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, I felt very different—I was darker than a lot of my friends and I felt like people were always prettier than me. I didn’t care about learning more about my culture; I didn’t even pay attention to what was going on around me. I took the Mexican American Studies course and my life turned around for the better. I was struggling to graduate, but this class taught me that we all live in a society where we all struggle and that knowledge and facts are what help to get you through.

In April 2011, Feliciano participated in an “occupation” of a Tucson school board meeting to prevent consideration of a resolution that would have undermined the Mexican American Studies program before there had been a full public debate. Students chained themselves to board members’ chairs, chanting “Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back!”

Students featured in the celebrated film Precious Knowledge offer eloquent testimony to the power of education that is grounded in young people’s lives and cultures, is about issues in society that matter, and that expects that students can and will achieve. One student describes the impact of Mexican American Studies classes: “You know, I started thinking, oh I’m a Chicana, I ain’t going to be able to graduate, I’m going to have kids young, I’m . . . you know, like that. And then I started coming to these classes and I started seeing, like, why am I believing all this? Instead of believing it I should change it.”

Contempt for Students

Another similarity between apartheid South Africa and HB 2281 Arizona is the contempt with which those in positions of authority regard students. Tucson Superintendent John Pedicone refused to believe that students could organize the April 2011 school board takeover and articulate demands. In an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star, Pedicone wrote that the students “have been exploited and are being used as pawns to serve a political agenda.” He claimed that Tucson students “are being used to lead the charge for those who wish to make this a civil rights issue”—as if it required some specialized adult perspective to recognize that the abolition of ethnic studies is a civil rights issue.

Student-as-puppet is a familiar canard, also used in South Africa by a white elite confronting a massive uprising by students of color. During the 1986 State of Emergency, the (white) minister in charge of black education, Gerrit Viljoen, complained about “outside agitators,” and instituted a policy of ID cards that all students were forced to carry—on the presumption that if only students were on school grounds, and not their nonstudent allies, the protests would stop. The students responded with bonfires of burning ID cards.

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve encountered this same adult contempt for student political initiative. One year at Portland’s Jefferson High School, where for many years I taught an 11th-grade block history-language arts class with Linda Christensen, our students were required to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test (ASVAB), administered by uniformed military personnel. In order to have the tests scored, students had to sign a statement agreeing to be contacted by military recruiters. We had not even talked about the ASVAB in class, but a group of our students organized a “question-in”—refusing to take the test until all of their questions were answered. An enraged school official arrived at Linda’s and my classroom door with the demand, “Call your dogs off.”

The common denominator in these instances is the disrespect of those in power for students’ capacity to think critically and to take action based on their beliefs. When educational authorities consistently display such slight regard for students’ academic and moral capacities, is it any wonder that they match this contempt with an intellectually thin, idea-poor curriculum?

In South Africa, students’ overarching demand was for an end to what they called “gutter education.” Theirs was a critique of an education system that prepared them for menial labor—the gutter. As Hendrik Verwoerd, then minister of native affairs, had baldly declared in 1953, “The purpose of Bantu education is to ensure that the natives will be taught from childhood that equality with Europeans is not for them.” Black people, he said, “should be educated for their opportunities in life,” and asserted that there was no place for them “above the level of certain forms of labor.” In the tortured lexicon of apartheid, Africans were considered “temporary sojourners” in white South Africa, wanted only for their labor.

This might sound familiar to students learning the history of Arizona and the Southwest in their Mexican American Studies classes in Tucson high schools. Whites there kept the vast majority of Mexicans at the bottom of a caste system, and Mexicans were paid less even when they did the same jobs as white workers. In the territories taken from Mexico after the 1846–48 invasion and occupation, Mexicans were tolerated because their labor was needed by the white owners of ranches, mines, and railroads. In his book A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Ronald Takaki points out that the owning class of the Southwest appropriated the images and language of slavery. He quotes mine owner Sylvester Mowry: “My own experience has taught me that the lower class of Mexicans . . . are docile, faithful, good servants, capable of strong attachments when firmly and kindly treated. They have been ‘peons’ for generations. They will always remain so, as it is their natural condition.”

In the now-banned Occupied America, Tucson students would have read about eugenics proponent and Vanderbilt economics professor Roy L. Garis, who told a congressional committee in 1930 about Mexicans: “Their minds run to nothing higher than animal functions—eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery.” Acuña sums up the purpose of schooling in this racist climate: “The mission of the Anglo-American public schools was not to educate, or to create social consciousness, but to condition the newcomer as well as the majority of citizens to accept the corporate society.”

In South Africa, the struggle was not merely for better education, but for a better, more equal, more just society. As one journal editorialized during my 1986 stay, “To get rid of gutter education entirely, one would have to get rid of the gutter.” At its heart, this is what the Mexican American Studies struggle is about: Will education for young Mexican Americans prepare them for the gutter, to be “peons,” or equip them with the critical and academic skills to challenge their historic subordination—to change society?

This brings us back to the racialized roots of the attack on Mexican American Studies in Arizona. In his Dec. 30, 2010, “finding” that Tucson schools were out of compliance with HB 2281, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne (now the Arizona state attorney general) offered a hodgepodge of rumor and racial paranoia. In this legal document, Horne quoted disgruntled former teachers—some named, some anonymous—about how the Mexican American Studies program teaches “racial resentment.” Horne quoted at length someone he identified as a retired Tucson teacher, John Ward:

Impressionable youth in TUSD have literally been reprogrammed to believe that there is a concerted effort on the part of a white power structure to suppress them and relegate them to a second-class existence. This fomented resentment further encourages them to express their dissatisfaction through the iconoclastic behavior we see—the contempt for all authority outside of their ethnic community and their total lack of identification with a political heritage of this country.

This is a theme that John Huppenthal, Horne’s successor as superintendent, struck in his campaign ads, pledging to “stop la raza.” This is not just a debate about pedagogy, about textbooks, about historical interpretation. It’s a debate about the kind of society we want to live in and the values that we want to pass on to young people—and especially the role that race plays in that.

As then-Superintendent Horne wrote in his finding: “Most of these [Mexican American students’] parents and grandparents came to this country, legally, because this is the land of opportunity. They trust the public schools with their children. Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.” [emphasis in original]

The law itself, HB 2281, insists on the “treatment of pupils as individuals” and that the curriculum should not encourage students to see themselves as members of racial or ethnic groups or social classes. The values that the Huppenthals and Hornes of Arizona want students to embrace hark back to those of Horatio Alger: Through individual determination, hard work, and honesty, you will rise in the fundamentally just, colorblind system of capitalism—i.e., “the land of opportunity.”

But if we don’t encourage students to ask questions in terms of race, how can we help them make sense of their world—and improve it? Think, for example, about the revelations in the recent Pew Research Center study, Twenty-to-One: In 2009, median net white household wealth in the United States was $113,149. For the category Pew defines as “Hispanic,” it was $6,325. A ratio of almost 18 to 1. Between 2005 and 2009, Hispanic household wealth declined 66 percent, compared to a 16 percent decline for whites. How do we help students account for these disparities if they aren’t allowed to analyze them through a lens of race and of social class? How can young people make sense of the fact that more than twice as many Mexican American children in Arizona live in poverty than white children: 64 percent to 30 percent? Or reflect on what might account for the fact that almost twice as many Mexican Americans as whites in Arizona are incarcerated?

Those who promoted HB 2281 don’t want students thinking in terms of race, class, ethnicity, or solidarity. This is intellectually dishonest. Apart from enforcing historical amnesia, it leaves students without the strategic political tools to work for greater equality. Which, I suppose, is a good thing, if your starting point is to “stop la raza.”

Teaching Solidarity

How do students consider ways to make things better without solidarity in their conceptual knapsacks? Whether it’s the abolition movement, the labor movement, the women’s rights movement, the farmworkers movement, the 1968 and 1969 Chicano student walkouts in California, Texas, and Arizona, or the ongoing Immokalee workers struggle in Florida, it has been people organizing for better lives that has made things better, not market forces and the efforts of isolated individuals toiling in a “land of opportunity.”

A few years ago, longtime Tucson civil rights activist Salomón R. Baldenegro offered this brief history lesson:

I am of the Chicano generation. We grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, when American society viewed Americans of Mexican descent as foreigners and there was a concerted campaign by society, particularly the schools, to make us feel inferior and treat us as interlopers in our own land.

We had two choices. We could acquiesce and shuffle through life, hat in hand, picking up society’s crumbs. Or we could resist and assert our humanity. We resisted.

This seems to be a pretty good outline of choices for those in Arizona—and all the rest of us—who are struggling over the character of the curriculum. We opt either for a hat-in-hand education or one that equips students to resist.