Here’s the latest installment in our multi-part series on Saving Ethnic Studies in Arizona. Jeff Biggers speaks to Tucson student activist Erin Cain-Hodge about how Mexican American studies has affected her worldview.
Born in Sierra Vista, and raised in Bisbee and Tucson, Erin Cain-Hodge has been one of the leading voices in Tucson’s UNIDOS student movement, which organized the historic takeover of the Tucson school board last spring. On January 24th, UNIDOS will also launch a “School for Ethnic Studies” forum in Tucson, as part of on-going protests against the ban on Mexican American Studies (MAS). As part of our series on Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies students and alumni, we speak with MAS alumna Cain-Hodge, who is currently a student at the University of Arizona. While Attorney General Tom Horne frequently (and erroneously) tells media outlets that TUSD’s Ethnic Studies program segregates students by race or ethnicity, Cain-Hodge reminds of us of the value and impact of Mexican American Studies on a diverse student mix.
Jeff Biggers: What Ethnic Studies courses did you take?
Erin Cain-Hodge: I went to Tucson High Magnet School and there I took Latino Literature for my Junior and Senior English requirements. I also took American History: Mexican American perspectives and American Government: Ethnic Studies.
JB: Can you describe some of the MAS curriculum and its impact on your course of study at the UA?
ECH: When I entered the University of Arizona I was a Microbiology major, then I was a Public Health major and now I am Undecided. During high school I was a total science nerd and it never occurred to me that I would be anything but a science major in college but as I took more and more science and math classes I became more and more frustrated because the curriculum didn’t relate back to social justice, which is what I really have a passion for. I don’t think I would have been frustrated with it were it not for the MAS classes I took in high school and my involvement in UNIDOS. Now that I am Undecided I am looking into majors where I can study many different cultures and different issues they are faced with because I think that before an outsider comes into a community to try and help, that it is important they understand the culture they walk into and that they have a respect for the people they want to work with.
JB: Did the MAS course work influence your decision to pursue an education?
ECH: The MAS courses influenced my decision to be involved with UNIDOS and then my work in UNIDOS influenced my decision to pursue a more socially conscience major. After joining UNIDOS, the struggle for ethnic studies became a part of my daily life and I realized that community organizing and activism is something that I not only have the skills to do, but that I love doing and want to do, hopefully for a very long time.
JB: What about outside the classroom, and in the wider Tucson community?
ECH: It was definitely my work outside of the classroom and with UNIDOS that influenced my decision to change from a science major to undecided. These classes completely changed my world and for some reason I didn’t think that they would ever have the power to change the direction my life took, but they did.
JB: What role could MAS courses play in the study and lives of non-Mexican American students?
ECH: I think one of the most important ideas taught in this class are the different types of privilege people have. Understanding your privilege is not about feeling guilty of your whiteness, or of your money. It is about understanding that by being light skinned, people see you differently than your darker skinned friends because of the stereotypes attached to them. It is realizing that having citizenship, being heterosexual, having a house, food, a school, and the opportunity to go to college are things that give you privilege and therefore make life easier for you. It is important to understand the inequalities that exist in American society today because without understanding the problems, they can never be fixed.
JB: What does Tucson–and the nation–lose by abolishing the Mexican American Studies program?
ECH: By getting rid of the MAS courses Tucson and the country have lost out on hundreds of students that will graduate high school believing that they do not have a place in this country and that they don’t belong here because their histories are not taught in the textbooks. They will lose out on future scholars of color and fewer Latin@/Chican@ students will graduate from TUSD. They will lose out on critically conscience students that are ready for college. These classes are really about loving yourself and having respect and love for others and I think that if Tucson really wanted to promote civility and understanding, that they would do everything they possibly could to keep these classes alive.