I am waiting for Marjorie Ann. My wife, Marlo, is 7 months pregnant with her. Our soon to arrive daughter is named after her grandmother, my wife’s mother who died just before the start of Marlo’s senior year in high school. I never had the chance to meet the elder Marjorie, but I’ve gotten to know her through the stories Marlo and her family tell. For example I know Marjorie was a free spirit who fearlessly loved her children. Who at Marlo’s high school basketball games, where Marlo was an all-district power-forward, often grabbed the unused pom-poms of bored cheerleaders and led fellow parents in a cheer, and if no other parents joined her, she cheered alone. It was important to Marjorie that Marlo know what unconditional love looked like. When Marjorie died in August of 1994, from colon cancer, the details of her final days are harrowing but again reveal a woman of bravery and grace.
Marjorie’s story is an example of how every moment in a person’s life can create lasting meaning. I have learned from Marjorie’s experiences, but if Marjorie’s life had been made into a book and taught to students of the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson’s Unified School District (TUSD), her story would more than likely be banned because Marjorie was Mexican-American.
On January 10, TUSD suspended the MAS program and in at least one classroom had books, written primarily by Mexican-American authors, physically removed while a class was in session. In a press release TUSD explained that the books used in the former MAS program had not been banned but instead moved into storage and claimed the “stored” books were available in most of the district’s libraries. TUSD also claimed the curriculum taught in MAS will not be lost but instead added to the general curriculum.
TUSD’s untenable position of inclusion by removal is the doing of current Superintendent for Public Instruction John Huppenthal and his predecessor Tom Horne. Despite TUSD’s weak statement to the contrary the only plausible goal of ARS 15-112, the state law banning ethnic studies, is to suppress the Mexican-American population in Arizona by diluting its history and delegitimizing the native voices of the state. As Native-American writer Sherman Alexie recently pointed out (his works also banned by TUSD): “Let's get one thing out of the way: Mexican immigration is an oxymoron. Mexicans are indigenous…I'm also strangely pleased that the folks of Arizona have officially announced their fear of an educated underclass. You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world.”
According to the law banning MAS, courses and classes must not promote the overthrow of the United States government. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people. Be designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
In other words, Huppenthal and Horne believe that the MAS program was creating an army of Mexican revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the government. That works of fiction by, Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, Manuel Muñoz and Luis Alberto Urrea (just to name a few), that a coming-of-age story about a young girl in Chicago and of men looking for work and love, of young men discovering their sexuality California’s picking fields and of a boy growing up in the streets of Tijuana, stories as meaningful and instructive as Marjorie’s, are somehow a threat to national security.
I find it hard to believe that either Huppenthal or Horne actually believe an armed rebellion is marching their way. Instead what Huppenthal and Horne really fear is democratic change. Tom Horne, now Arizona’s attorney general, has been a hardliner against immigrants and immigration for years, accusing “Illegals” of voter fraud and accusing the Obama administration of pursuing the “illegal” vote when the justice department challenged Arizona’s voter ID law. “I think the motive is that the more illegals that vote, the better the Obama administration thinks it will do.” Huppenthal and Horne are not working to stave off revolution but cynically fomenting a culture of fear in Arizona, fear of immigrants and, as Sherman Alexie accurately points out, of an educated underclass in the hopes of keeping their political power.
Revealingly, neither Huppenthal nor Horne are native Arizonans or from the Southwest—for that matter neither is Governor Jan Brewer (California) or Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Massachusetts). John Huppenthal is from Indiana and Tom Horne from Canada. While both men have lived in Arizona for a number of years, it is clear that neither of them has truly assimilated into the indigenous culture of Arizona. They do not, or do not want to, understand what it means to live on the border. La Frontera is not just a line separating two countries but a space where both cultures coexist. A space where Huppenthal and Horne are the ones actively “promoting resentment toward a race or class of people.”
In 2010 93.6% of students enrolled in the MAS program graduated from high school while a comparison group had only an 82.7% rate. This gap in graduation rates has been consistent since 2005, according to TUSD’s Department of Accountability and Research. Higher graduation rates among MAS students means higher graduation rates for Mexican-Americans, meaning more Mexican-American students will be eligible for and attend college. The success of the MAS program and the changing demographics of the state, of the entire Southwest, mean that soon our governments will reflect this new and better-educated majority. This change will not be the realization of Huppenthal and Horne’s deranged fantasy of government overthrow but instead a democratic choice made by voters who will insist representatives understand the wishes and desires of the people they serve.
While I am waiting for my daughter to be born I am not waiting to make the schools she will attend better. Like the elder Marjorie I am shaking my pom-poms, working with groups like Save Ethnic Studies, UNIDOS, and the Librotraficantes to end the ban of the Mexican-American Studies program and bring the books by our historians, cultural critics, and literary greats back to our classrooms. When Marjorie Ann Mendez is born, I want her to live in an Arizona where she is not a second-class citizen. Where her culture will proudly be represented in schools like it will be in her home. I want her to be free to learn about our heritage, our history and our stories just as freely as she will learn about her family, especially the grandmother for whom she was named.
Matt Mendez is a writer and aircraft mechanic. He lives in Tucson.