Throughout elementary school and middle school, Leo Herrera received a different kind of social studies curriculum. In addition to learning the basics of U.S. history — the discovery of America, the founding fathers, the Revolutionary War — Herrera learned about prominent Latin American activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and indigenous groups like the Maya and the Aztec Empire.
“To me, that was just really cool to be able to like go into class and read books and see pictures of people who look like me who were actually making a difference,” Herrera said. “It wasn’t just opening up a social studies book and seeing a bunch of old white dudes.”
Herrera's exposure to Latin American history at an early age is credited to the Mexican American studies program, which began in Tucson, Arizona in 1998 to offer a school curriculum through the lens of Mexican Americans. Primarily driving the adoption of MAS was a desegregation order against the Tucson school district filed by black and Latino parents arguing that the district’s demographics “promoted intentional segregation and unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.” The MAS program included a collection of books from Mexican American authors and other writers of color. Developers of the MAS curriculum hoped the focus on Mexican American and Latin American history would bridge the gap between Latinos and other students in the Tucson district.
But the program that had a lasting impact on Herrera’s education now hangs in the balance, as a case being tried in a federal district court in Arizona is evaluating the constitutionality of the state law prohibiting ethnic and Mexican American studies.
First Success, Then Backlash
In a city where Hispanics make up about 41 percent of the population — the second largest demographic next to white people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and Hispanics make up about 60 percent of the student population in the Tucson Unified School District, the MAS program quickly took off. The expansion of the program over the next 13 years saw the enrollment of an estimated 1,300 students in MAS classes in elementary, middle and high schools.
Despite the program’s success across the district, a group of Republican lawmakers set out to undermine its influence. Backlash against MAS is primarily rooted in a 2006 speech Dolores Huerta gave to students at Tucson High Magnet School. Speaking about the anti-immigrant legislation taking shape during those years, Huerta told students to address “why Republicans hate Latinos.”
According to Mother Jones:
The comment stuck with Thomas Horne, then the superintendent of public instruction for Arizona’s Department of Education. When students weren’t allowed to ask questions at a meeting with Horne’s deputy, some raised their fists and turned their backs in protest. In an open letter to Tucson residents following the speech, Horne criticized the Mexican American studies program for teaching students “a kind of destructive ethnic chauvinism” and blamed teachers for the students’ actions.
During testimony July 18, Horne said he was troubled by "radical instructors teaching students to be disruptive," according to the Associated Press.
A group of Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. John Huppenthal, drafted HB 2281 to ban MAS in the Tucson Unified School District. The purpose of the bill was to ban courses that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
HB 2281 passed in the Republican-dominated state legislature in 2010, the same year as the passing of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigration law SB 1070. Herrera said both HB 2281 and SB 1070 contributed to an “anti-brown, anti-immigrant climate” at the time.
The only program affected by HB 2281 was Tucson’s MAS program — similar curricula focusing on Asian, black and Native American cultures escaped the ban, according to the Atlantic. The bill immediately instigated widespread protest from teachers, students and parents, and a group of teachers filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that eliminating MAS violated students’ First Amendment Rights.
In January 2011, before leaving his role as state superintendent and becoming state attorney general, Thomas Horne announced that the MAS program violated HB 2281 and ordered the Tucson district to end the program or risk losing 10 percent of state funding.
“When I came into a classroom, they were portraying Ben Franklin as a racist,” Huppenthal said upon visiting an ethnic studies class in Tucson. He added, “[A]nd up on the wall, they got a poster of Che Guevara.”
Despite assertions echoed by Republican supporters of the bill — some claimed the MAS curriculum “taught Latino students to hate other races” — a state-commissioned audit by the Cambium Learning Group found “no observable evidence” that MAS had violated state law HB 2281. Huppenthal, who became Horne’s successor, rejected the finding. After a second investigation into the program, Huppenthal reiterated that it violated state law, this time threatening to withhold state funding from the Tucson school district if it did not terminate the program.
Facing pressure to eliminate MAS in lieu of losing 10 percent of state funding, the Tucson school board voted to end the curriculum in January 2012. And when District Judge A. Wallace Tashima evaluated HB 2281 in relation to the MAS program in 2013, he upheld most of the law and said the students in the case failed to prove the law was passed with discriminatory intent. In July 2015, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Tucson district court, arguing that enough evidence warranted another trial to determine if HB 2281 was motivated by discriminatory intent.
Presided over once again by Judge Tashima, the current court case challenges the constitutionality of HB 2281 as well as its enforcement under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.
The Fight for Mexican American Studies
Since the passing of HB 2281 and the ensuing court battle, a number of grassroots and community organizations have emerged to lead the fight for the continuance of the MAS program. One of the most prominent of these activist groups is United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (UNIDOS). During a Tucson Unified School District meeting considering the removal of Mexican American studies from a list of classes that fulfill core curriculum requirements, UNIDOS activists stormed the meeting. The young activists sat among the board members and chained themselves in place. “When education is under attack, what do we do?” they chanted. “Fight back!”
Leo Herrera joined the group during his senior year of high school when UNIDOS was conducting outreach to inform students that the MAS program had been banned.
“I jumped right on it and started organizing with UNIDOS, just because I want to make . . . accessible to students the education that was made accessible to me, but was taken away from me,” he said.
UNIDOS began visiting a number of colleges across the country to host talks about the court battle. In 2015, the group began its student empowerment program, which has become one of the group’s main focuses along with keeping up with the current trial between the state and Mexican American studies.
Herrera describes the student empowerment program as “an after-school program for high school youth who are interested in social justice and the Mexican American studies program.” He said UNIDOS would go to high schools, talk about MAS and then host workshops on topics such as rape culture and the war on drugs, a discussion Herrera hosted. Herrera called the organization’s student empowerment program a “stepping stone in ethnic studies.”
Another group of Chicano writers, poets, artists and activists from Houston organized in support of MAS by busing all the books banned by the termination of the program under HB 2281 to Tucson. The group called itself Librotraficante — book smugglers.
Librotraficante quickly raised money for the trip to Arizona and received donations from people across the U.S. and even from the banned authors themselves. The group traveled across the southwest, from San Antonio to El Paso, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico, then finally reaching Tucson. The book smugglers, including Texas author and professor Tony Diaz, gave books to former MAS students and established a library at a local youth center filled with the banned books. In anticipation of other states possibly pulling similar moves as Arizona and banning ethnic studies programs, Librotraficante created underground libraries across the southwest.
Diaz told the Atlantic that Arizona has been “oppressing Mexican-Americans for years.”
“And they were used to bullying and controlling immigrants, and they wanted to control our thoughts,” he said. “They were wrong. I’m a Mexican American citizen with a master’s. I know my rights.”
More Good Than Harm
Although conservatives like Huppenthal and Horne decry the MAS program — Huppenthal once said the fight between HB 2281 and Mexican American studies is like “the battle between collectivism and individualism" that "defines the human race,” according to the Huffington Post — past studies show the benefits of ethnic studies programs in schools.
A 2012 study from University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera found that students who took MAS courses “performed better on state tests and graduated at higher rates” than students who did not. Jeffrey Milem, professor and dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School at the University of California Santa Barbara who worked on the 2012 study, said many of the students were part of the lowest-performing group in the district prior to taking MAS courses. The study found that after taking MAS classes, these students had some of the highest graduation rates of any group.
The study also showed that students who participated in MAS were more likely to pass Arizona’s standardized test for high school students, the AIMS test. In addition, researchers found that the students actually scored higher on the math portion of the AIMS test, reflecting what Milem called a “residual effect” of taking MAS courses as well as the value of the program itself.
“If student achievement really matters, it was clear from the study that we did that Mexican American studies needs to be a part of the experience in this kind of conversation,” Milem said.
The researchers concluded that having a curriculum like MAS offers a method to address the performance gap in Arizona schools that disproportionately impacts Latino students.
“MAS represents one option that meets the state superintendent’s requirement for investing in educational innovation with an empirically supported record of success,” the study reads. “Currently there are few approaches to educating Latina/o students that hold as much promise, but racial politics continue to overshadow a needed focus on student achievement.”
Herrera’s own experiences further corroborate these findings, as he noted the positive impact MAS had on his education.
“If it wasn’t for the Mexican American studies program . . . me and my homies would either be locked up or we’d be dead or in jail,” he said. “Because no one, except for those MAS teachers, made us feel like we really had a place in society given the state that we live in.”
Another study conducted by researchers at Stanford University evaluated the impact of ethnic studies on a group of ninth-graders at San Francisco high schools from 2010-2014. The findings showed significant improvements for students with risk of dropping out, especially boys and Hispanic students, marked by better attendance, higher grade point averages and more earned credits counting toward graduation.
Herrera said the MAS program in Tucson inspired more students to pursue a college education.
“The MAS program was there to push us to continue our education no matter what the barriers were in front of us,” he said.
The success of Mexican American studies in Arizona has influenced teachers in other states to push for similar curriculum. The fight to develop more ethnic studies programs in California schools was primarily led by Jose Lara, a Los Angeles social studies teacher at Santee Education Complex High School. After establishing an ethnic studies course in his district, the district then made those classes mandatory to graduate. Five school districts in California now require ethnic studies, and 11 other districts offer ethnic studies as an elective. Even California Gov. Jerry Brown jumped on board last year when he signed into law a bill that would “develop a model curriculum for ethnic studies” in high schools across the state.
“It was an idea whose time had come,” Lara told the Atlantic. “The ban in Arizona lit a fire for everyone here to think, hey, we should be doing something about this."
In Texas, members of Librotraficante lobbied and petitioned for Mexican American studies to be offered across the state. The group’s advocacy paid off, as the Texas State Board of Education allowed interested schools to offer ethnic studies classes to students.
A new law that took effect in Indiana at the start of July now requires high schools to offer at least one ethnic studies course as an elective at least once every school year.
Herrera said “culturally relevant curriculum” has taken the place of MAS, but that these classes lack the critical focus on race theory and pedagogy that were integral to the original MAS program. As the trial of MAS and HB 2281 enters its second week, Herrera is hopeful that the result will be favorable for UNIDOS and the many teachers, parents and students who have been fighting for the program for the past six years.
The continued fight for MAS reflects similar goals held by the civil rights movement, when activists in the 1960s began actively pushing for the adoption of ethnic studies in colleges and universities. With traditional U.S. history and social studies curriculum often sanitizing U.S. history at the expense of the stories of black people, Native Americans and other communities of color, programs like Arizona’s Mexican American studies offer students like Herrera a chance to learn more about their culture and history.
“Not having it in itself is a more controversial thing,” Herrera said. “Because just allowing one side — these super one-sided views on these sorts of matters — it really just strips us of our identity.”