Amid Arizona’s crackdown on people of Mexican descent, state officials are closing down Mexican-American studies programs and banning history books that tell of white oppression against Native Americans and Chicanos, a topic that Dennis J. Bernstein discussed with author Rodolfo Acuña.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
Dr. Rodolfo Acuña — author, educator, historian and social activist — has been on the front lines in the battle over Arizona’s banning of books on Chicano history and the shutting down of Mexican-American Studies programs in the state’s public schools. The banned books include his landmark work, Occupied America, A History of Chicanos.
Often referred to as the father of Chicano Studies, Dr. Acuña co-founded the Chicano and Chicana Studies Department at the California State University at Northridge in 1969. He has taught for over 40 years at California State University, Northridge, and has become the standard-bearer in Chicano Studies classes throughout the United States.
Occupied America was first published in 1972 and is currently in its seventh edition, an exhaustive work that documents the history of Chicanos. He has also authored The Story of Mexican-American Community Under Siege, A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945 – 1975, and most recently The Making of Chicano Studies in the Trenches of Academia.
Much of what Dr. Acuña has done in his life is now under assault in Arizona where right-wing officials have clamped down on classes teaching public school students about the history of white oppression directed against Native Americans and Chicanos. Claiming that this teaching of history stirs anti-white resentments, the state officials forced the banning of certain books and termination of the classes.
DB: What was your initial response when you heard that your book, a crucial book in terms of this history was banned in Tucson.
RA: First of all, they have been trying to do this now for many years. It is not something that is new. Since at least 2006, they have been trying to ban the book. But I was a little bit irritated when it happened, but I knew it was coming.
DB: Alright, say a little bit more about what you think is behind this. Why do they want to get rid of such a landmark book that has meant so much to so many young people in this country and who really needed their history told? Tell us about what you think is going on here.
RA: Well, I think right now there is anti-Mexican climate there, but even more fundamental is that Arizona has almost been completely privatized. How do you keep the prison industry going? By having people inside them. So you have the anti-immigrant feeling and also the anti-Mexican feeling because they fill up the jails.
For example, in the schools, the charter schools are mostly white. And who go to these mostly privatized schools are white kids who are afraid that they are going to go to school, or their parents are afraid they’re going to go to school with Mexicans.
So consequently it’s a, just a Catch-22 situation. And I think that there’s an awful lot of money behind it, also hate sells. If you want to go to political office, higher political office in Arizona, you do Mexican baiting. And this is what you do. You bait Mexicans. You are pro-immigration, you see the Republican candidates today. I mean everybody is afraid to say, “Let’s have some equity.” Everybody is anti-Mexican. Build higher walls, electrify them, do this and do that. So it’s an opportunism of the politicians.
Also, it keeps money coming into Arizona. The Tea Party, for example, is under the control of the Koch brothers. And the Koch brothers, even [Mitt] Romney says are the engine of the Tea Party. So there are many reasons why you have these anti-Mexican things. They say that the law 2281 was passed and it was supposed to include all ethnic studies, but it’s only being enforced against Mexican-Americans. Why? And I think that it’s obvious. Is that they are the largest group, they are the most threatening group, and they are the group that are the most vociferous.
DB: You know, professor, when I was down in Tucson broadcasting from there, we interviewed a number of students about how important these books were and we heard the story from one student who said that she had actually tried to take her own life growing up as a young Chicana in that state, and then came along this history, and this book, and she said it was a life-saver for her. Could you talk about what you understand, how this book has had an impact, and why you wrote it particularly for the young people. You are still a teacher now.
RA: Yes, I still am. I’m 79. But you know, it’s not only the book, it’s the whole program. What people don’t understand about the Mexican-American Studies Program there is that it’s a pedagogy. It’s a way to get people to feel proud of themselves, to motivate them to stay in school and motivate them to go on. You have hardly any drop-out. It’s negligible with the Mexican-American Studies Program. In Arizona, you have a 50 to 60 percent drop-out rate of Mexicans and this is the only program that has been successful in keeping them from dropping out.
And it’s a tragedy because most people know that people who drop out of school have a higher propensity of going to jail and to prison than people who finish high school and go on to college. And so I think that what this book does, it motivates people, it put them into history, a history, they are part of history. And this is very important for them. It’s very important for anyone. It’s important for a black person, it’s important for an Asian person, it’s important for any person to feel that they are part of society.
DB: You wrote this book in 1972. What was the initial response? Was there anything like it at the time? And what was the initial response when it came out?
RA: Well, the response was mixed. I think among Chicanos it was very good. It was not very good with many of the professional historians at the time although I now do reviews for The American Historical Review, for the Pacifica Historical Reviews, and an awful lot of reviews. But I remember at this time people would ask me questions at conferences, “Why do you write with such emotion?” I told them because I’m not a prostitute. I do the act with emotion and when there’s people being hanged, lynched, when there are people that are being subjugated, then I get emotional about it and I want to change it.
DB: Can you talk a little bit about what was there for you when you were coming up. Does this, does the writing of this and the creating of this history come out of your own experience of a need for something like this, and did you have something in your time?
RA: What motivated me is that I’m a teacher. I’ve been teaching for over 55 years and I saw the need for students to have books, my first three books were for the public schools. The first two books that I wrote were for elementary schools and the third book was for high school. I had to have a tool that I could use to supplement my classroom activity.
The same thing with Occupied America. I was teaching in Chicano Studies, some of the first Chicano classes. I had classes of mostly Mexican students and I wanted to motivate them to go on to college, to graduate school, when I was teaching at the university level. And so consequently I had to have an instrument and I looked around and the only book that was around was [by] Carey McWilliams, a very good book but it didn’t cover the Fifties and it didn’t cover the Sixties. So I had to have something more current.
That’s why I wrote the book. I wrote the book so it would supplement my teaching. Later on the book changed. I’ve written seven editions. Every edition is different and it reflects the questions that are brought up in the classroom.
DB: You’ve always seen activism and education as deeply intertwined. After the official banning of the books, students in Tucson are mobilizing to defend Ethnic Studies, in an attempt to shift the anti-Mexican climate in Arizona and throughout the country. Do you think it’s important and how do you see fight unfolding? Is it time to gather in Tucson? What kinds of actions do you see as important in this context?
RA: Well, first of all I wish the professionals, the Chicanos who are professionals were as committed as the students. I think the students are doing something that is vital. … Arizona, right now, is being picked off. And the thing that most people don’t understand about it is that most of the legislators in Arizona are in the process of trying to nullify the U.S. Constitution. … And the only thing that students can do, and this is their motto “Fight back.” And they are fighting back. They’ve taken over the school district, they’ve taken to the streets. They know if they don’t fight back they are going to be led to those intellectual ovens.
DB: You said “those intellectual ovens” … say a little bit more about that image and why you are using such a strong image.
RA: It’s a very strong image and I think that when you don’t have a future, when you can’t go on to school, when you are stuck and the only alternative that you have is prison I think you are in an intellectual oven. I think a person who is taking drugs because of low self-image because of just, the times, the hopelessness is in an intellectual oven.
DB: I think that what is extraordinary is how successful this program was in Tucson. In the Tucson public school system, which is about 61 percent Mexican-American, Chicano, Chicana people. It was incredibly effective at keeping kids in school, in inspiring and encouraging them to go on to higher education. By every standard, it measures up to what we would want an effective program to be. So it would appear that they are trying to shred kids where they live and learn and grow. Could you talk about what that means to you, and just comment on that?
RA: [Arizona’s superintendent of public instructions John Huppenthal] ran on the ticket that he was going to abolish Ethnic Studies or Mexican-American Studies. Once he got in he said, I’m gonna have a private study, I’m going to commission a study, I’m going to pay $177,000 for this study and in this study I’m going to see if the program is effective, if the program is un-American, if the program is patriotic, if the program is racist.
The study came back afterwards, and it said that the schools were patriotic, that the schools were American, that they were not racist. Then they went through books like mine. And they said Occupied America is a standard American text book. And so consequently he says it is not racist, it is not unpatriotic, it’s not un-American and it is a very respected text book. So the report goes back to John Huppenthal, who had said that he’s going to base his opinion on this study. …
And so he then said “Well, I don’t believe it because I’ve heard” … you know hearsay … ”I’ve heard that it’s not.” Then he takes it up to a commissioner. … A commissioner is somebody who is appointed, usually with the support and the imprimatur of the attorney general. Well, the Attorney General is Tom Horne who had introduced this law, 2281. So then he says well the commissioner came back and he said “Well, I think that Huppenthal is right.” Duh.
And so consequently then he abolishes the program. He abolishes the program although the program was endorsed by Unitary Plan that the Tucson Unified School District was under. And this Unitary Program said that they should have a Mexican-American Studies program as a way to desegregate the schools and to improve the education of Mexicans. And it’s still under that order but the federal courts are not enforcing the law. So consequently it gets to be very frustrating.
DB: You were referring to Tom Horne, he’s the current Attorney General. Many attribute this action to a vendetta that he has been holding against Dolores Huerta for going to Tucson and pointing out that in her perspective that the white people here hate brown and black people, indigenous people and she was, from her point of view, calling it like it was. Now Tom Horne comes back and ends this system. Do you see this as part of sustaining that vendetta?
RA: Well, it went before, beyond that vendetta. Tom Horne was a failed lawyer. … And so he wanted to get elected to office. And he found that the best way to do it was to bait Mexicans. And the best way to get money was to sell himself. So even before Dolores said that, he looked at it as a method or way of improving his career. And this is the reason that he used it. And you have to look at Arizona. You have an awful lot of people over 55 who have come here from other states, who have gone there from other states, they are afraid of Mexicans. Mexicans make up about 43 percent of the school children today in Arizona. And they know that they are going to be the majority and so running for white xenophobes…
DB: And in Tucson it’s over 60 percent in the school system, in Tucson, yes, go on.
RA: And the Phoenix school is less, but the Tucson schools are way more than a majority Mexicans.
DB: Now one really has to ask the question, in terms of the real politics going on here. …
RA: I think [President Barack] Obama doesn’t want to do anything that is going to upset any of the white establishment there. The best thing that Mexicans could do is take to the streets when he’s in Arizona to show their displeasure with his policies and the lack of enforcement of federal laws.
DB: And finally, the brutality here of the action is amazing in which they have teachers having to boxing these books up in front of these students. One teacher we interviewed last week said she was given 48 hours, two days off, they got a substitute for her, to think about what she’s going to teach because they essentially stripped her of her curriculum and took away the books. We hear reports of kids crying in the classroom. This is a pretty brutal message and now they want, I guess they want to institute, and this is coming up, the Newt Gingrich policy of having these kids become janitors in the schools. … What would your advice be to teachers who are teaching in classrooms all around this country?
RA: Well, first of all, the other teachers in other places should support the Tucson people. They should do something about it. They should be visible, they shouldn’t be quiet because this is going to happen to them. And they are quiet, they’re not doing, I don’t know of a teacher organization that has come out against this. I don’t know of a library association that has come out against censorship.
Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.