The Tucson-Nogales Trip
Rodolfo F. Acuña
As I mentioned in previous correspondence, CSUN MEChA and students from the Asian American Studies Department visited Tucson-Nogales on February 24-26, 2012.
It was draining because of the distance, size of the group, and the intensity. As always, the Tucsonenses were gracious and made you feel like family.
For me, the highlight was the first night when Sal Baldenegro, Guadalupe Castillo, Raquel Goldsmith and Isabel Garcia gave their testimonies, recounting over forty years of activism, from the campaigns to get Mexican American students into the University of Arizona, the border struggles, to today’s fight against censorship and the attacks on the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies. It capped a learning experience that spans three trips to ground zero.
The students interacted with high school students.
As Professor Emeritus Christine Sleeter wrote about the Tucson program on February 15, 2012 in Education Week:
“Over a 13-year period, the program served 6,438 students (5,726 of whom were Latino, and 712 of whom were not Latino). On Arizona’s achievement tests in reading, writing, and math, its students also outscore students of all racial and ethnic groups in the same schools but not in that program—a remarkable record. As schools nationwide struggle to close racial achievement gaps, Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program should be one from which we are learning.”
This data puts to rest the myth that the program was limited to Mexican Americans. It is more startling because 60/70 percent of the district’s students are Latino.
According to Professor Sleeter, the MAS program works. She asks:
“Then why was the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson terminated? And why did Arizona ban ethnic studies? I believe the core issue is fear of the knowledge Mexican-American students find precious and empowering. Ethnic studies names racism and helps students examine how racism works in their everyday lives, how it was constructed historically, and how it can be challenged. For students of color, ethnic studies draws on knowledge from within racially oppressed communities, and affirms what students know from everyday life, taking the concerns of students seriously and treating them as intellectuals. In so doing, well-designed programs (like Tucson’s), taught by well-prepared teachers who believe in their students, connect students’ ethnic identity with academic learning and a sense of purpose that takes racism into account.”
The truth be told, what is happening in Arizona is orchestrated by the special interests of associations such as ALEC – American Legislative Exchange Council, that controls the state legislature, and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, that controls southern Arizona. They have economic and political stakes in keeping Mexicans and poor people in their place, which today is increasingly in the prisons.
Sadly, educators have been complicit in keeping Mexican Americans and others in their place. At all levels of public education, there is a woeful lack of interest or knowledge of the special needs of Mexican American children. While many classroom teachers can be singled out, the core problem rests on the shoulders of administrators who are paid to give guidance to instructional programs.
At the University of Arizona, there are 58 professors of education; only five of whom have Spanish-surnames. In Adolescent Development, out of eleven not one is Mexican American; AT Risk Students does not have a Spanish-surname instructor; Bilingual Education, two out of ten; Counseling, not one; Early Childhood Education, one of eight; Identity, not one; Language and Cultural Studies, one of six; Language Learning, one of fourteen; Learning and Instruction, one of fourteen; worse of all out of fifteen listed in Teaching, not one has a Spanish surname; and in Teacher Preparation, one of 32 has a Spanish-surname.
The numbers would tend to support the notion that, although 60 percent of the students in the university’s service area are Latino, the education of Mexican American is not high on the UA’s priorities. This makes it critical that the surrounding districts have strong leadership, which is not the case.
TUSD Superintendent of Schools John Pedicone has less than two years classroom experience teaching Mexican American students, and this was in a middle-class neighborhood in Tucson. Pedicone served several years as superintendent before retiring, but there is no indication that he was interested in pedagogy for Mexican American students. Pedicone taught part time at the UA, demonstrating no interest in Mexican American students.
In my fifty-five years of teaching: two years teaching K-12 at a Yeshiva; ten years as a master teacher in the L.A. City Schools; three years at a community college; and the rest in the state university system, I have never met a superintendent so ill prepared as John Pedicone
The tragedy is that he is earning over $300,000 a year for knowing so little about the education of students who are the majority of his district. Pedicone would make a great maître d' at an upscale restaurant, but not one in charge of the education of students who need good teaching and a good curriculum.
Worse Pedicone has brought in underlings with fewer qualifications about Mexican Americans than he has. According to sources in Denton, Houston and San Antonio, who know Assistant Superintendent of Government Programs and Community Outreach Lupita Cavazos-Garcia, she has almost no experience in teaching Latinos in any subject but math. They described her as ineffectual and self-serving. I searched the University of Texas Library for her dissertation, there was no listing. I checked her out in the Proquest dissertation data bank, no listing. Based on her surname, not qualifications, Garcia was put in charge of dismantling MAS.
Garcia called MEChA “anti-American” and “anti-Semitic,” offering no proof. Moreover, Garcia, originally from South Texas, denies the existence of racism.
In this context, KGUN9 reporter Valerie Cavazos asked me whether there could be a compromise. (That is what the letter below is about).
Any compromise has to be based on reason. The starting point has to be what is best for the students, not what an individual or business group wants. Latinos have a history of compromising. From the beginning, bilingual education was bartered away in bits and pieces. Urban renewal took away the barrio land for the public “good.”
As long as Pedicone and company do not want to talk about the failure of the Tucson mainstream programs, there can be no compromise. If sixty percent of Toyotas or any other automobile brand had to be junked, that company would be in serious trouble. American education is failing students, and those in power want to compromise? In the case of Tucson, it is like trading in a Mercedes for a jalopy. They want to trade non-functioning schools for a program with proven results.
The first thing I learned as a teacher trainer is that students have to want to come to school. They have to like you, and value what you are teaching. I think of John Dewey daily, and his dictum that a student failure is a teacher failure. Using that standard, Pedicone and his gaggle of administrators are failures.
Some Americans would like Mexican Americans and other minorities to admit that racism and inequality is their problem; according to them, it isn’t an American problem. However, foreign visitors from the beginning of the Republic have laid the blame on an inchoate American culture that is easily rattled.
American xenophobia has its roots in feelings inferiority, and Americans try to justify themselves by thinking they are exceptional.
The sad part about this struggle is the lack of outrage about what is happening in Arizona: the nullification of the U.S. Constitution, Arizona’s defiance of federal court orders, the assassination of nine year old Brisenia Flores, and the disparate treatment of Mexican Americans.
That is why we are taking our students to ground zero. We don’t want them to forget, so when minorities are the majority in 2050, we won’t be the same as they are. They must remember that just because a Pedicone wears a white shirt and a tie that does not make him intelligent. Racists come in different shapes and colors.
Like my mother used to say there is a difference between schooling and education, between meanness and altruism.
I was particularly moved by the reaction of one of my students at the wall between the two Nogales’s.
“It was an odd feeling being so close to something that has sparked so many debates,” said Daniel Mulato, 22, a senior double majoring in psychology and Chicana/o studies, about the Nogales border. “It really hit me when I saw a baby shoe left right at the border. This could be someone’s little sister’s shoe,” he said.
It doesn’t matter what color the child was, it was a child. It is a lesson Pedicone should learn.
Dear Ms Cavazos [KGUN9 news segment on Sunday]:
The written summary of our interview misrepresents what I said.
First, I did not suggest that the TUSD Mexican American Studies Program compromise. As you know, I do not live in Tucson, so it would be presumptuous for me to recommend a compromise.
What we discussed was, where does a discussion begin?
In my opinion, it would be insane to begin a discussion at the point when the program has been gutted and its books have been banned. Any discussion has to begin with what is best for students.
For example, Arizona is last in the nation in per capita spending per student. The dropout rate is between 60-70 percent, depending on where the push out begins. Although 43 percent of the students are of Mexican American/Latin ancestry, they are not represented proportionately in the American story. There also has to be a discussion about the qualifications of teachers, and if they are prepared to meet the special needs of Mexican American students.
Second, we discussed escalating tuition rates in the context of financial inequalities, and how it contributes to the widening gap between rich and poor.
Third, I did not say or imply that racial issues had disappeared. I said that we have to put more emphasis on the causes of racism. In this context, we discussed the charter schools that are disproportionately white. For example, if the district is 60 percent Mexican it stands to reason that 60 percent of the charter school should reflect this reality. Racial issues have to be put into context as well as the fact that in Arizona the charter schools are owned by interests outside the state of Arizona. In California, charter schools are part of the local school districts that are responsible for their oversight.
This coupled with the fact that Arizona representatives receive more campaign contributions from sources outside the state than from inside threaten American democracy. Before racism can be abolished we have to deal with inequality. The point was also made that the barriers to getting into college in the 70s differed from today. Today the main obstacle is the refusal of corporations to pay for the cost of social production. This barrier today takes on a class dimension, and at the university level this inequality is threatening every race (although not equally).
Fourth, in my opinion a discussion on “integrating” Mexican American Studies into so-called general curriculum could perhaps occur if, let’s say, the TUSD guaranteed that 1) the State of Arizona would contribute as much per student as the top ten states nationally; 2) that it would guarantee that the dropout rate among Mexican American students would not exceed 5 percent; 3) that teachers and counselors specializing in the education of Mexican Americans be hired in proportionate numbers; and 4) that the state guarantee that the contributions of Mexican Americans be taught in all social science, humanities and art classes. Perhaps at this point, a dialogue would be possible. It would be crazy to enter a dialogue based on John Pedicone’s my way or the highway approach–he is not God, although he may think he is.
We talked at great lengths about reason. Agreements are only fair when there is respect. There can be no agreement if there is a gun pointed at your head. Reason also assumes that the facts be considered. I said that it was unreasonable to dismantle a program with proven results, and trade it for a program that fosters segregation and drops out 60 percent of its students. (Let’s face it, American education has failed)
I agreed to the interview because I thought that there could be a reasonable discussion. I was warned by many Tucsonenses not to trust you. But I wanted to break down barriers, and perhaps, not reach an agreement, but know each other’s views. This is not possible if you distort what I say.
As Mexican Americans we have the duty to be good professionals which is to seek the
Rodolfo F. Acuña, PhD
California State University Northridge
Our thanks to Profe Acuña for letting us repost is posts!