In this installment of our multi-part series on the struggle to defend ethnic studies in Arizona, ethnic studies pioneer Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, author of Occupied America, talks to CultureStrike’s Michelle Chen about what the ongoing debate over Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program says about deeper currents of America’s history and political culture.
Michelle Chen: You made public statements last year warning that the crackdown on ethnic studies in Tucson was a harbinger of things to come (see this previous interview with Jeff Biggers). Since then, we’ve seen the legal and political war on ethnic studies intensify, culminating in the “book ban,” along with a slew of other anti-immigrant policies from the state legislature. In your view, have those earlier fears been borne out in the last few months?
Rodolfo Acuña: Yes, they unfortunately were borne out. What many don’t understand is that Arizona is a much more fertile test ground from the right than places like Wisconsin or Ohio where there is a long tradition and trade union movement. The press in Arizona is much more reactionary and money via the Koch Brothers and other special interests gets much more for the buck. Consequently ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the Tea Party, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, et al can control the legal system. It does not help that the White House is spineless and does not enforce the Constitution. It will get worse because there are no brakes. Mexicans don’t count for much–even among the Left.
MC: You recently wrote about a political slippery slope, placing the crackdown on ethnic studies on the same continuum as, for example, the Spanish Inquisition, slavery, etc. Talk about the link between the more “obvious” forms of oppression, which many believe America has somehow overcome, and more insidious forms of abuse, censorship and disenfranchisement in the education system today.
RA: Well, when you get a nine year-old girl by the name of Bresinia Flores shot down in her home by extremists and the press ignores it until the time of trial, I think that is pretty outrageous. You have seen my most recent article on the Inquisition; the Inquisition is always in the past — it is the Spanish Inquisition never the American Inquisition. Personally, I am pessimistic about the future. I can see the obvious links between forms of oppression but I do not believe that even the Left does. If a nine-year old of any other race had been assassinated there would have been an outcry by The Nation and the Left Press gaggle. The Left cares about Mexicans, but we are low on its priority list. There is always Wisconsin and Ohio. I don’t really know if America (the United States) can be redeemed. I don’t believe that the German people have been absolved for their silence during the Holocaust. I think people today who are complicit through their silence should be ashamed.
MC: Do you think public attitudes toward ethnic studies have changed since 9/11? What’s the connection between increasing nationalism and militarism in the political arena and our political culture, and educational policy?
RA: No, I believe that the feelings toward Mexican American Studies were not affected by 9/11. The assault on MAS began years before; it is an extension of the killing of bilingual education. Propositions 187, 227 and 209 occurred in the 1990s at a time when there was relatively prosperous times. You can’t blame it on one incident; the xenophobia is part of the American Way. Remember the Repatriations of the 1930s and the internment of the Japanese.
MC: When you published Occupied America, did you face a similar political climate? In what ways was the public reaction similar, or different, back then?
RA: It was different then. The population was younger and although we had resistance, we also had a young and politicized left. The energy of the black movement offered some shield. There were also less Mexicans in the United States so we were less of a threat.
MC: Have you faced similar political battles in California over the teaching of your book or any other ethnic studies initiatives? Is this a matter of opportunistic politicians in Arizona exploiting the immigration issue, or does it represent broader trend?
RA: There has always been resistance to my books. I published three children’s books before Occupied America, and two were banned in Texas. Some teachers in California threw the books in the waste basket. Censorship in Tucson did not begin recently. I hark back to the banning of bilingual education. What is frightening about Arizona is that the right has singled out Mexicans because they know that there will be little push back. I think this will continue. In California the drive will be different, it will be through the initiative process. If nativists go too far, they will just not get elected to statewide office. However, listen to the Republican presidential candidate, they truly represent what Americans think.
MC: This presidential campaign will bring an onslaught of right-wing rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigrant groups. How might that escalate tensions with respect to issues of race and diversity in public education?
RA: What I am most afraid of is Obama. He is genuinely gutless. If he would have put his foot down and enforced the law in Arizona this would be over with. The right wing there is trying to nullify the constitution but he thinks he can ride it out. Tucson for the past 30 years has been under a federal court order to desegregation. It has given hundreds of millions of dollars to it to desegregate, fifty years after Brown v. the Board of Education, Tucson is still segregated. Charter schools offer white people an escape.
MC: Overall, what trends have you witnessed in public education and higher education over the past generation in terms of progressive pedagogy that examines society from a social justice standpoint? Would you say there has been progress overall, and in what areas have we stagnated or regressed?
RA: No, the runaway tuition costs has wiped everything out. Teachers have helped little. You would think that the teachers’ unions would be in Tucson en masse–are they? No, instead, they are pushing for more raises parading will inane signs that say, “We teach the 99 percent!” Why aren’t they in jail?
MC: You’ve always seen activism and education as deeply intertwined. When you see students in Tucson mobilizing to defend ethnic studies, as well as these Occupy protests going on around the country, how do you think that might help shift the political climate? As an activist and scholar, do you have advice on advocates for progressive education can build these movements?
RA: If they weren’t Mexican, people might care. I think that they are heroic, but Arizona, as well as most states, are controlled by elderly white voters who just care about themselves. “Don’t touch my social security but it is alright if you eliminated for others.” Scholars are not really activists; they may have been at one time but today. Most resent having to teach; they want to come up with the grand theory. “Progressive scholars” don’t have the foggiest as to what is happening in Tucson. Mexican-American Studies was part of the pedagogy to bring about methods built around critical thinking. But I haven’t heard much from the “progressive scholars.”
Front page photo: Diane Ovalle