By: Frederic Murray
“You’ve got to invite Native Americans to the table, and Asians, and Chicanos. You cannot keep us in the back room anymore and give us notations on paper saying this is what you deserve. You have to invite us to the table because America is ours, too.” Jimmy Santiago Baca
The American Southwest is an incredibly diverse and rich geography. Its deserts and mountains are gateways to some of our most profound landscapes: the Sonoran, the Mogollon Rim, the Chiricahua Mountains of the Basin and Range in the Coronado Forest, the Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson. The cultural life of the American Southwest reflects this diversity. It is home to some of our most important, popular and relevant writers: Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Tony Hillerman, Ofelia Zepeda, Thomas Sheridan, and Jimmy Baca. The history of this part of the country is filled to the brim with a heady stew of Indigenous, Hispanic, and Anglo peoples; their communities and nations continue, significantly, to impact the way we remember our origins, as well as how we look to the future.
In 1775, an Irish soldier-of-fortune named Captain O’Conner marched an imperial company of Spanish engineers and soldiers into Apacheria to found the Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón. Thus was born the city of Tucson, a Spanish presidio that became a Mexican city in 1821. In 1853, after the Gadsden Purchase, Tucson was incorporated into Federal American Territory, it switched sovereignties briefly 1861 after the Confederate Army took control of the city. By 1863, it had reverted back to the Federal hands and with formal statehood established in 1912 the city, already one of the oldest in the nation, was firmly established as robust commercial and railroad center.
This is all covered in greater detail in Thomas Sheridan’s Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941. Professor Sheridan’s book is one of the definitive histories of the Southwest. When I lived in the White Mountains of Arizona it was one of the books the local librarian in Payson recommended to me. It didn’t disappoint. It is a critical and thoughtful book that takes square aim at the Anglo politics that have dominated the area since Captain O’Conner’s march north from New Spain.
It is also one of 80 books banned because of Arizona state law House Bill 2281 (2010) which was enacted to destroy the Tucson’s Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. The MAS program began successfully in 1998 in response to teachers’ concerns over a widening achievement gap they were seeing in their Latino students. It ran for twelve years and in a 2014 peer-reviewed study, published by the American Educational Research Journal, Missing the (Student Achievement) Forest for All the (Political) Trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies Controversy in Tucson, the program was shown to have a positive outcomes on passing AIMS (Arizona state standardized tests) and high school graduation rates.
The bill was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewster and the language of the bill is worth noting. It sought to prohibit the following: “(1) promote the overthrow of the United States government; (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In 2012, in danger of losing millions of dollars in state funding the TUSD closed down MAS, which lead to books being confiscated in front of pupils.
The immediate result was a vigorous response of activism, led in part by Tony Diaz a Texas author and educator, who plainly stated: “It’s clear to me that our intellectual advancement is a threat to some people, because they tried to make it illegal.”
As a result of the law and the book ban, students, parents, and teachers filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona and its officials. Ultimately the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the students’ claim that the removal of the books violated their First Amendment rights should be heard by the district court. While the students’ attorneys prepared for the trial, a number of books were returned to the classrooms as supplemental material. On June 26, 2017, the trial that will decide the fate of Tucson’s Mexican American studies program began in the U.S. District Court for Arizona. It has been seven years for this educational program to get its day in court. That’s at least two generations of high-school students, who because of narrow minded political concerns, were denied the right to study their own origins.
However, a second result of this repressive legislation is irony at its best. There has been an exponential increase in Mexican American Studies programs across High Schools in California, Texas and other states. Curtis Acosta, who as a teacher helped launch the program in Tucson, now runs the Acosta Latino Learning Project, which is helping to develop similar programs at a national level.
A few of the titles that were pulled and then returned to the classroom.
According to Ranganathan’s five laws, number three reads: Every book its reader. Let’s us hope for the students in Tucson, AZ. that this once again becomes a certainty, instead of a doubt.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org