The Battle for Mexican-American Studies in Tucson: What Happened This Week

Jun 30, 2017
3:46 PM

Students outside the court. (Photo by Bryan Parras @highTechAztec)

On June 26, the Arizona law that bans the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson public schools went back to court. Throughout this week, there was a debate about if the intention of this law was to discriminate against Latinos.

For five days, lawyers have been defending Tucson students, teachers and the ethnic studies program against the ban. On the other side, the State of Arizona defended the decision to end the program and the over 80 books currently banned, including The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Drown by Junot Díaz and other authors like Sherman Alexie, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carmen Tafolla.

What’s the Law About:

The Arizona House Bill 2281 prohibits public schools to have classes in their curriculum that:

  • “Promote the overthrow of the United States Government”
  • “Promote resentment towards a race or class of people”
  • “Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group”
  • “Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

If schools do not follow the law, the Department of Education can take 10 percent of the state’s school aid every month.

The authors of this law are the former Superintendent John Huppenthal and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. These two have been testifying in court to defend the law.

Former state legislator Steve Montenegro sponsored the bill.

What Happened to the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) Program and the Books?

In the late 1990’s, teachers put together the program to highlight Chicano, Latino and Latin American literature not taught in schools. In 2012, Tucson public schools decided to suspend the program after Huppenthal said the program had violated the “ethnic studies ban law” that Arizona passed in 2010. Books were literally removed from classrooms.

MAS advocates argued that this law was unconstitutional and violated the rights of students to learn about Mexican-American history. In 2013, Judge Wallace Tashima considered most parts of the law constitutional. The ban is still in place.

Here Is What Has Happened This Week at the Trial

Before the Trial

Many advocate groups gathered on Sunday ahead of the trial to organize. Some of these groups were U.N.I.D.O.S. and Librotraficante.

Librotraficante started their Caravan in June 21 from Houston to Tucson, making stops in San Antonio and Albuquerque. This group was created by Tony Diaz back in 2012. Their mission is to collect books that are banned and bring them back to the schools.

“It will take some talking with the rest of the group. There will be more actions and appeals. It’s horrible and this is something that could spread to other states” Bryan Parras, a Librotraficante member, said during a phone interview when asked about further actions if judges don’t change their mind about the ban.

U.N.I.D.O.S., a “youth Coalition birthed from the injustice of the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona education,” also rallied outside the court.

U.N.I.D.O.S. advocate outside at Evo A. DeConcini Federal Building & US Courthouse. (Photo by Bryan Parras @highTechAztec)


Three Sonorans have been using their social media platforms to give updates on the trial as video and audio was not allowed in the courtroom.

Also, Roque Planas of the HuffPost spent the whole week in Tucson.


Day 1: Both Sides Presented Their Arguments

Lawyers defending the MAS program argued that the ban is a violation of the First Amendment and a discriminatory act to eliminate a program that they claim has helped the students. Jim Quinn is one the lawyers representing the students.  “This was an innovative program, your honor,” Quinn said.

Curtis Acosta was the first witness to testify on Monday. He is a teacher at the Tucson High Magnet School. He taught a Latino literature class when the MAS program was still allowed in school.

“Many of my students would say it was the first time they saw themselves in the material,” Acosta told the HuffPost.

The state argued that such studies provided material that was “politicized, biased and propagandist” and depicted Latinos as an oppressed community.

Huppenthal testified in court. Maya Arce, a former student, also testified.

Day 2: Huppenthal Didn’t Apologize for Comments He Made on a Online Blog

Several years ago, Huppenthal used anonymous names online to call the Mexican-American studies “KKK in different color.” He criticized the program for using “the exact same technique that Hitler used to rise in power.” He also called for “No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish TV stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America speak English.”

Lawyers defending MAS used these comments to try and prove Huppenthal’s discriminatory intentions to end the program.

During court, Huppenthal stood by his comments, saying his intentions were to help Mexican-American students to succeed in school.

“If I talked about the need for fluency in English, it’s because I thought it would help students be successful,” Huppenthal said during his testimony, as reported by HuffPost and Planas.

Day 3: Sean Arce, One of the MAS Founders, Testified

On this day, the state’s lawyers went through two provisions of the law: whether the MAS classes “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnics group” and “advocate ethnic solidarity, instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” to justify their reason to eliminate “La Raza” classes. They looked at emails and texts to find specific language to try and prove their point.

Sean Arce testified for the first time. According to people in the courtroom, Arce tried to explained what the classes were about and how they were taught, but the judge did not allow it saying, “I am not interested in his pedagogy. The only question we are here to answer is ‘what was the state of mind of the 2 superintendents when they wrote this law.”

Nolan Cabrera, professor of University of Arizona, also testified in front of the judges. He led a study that proved that MAS have helped students. The study shows that students enrolled in the program graduated at higher rates and did better in state tests.

Day 4: Arce and Cabrera Testified Again

This time, the judge allowed the state to look into the characteristics of the classes within the MAS program: demographics, name of the classes and topics discussed.

According to people in the courtroom, during the cross examination, the judge allowed the state to look into Arce’s pedagogy and some articles he has written before. The purpose was to show that curriculum was indoctrinating students to become “ revolutionaries” that would resist white supremacy.

Day 5: Last Day of the Trial’s First Part

Friday was the last day of the trial’s first part. The state called Former Associate Superintendent Kathy Hrabluk to testify as as witness. Hrabluk had an important role in 2013. She went to different public schools to observe the classes within the MAS program.

According to people in the courtroom, Hrabluk expressed concerns about the MAS program because the state had no knowledge of what the students were learning or thinking.

The judge and state went over an auditi report commissioned by Huppenthal himself to examine the classes. The report had concluded that there was “no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law.”

During the cross examination, the judge asked for documents where Hrabluck showed concern about the MAS program. According to someone in the courtroom, they could not find any drafts where Hrabluck expressed concern. She said that those concerns were discussed in personal meetings.

Hrabluck’s testimony did not finish. She is expected to be the first to testify during the second part of the trial.

The trial will resume on July 18 and likely conclude on July 21, when a final decision is expected. While this part of the trial ends, the XITO 4th Annual Summer Institute will take place from June 30 to July 2. The initiative is organized by the Xicanx Institute for Teaching and Organizing—a group of teachers and community organizer advocating “to resist the current wave of destruction impacting our schools and communities.”


María Camila Montañez is a journalism student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Spanish-language program. She is originally from Colombia and tweets from @mariacmontanez.