‘Greco-Roman Knowledge Only’ in Arizona Schools

Indigenous Wisdom Outlawed Once Again

By Roberto Cintli Rodriguez

Illustrator: Jordin Isip

Illustration: Jordin Isip

In Lak Ech—

Tu eres mi otro yo—

You are my other self. 

I am you and you are me. 

If I hurt you, I hurt myself. 

If I hate you, I hate myself. 

If I love and respect you, 

I love and respect myself.

This is how Maria Federico Brummer’s class begins at Tucson High School in Arizona. Students here, part of Tucson Unified School District’s highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) K-12 program, the largest in the nation, are taught this and other Indigenous concepts, including Panche Be (seek the root of the truth), and the Aztec and Maya calendars.

I am here to speak to the students about the relationship among In Lak Ech, Panche Be, and Hunab Ku. Hunab Ku is a beautiful Maya philosophy and human rights ethos based on maize. It affirms, contrary to what is taught in most schools, that the ancient peoples of this continent were not savage, that they clearly understood how the universe functions and what it means to be a human being.

Not coincidentally, MAS students, many of whom were doing poorly in school prior to entering this program, consistently outperform their peers academically. The program claims a high rate of college-bound graduates.

In a parallel universe, across Highway 10 at the state capitol in Phoenix, 518 years after Columbus initiated the theft of a continent, Arizona’s State Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne has declared, via the passage of HB 2281, that Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge are (still) not part of Western civilization.

In his relentless campaign against ethnic studies, the would-be governor engineered the passage of a state law that seeks to ban the teaching of ethnic studies by withdrawing its funding. (In a separate but clearly related ruling, the Arizona Department of Education recently banned teachers with heavy accents from teaching English classes.) This is the same state that just passed and signed into law SB 1070, racial profiling legislation that primarily targets those who appear to be Mexicans or Central Americans and are thus suspected of being “illegal aliens.”

Despite the success of the MAS program, Horne has long expressed the view that the only facts and ideas that should be taught in Arizona schools are those that originated in “Western or Greco-Roman” civilization. Although his bill affects the whole state, his actual target has long been Tucson’s program.

Last year, progressive education activists (mostly young students) defeated a similar bill by running from Tucson to Phoenix in 115 degree heat. The author of last year’s bill, Jonathan Paton, withdrew it at that time, but vowed that he and his allies would kill ethnic studies this year.

This year’s bill causes the geographic dislocation of the continent. Acting as royal cosmographer, Horne has ruled that maize (Mesoamerican) knowledge—indigenous to this continent and the philosophical foundation for MAS—is subversive and not part of Western civilization. Horne also mischaracterizes the program by claiming that its teachers preach hate, segregation, anti-Americanism, and the violent overthrow of the government. The bill sets up an inquisitorial mechanism that will monitor books and curriculum. Horne has been especially critical of Rudy Acuña’s Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

According to the language of HB 2281, American Indian courses are exempt from the legislation in order to comply with federal law, but there are no federal laws that compel the teaching of American Indian Studies. The bill also exempts African American studies courses as long as they are open to everyone. This, too, is a canard because all ethnic studies courses are open to everyone. The exemption language in the bill is an effort to divide us from each other and a clear signal that it is Mexican American studies that is the immediate target.

By targeting Mexican American studies, Horne also sets himself up as the chief arbiter of what is and is not Indigenous knowledge. In fact, maize knowledge, which is the foundation of Mexican American studies, is also the foundation of much of Indigenous knowledge throughout North, Central, and South America. Apparently Horne has decided that Mesoamerican knowledge is not part of American Indian studies.

Apartheid Arizona

Apartheid Arizona? Consider the Tucson federal courthouse: Like clockwork, at 1:30 p.m., 70 short, brown men (sometimes a few women) occupy the left side of the courtroom, shackled at the ankles, waist, and wrists. Within one hour, they are charged, tried, and convicted en masse of being present illegally in the United States. After this dehumanizing process, they are paraded out of the courtroom. Most have either served time already or are sentenced to a private detention facility operated by the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA). This drama unfolds here every weekday of the year.

Welcome to Operation Streamline. Its goal is to criminalize every migrant who steps into this kangaroo court, while enriching CCA to the tune of some $15 million per month.

Meanwhile, in Southside Tucson, several days before the state legislature passed the anti-immigrant SB 1070, a massive raid involving 800 military-clad U.S. federal agents swooped into this primarily Mexican-Indigenous community, occupying and terrorizing its residents, all for the purpose of arresting 48 suspects in a human smuggling operation. Shortly thereafter, in Maricopa County, Sheriff Joe Arpaio showcased his 15th major “crime sweep” since early 2008. The sweeps—which targeted Mexican-Indigenous communities—may have actually backfired. They provided a glimpse to the world of how the entire state and nation could look if SB 1070 is affirmed by the courts and spreads beyond Arizona. To conduct these sweeps, Arpaio utilizes the state’s smuggling law, which provides for the arrest and conviction of migrants as accomplices in their own smuggling. Such a use of the legal system smacks of official kidnapping and terror.

The Arizona/Mexico Border

In the realm of violence, Arizona is no South Africa, but we do have our own killing fields. For the past dozen years, some 5,000 migrants have been found dead in the inhospitable desert; medical reports confirm that many have died due to violence, including blunt trauma to the head (see www.dere
choshumanosaz.net). Funneling thousands of migrants through the desert annually has long been official policy by U.S. immigration officials. Under international law, this could be construed as negligent homicide.

Ironically, in response to these draconian laws and human rights abuses, Democrats have joined Republicans in pushing for more apartheid measures (walls, more agents, and the further militarization of the border) as the solution.

Just solutions for these problems require international agreements that place human beings at the center, solutions that don’t force individuals to lose their citizenship, culture, rights, or humanity.

Teaching youth In Lak Ech (you are my other self) and Panche Be (seek the root of the truth) seems a good place to begin.

–Roberto Rodriguez


While Arizona plunges ahead with the most brutal anti-immigrant legislation in the United States, organized opposition is growing stronger and more vocal. On April 23, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law SB 1070, essentially mandating racial profiling. Among other provisions, the law requires police to stop people they suspect may not have immigration documents to determine their immigration status. The law makes it a crime to be in the country without documents, and also allows citizens to sue police who they suspect are failing to enforce the law. Community leaders have called SB 1070 an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Latinos regardless of their citizenship status.

The legislation has triggered demonstrations throughout the country, and a boycott of Arizona. At its recent annual meeting, the American Educational Research Association voted to join the growing list of organizations boycotting Arizona in protest. The Denver Public Schools banned all work-related travel to Arizona. “This is a human rights issue,” School Board President Nate Easley told ABC News. “As an African American, I’m especially offended because my ancestors had to deal with racial profiling.”

Here is the April 29 statement from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, announcing the ban on official school district travel to Arizona:

Our community is deeply outraged by the new Arizona law. I have heard clearly and passionately from our students, our parents, our teachers, our principals, and our community members about their deep concerns. Our community deeply values the rich diversity of the Denver Public Schools and the dignity of each and every member of our community.  

We fear that this new law will encourage racial profiling and subject individuals to arbitrary stops and harassment based on their ethnic or racial status. This violates our basic values of human dignity, of nondiscrimination, and of equal protection under the law for all. So today, the Denver Public Schools is taking the step of restricting our employees on district-sponsored trips from traveling to Arizona.  

We are concerned that under this new law our employees could be subject to arbitrary and discriminatory stops and harassment. We are also deeply concerned that no law like this ever happen in the state of Colorado.  

Clearly, what is going on in Arizona reinforces the need for comprehensive immigration legislation at the federal level. We certainly hope that such comprehensive immigration legislation would contain a key priority of the Denver Public Schools and our community—the DREAM Act, which is to ensure that all of our graduates and graduates of public schools throughout this country have the opportunity upon graduating to go to college. . . . We certainly encourage others—other school districts, other public and private organizations, and other individuals—to express with their voices and with their actions their deep concern that this law not take effect and not be replicated anywhere else in the United States. —the editors

Roberto Rodriguez (Contact Me) is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. He was arrested on May 12 with 14 others as they protested the signing of HB 2281 by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.