John Rothendler ’14
On Tuesday October 2, Trinity College hosted Tucson Magnet High School teacher Curtis Acosta, who presented the lecture “Banned Histories- Mexican-American Studies and the Struggle for Educational Justice in Arizona.” Acosta is a half-Swedish and half-Mexican Chican and Latin Literature teacher as well as a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona. He teaches three Latino Literature classes and two Freshman English classes. The Tucson Unified school district, where the magnet school is located, has gained a significant amount of fame recently due to a serious and highly publicized law change that was documented in the movie Precious Knowledge. The documentary focuses on House Bill 2281, which prohibits a school district or charter school from teaching classes that either promote overthrowing the U.S. government or promote resentment towards a race or class of people. Many have said that this law will end all ethnic studies programs within the state of Arizona. Currently, the bill has been signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, meaning that all ethnic studies programs in the state must under-go intense scrutiny and, if deemed necessary, will be ended immediately. Teachers that attempt to undermine the law would be in contempt of law and face serious charges if caught. For years, the Tucson Unified school district offered special classes designed to enhance a student’s cultural background and for many, it was also a chance to learn about their own culture. The classes included African-American, Mexican-American and Native-American ethnic studies. Acosta taught these classes and had a dedicated student body that loved to learn and participate.
Although his primary subject is Latino literature, his class also focused on the history of the Latino people. The classes seemed to help the students, as the rate of Mexican-American students at the high school going on to post-secondary education was 70 percent versus the national average of only 24 percent. The classes were added as a way to bring variety to an ethnic studies program that otherwise had very little diversity. According to the census bureau, Arizona is 30.1 percent of hispanic decent, so classes on hispanic culture have wide appeal.
The law was backed by Tom Horne, who at the time was the Arizona Department of Education Superintendent. During Horne’s campaign for attorney general, many people wondered if his support of the new law was because he relied on anti-Latino sentiment to be elected. Horne was also a supporter of Senate Bill 1070, the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” an extremely controversial law that gave police the right to arrest anyone who they suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Senate Bill 1070 required immigrants to carry their immigration papers and gave the police the right to ask for that documentation at any time. The bill attracted criticism during the 2010 elections as many saw this as a form of racial profiling. These bills also caused outrage in many Latino communities across the state. Horne’s vacant Superintendent position was filled by John Huppenthal. Huppenthal argued that most of the class time was spent on material that portrayed white people as oppressors and promoted the overthrow of the United States Government. His platform further angered the Latino community.
The fight to prevent the bill from passing came to a tumultuous conclusion that included multiple student protests around schools and neighborhoods as well as takeovers of school board meetings. For many events, student protests were organized entirely by the students themselves. A school board vote on May 3, 2011 attracted hundreds of people including one-hundred armed police officers, many professors, teachers and other educators from around the state, as well as massive amounts of protesters. The scene escalated quickly with multiple arrests as well as intense police brutality. Although the vote did not end up happening that night, the new rules were voted on and passed. On May 11, 2011, House Bill 2281 was signed by Gov. Brewer, bringing an end to any and all classes that were deemed unacceptable.
Acosta, with many of his fellow educators and colleagues, are currently suing the state of Arizona over the new law. To learn more about the situation in Arizona or to donate to Curtis Acosta’s cause, please visit the movement’s website at saveethnicstudies.org. The movement has been endorsed by many elected officials including Congressman Raul Grijalva and State Senator Olivia Carejo-Bedford and organizations including the Arizona Humanities Council and the Metropolitan Education Commission. If you would like to join the cause, donations can be given on the website. The event was co-sponsored by Educational Studies, American Studies, History, Multicultural Affairs, La Voz Latina, Sociology, Hispanic Studies and Psychology Departments and Programs in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Associate Professor of Educational Studies, Andrea Dyrness, organized the event.