Despite a few pockets of wealth, Tucson Unified School District is a largely poor district that serves a majority-Latino population. White students make up only about 20 percent of the district, and the vast majority of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches. TUSD’s students fall behind their peers around the state in standardized testing, and students of color fall even further behind their white peers.
Romero and other Mexican American studies founders hoped that by connecting history with current events and ethnic identity, the program would inspire Latino students in particular to envision a better future for themselves, their communities and the country. The classes, taught by a small corps of teachers spread across the district, counted for required graduation credits, though they weren’t mandatory — students were free to take standard American history or literature classes instead. In 2010, before the ban kicked in, the program included roughly 2,000 students per year and existed in five high schools, as well as some middle and elementary schools.
María Federico Brummer, who began teaching in the program in 2006, says the classes spoke to her students in a way that sparked intellectual curiosity and motivated them to imagine more for themselves. “As a middle school teacher, I could see it. I knew this was the way we should be teaching our students,” she says. “You saw these students were feeling more academically engaged, students feeling for the first time that they could be scholars in some way and that school wasn’t a foreign place for them, but someplace where they could have a future.”
Several surveys and independent audits backed that up, finding that students enrolled in the program saw improved scores in reading, writing and even math. They also were less likely to drop out, and more likely to feel engaged in school.
But critics, including Paton, the Republican lawmaker who had picked up on Dolores Huerta’s comments, described the program pointedly as a cult of personality around Romero and other early leaders that had an “almost pseudo-spiritualistic” vibe. Teachers who opposed the program reported harassment from Mexican American studies teachers and students. Several opponents of the program were put on a blacklist and have long suspected their opposition was the cause.
“It was just really weird. There was a lot about self-confidence and connection to my people — kind of liberation theology,” Paton says. “They were teaching about Aztlán. … It was completely wackadoodle.” (Aztlán is the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztec people, as well as a term used by Chicano activists to refer to the area seized in the Mexican-American War.)
Doug MacEachern, a conservative editorial columnist for the Arizona Republic at the time, found in the program a never-ending source of commentary. “Until these ideologues got their claws in them, these kids actually had a good chance at an education,” McEachern said in an interview. “I try to stay away from these terms, but you can’t: They were turning them into Marxist foot soldiers.”
After years of attacking the program, Republican lawmakers finally put a bill to ban classes that teach “racial resentment” and advocate “the overthrow of the government” on the governor’s desk in 2010. Brewer signed the legislation — as well as Arizona’s hardline immigration legislation, SB 1070 — the same year.
When the hammer finally came down, Federico Brummer joined other teachers in going class-to-class to round up the books they had used in the curriculum. Some students cried, she says, as she boxed up copies of Elizabeth Martinez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America. Students held a 24-hour vigil.
Under threat from state lawmakers and politicians in Phoenix to revoke millions in state funding for violating the ban, Tucson’s school board disbanded the program in 2011. That was when the fight reached its climactic moment, an intense confrontation not unlike the school board fights playing out today — though it was students, not parents, who led the protest.
On an April day that year, a group of more than a hundred students and supporters swarmed a school board meeting in the district office. Nine of them stormed the dais and wrestled with security before chaining themselves to the governing board members’ chairs. “Our education is under attack,” they chanted. “What do we do? Fight back!”
The meeting was shut down, temporarily delaying the inevitable dissolution of the program. The affair made national news, deepening the divide between the two sides and heightening the tension in the community.
Critics like MacEachern argue to this day that the students wouldn’t have protested without orders from their teachers. “Who bought them the chains and the padlocks?” he asked. But the teachers were proud of the students’ display, and they say they hadn’t planned it — that the ban was an attack on the students as much as it was on the program.
“The most beautiful part of it is that they were able to keep that a secret even from us,” Romero says. “The honest truth of this is, when I stood up and saw the students rush in, they scared the heck out of me too.”
All of this occurred at a trying time for Arizona’s Latinos. The immigration and education bills came on the heels voters’ overwhelmingly backing a proposal to bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition to local universities and community colleges. It was the same era when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was racially profiling Latinos in traffic stops and conducting workplace raids looking for undocumented immigrants. (Arpaio was later convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying an order to stop racially profiling, a crime for which Trump pardoned him.)
As stressful as those years were, in a way they were also gratifying for leaders of the Mexican American studies program. The students were living through the same struggles their icons had faced in Chicano rights movement decades earlier — the same kinds of struggles they had read about. They were fighting for better education the same way Dolores Huerta fought for better working conditions. They were making their own history.
“I saw our students organize and grow and make not just themselves proud, but their families and our community proud with the work they were doing to save our program,” Federico Brummer says.
Indeed, the ban wasn’t the end of Mexican American studies in Tucson. In 2012, a federal court appointed a “special master” to oversee negotiations in the district’s decades-old desegregation case — an academic named Willis D. Hawley, who saw the program’s benefit to Latino students. Hawley ordered the district to reinstate Mexican American studies while finding a way to comply with the 2010 state law. So, the program’s teachers and administrators began to rebuild. They ditched the name Mexican American studies in favor of “culturally responsive” classes and curriculum. But the books the program used were re-incorporated, and most of the same teachers stayed involved.
Veterans of the Mexican American studies program say it was never really the same after the state’s ban, however. Federico Brummer was required to undergo “retraining” to unlearn some of the tactics used in Mexican American studies, she says. As they restarted the program, Arizona Department of Education officials, led by John Huppenthal — a chief opponent of the program who became state superintendent of public instruction, the state’s highest educational authority, just after the ban passed — sent monitors to the classes to keep an eye on teachers and even read their lesson plans.
The TUSD’s culturally responsive curriculum program today is bigger than Mexican American studies ever was: It now includes more than 200 teachers in history, literature and social studies classes for about 6,000 students. It’s in every high school and middle school in the district, with plans to expand into elementary schools. But without the original dedicated core group of teachers, the classes just aren’t as good, says Federico Brummer, who is now director of the TUSD’s Mexican American Student Services. The spike in test scores that teachers saw in the heyday of the program has mostly faded away, too.
“We have an issue about quantity versus quality,” Federico Brummer says. “We have teachers being ‘voluntold,’ ‘You’re going to teach this language arts course from a Mexican American viewpoint.’ And that’s totally different.”
What does Tucson’s embrace of ethnic studies portend for the rest of the country as it debates whether schools should — or even do — teach critical race theory? The political context today is different, as is the curriculum that’s up for debate, but there are some lessons from how the fight in Arizona played out.