Your Struggle Is My Struggle

By Marcela Itzel Ortega

Illustrator: Scott Braley

You have to know where you are coming from to know where you are going.

It’s funny how a single lucid moment can change so many things; a single video can light a spark for justice. That reality hit me when my teacher, Devin Carberry, played a YouTube clip of UNIDOS, a group of students fighting to keep ethnic studies alive in Arizona (See “Precious Knowledge: Teaching Solidarity with Tucson”). I was befuddled as to why these students were chaining themselves to chairs in a courtroom when the police force was clearly evident. I kept asking myself: Why are these students running the risk of incarceration? I had trouble analyzing the video’s hidden messages, yet I still felt a tug inside of me. The people chaining themselves looked like me; they were students of color trying to make a statement, and whatever statement they were making, it seemed it was worth finding out about.

Devin brought in the documentary Precious Knowledge, an intimate look into ethnic studies classes in Tucson high schools and the community battle to defend the program. As we analyzed the video, I made connections between the students in the film and myself. For example, in the beginning, Gilbert, Crystal, and Priscilla, the three students who are the focus of the film’s narrative, are looking off into the distance. The look in their eyes reflects their need to get away from the injustice in the world. I remember I did the same thing every day in the car going to and from school. When I looked out the window, I saw how vast and unfair the world is. There was always the reflection of a familiar pair of eyes looking back at me saying, “You’ll never be able to change it.”

Growing up, I always had a tough time understanding why life wasn’t fair. Other people had more privileges and a better life, yet a kid never thinks, “Oh, maybe it’s because my ancestors were killed and made slaves as a means of profit and gain.” My classes have taught me the real history that pertains to my background. I saw how Gilbert, Crystal, and Pricilla all had difficult circumstances and struggles they had to overcome in their daily lives so that they could focus on school. It made me wonder how my life and theirs would have been different if colonization never took place, if our civilizations had been left unharmed, if our people had not been murdered and enslaved.

I made many connections from the film to the theory of white supremacy, which is the belief that white people or Anglos are the superior race and therefore they should be the ones in power. They didn’t say so explicitly, but I think many of the politicians in the film were against the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program because it gave students a way out of the roles society has created for them. It meant those students would go to college and get higher paying jobs, taking the place of “deserving” Americans. I will be the first in my family to attend college. I am going against the role society has created for me. I am not taking anyone’s place, but the one that rightfully belongs to me.

I understand why Arizona lawmakers think that knowledge is a dangerous weapon. When we know our history, we no longer are lost souls, roaming and looking for our self-identity; we become confident individuals united for a cause. In class, I saw how my peers had grown spiritually because of the movie. A young man in the video made the same point: “For someone that’s felt so out of place for the majority of their life, it feels good to have a home [in MAS].”

I was inspired by the MAS students because of the sheer audacity they showed: They marched, ran, and protested because education was a right they were being denied. I was able to imagine being in the same situation and reflecting on what I would do: Would I march for hours in the hot Arizona sun? Would I run miles across the desert? Would I put myself in danger for my history? Before the film, my answer would have been a nonchalant maybe, now my answer is a definite yes, because seeing those students take the struggle in their own hands was a beautiful sight. And it gave me, as a student, the confidence that I could do the same.

If I had watched the film alone it would have been a very different situation. Without the guidance of the five levels (see Carberry), I would not have developed a deeper understanding of why these students were fighting so ardently for their education, or the slightest idea how big-picture ideas like white supremacy are connected to the banning of ethnic studies.

It’s devastating to know that history has a face to it, and that any history that is different runs the risk of being untaught. Many times we ask ourselves why success is so difficult to find. We don’t realize that our past intertwines with our future, and not knowing we end up following someone else’s history, not our own. If it wasn’t for Raza studies, I wouldn’t be able to lift my head up and think to myself that I actually belong, that I have a right to make my dreams a reality as much as any other person does.

When I got assignments to learn about my family tree and my personal history, there were many things I found out that still affect me today: My father grew up in extreme poverty because of his skin color, while my mother, who is lighter skinned, had it a tad easier. That led me to research my parents’ hometown, where the same thing is still happening. When I visited, people made it seem as if being darker was a curse. My father growing up in poverty because of his color makes me want to work harder and get a degree so that I can give my family the life they deserve, not the one that was given.

After our class watched the film, there was a No History Should Be Illegal meeting at Mission High School in San Francisco. The speakers included Sean Arce, director of the MAS program in Tucson; Flor Burruel, a member of UNIDOS (who was skyped in); and Roger Alvarado, who co-founded the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State in 1968. Our class was asked to send a spokesperson and I volunteered.

I was hesitant at first but then I remembered Crystal’s words from Precious Knowledge: “I can’t be another Latina woman, just sitting down at home. I want my voice to be heard.” She inspired me to let my voice be heard.

It was difficult for me to discuss ethnic studies, which I care about deeply, while not letting my nerves overtake me. I had not imagined that I would be sitting with people who had helped create radical movements, and that I would be considered of that same caliber. That small school library felt magical because everyone had an aura of equality and togetherness that made speaking easier. I spoke about how I was learning not to be just another face in the crowd. Raza studies made it possible for me to stand up not only for myself but for all the women in my life. It gave me the confidence to believe in my history without feeling ashamed of where or whom I come from. It made me see that there is no shame in being a woman of color; gender and race are just categories into which I was placed, and to me these categories are no longer a curse but a blessing.

At least for now, they have closed down the MAS program in Tucson, but I know that the struggle for ethnic studies continues. In the words of César Chávez, “When social change begins, it cannot be reversed, you cannot un-educate a person who has learned to read, you cannot humiliate the person who feels pride, and you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” I am not afraid, are you?

Marcela Itzel Ortega is a senior at ARISE High School in Oakland, California.

Photographer Scott Braley’s work can be found at