Author: Nolan L. Cabrera


Before the attacks on Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and other race-forward forms of education throughout the country, Arizona banned Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program (2010). The controversy gained national headlines when student activists took over a school board meeting protesting the elimination of the program (2011). Commentators from Fox News hosts Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck to Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson, activists and artists like Grammy award-winning Ozomatli, Chicano Studies co-founder Dr. Rudy Acuña, and Lalo Alcaraz, all became involved in the controversy as the stakes had ramifications throughout the country. Our book, Banned!: The Fight for Mexican American Studies in the Streets and the Courts, provides a firsthand, detailed account of the more than decade-long battle regarding the state’s elimination of this highly successful program, the intense racial politics of the state during this historical time, and both the grassroots and legal resistance to this state-sponsored racism.

Banned! takes the reader on a stranger-than-fiction journey through the intense battles both against the state and within Tucson Unified including the aforementioned student takeover of a school board meeting, the subsequent meeting that had 500 people in attendance and 150 Tucson police officers, four different court cases, the elimination of the program, district-wide walkouts reminiscent of the blowouts of the 1960s, book bannings, a community divided over the documentary Precious Knowledge, and a final verdict in 2017 that the Mexican American Studies ban was unconstitutional. Banned! includes stories that are stranger than fiction including a Tucson Unified board member going on The Daily Show, arguing against the Mexican American Studies program, and using Civil Rights icon “Rosa Clark” (yes, he said that) as evidence. Tom Horne as state superintendent getting caught by the FBI in a hit-and-run while visiting his mistress who was also his subordinate. Finally, state superintendent after Horne, John Huppenthal, being caught extensively trolling and blogging comparing the supporters of Mexican American Studies to Nazis and the KKK, shedding tears during his press conference,

This book offers a deep, uncompromising account of one community’s attempt for educational self-determination, detailing the victories as well as the divisions and lasting scars; scars that frequently accompany movement politics but are rarely discussed. Banned! is a dramatic, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant story about the potential and pitfalls of anti-racist education within a racist state. Banned! will be a critically important guide to educators, activists, and policy makers who are tasked with determining how best to prepare children to become full participants in America’s democracy.


Chapter 1

The Brown Scare: Arizona and the Formation of Anti-Mexican American Studies Fervor

If you’re pro-Chicano, you’re perceived to be and labeled anti-gringo. Don’t fall for this trick of gringo verbal jujitsu being labeled a reverse racist. Being proud of your heritage, your identity, your persona, is very natural and expected.

-José Angel Gutiérrez, A Gringo Manual on How to Handle Mexicans

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously declared the states are the “laboratories of democracy.” Due to the racist and regressive pieces of legislation coming out Arizona in the early 2010s specifically targeting Brown people, Jon Stewart – formerly of The Daily Show – affectionately labeled this state the “meth lab of democracy.” One of the central pieces of legislation passed in the summer of 2010 was HB2281 (now A.R.S. § 15-112). Spearheaded by then superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, the law allowed the state to withhold 10 percent of its funding to any school district having a course or class that:

1) Promote the overthrow of the United States government,
2) Promote resentment toward a race or class of people,
3) Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or
4) Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals4

This was Horne’s third attempt to pass the bill, and he was very direct that he intended this piece of legislation to eliminate Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). His first failed attempt occurred in 2008 when he attached this language as an amendment to Arizona Senate Bill 1108 – a Homeland Security Bill.5 That is not a typo. Horne honestly saw MAS as such a threat that he first tried to use a Homeland Security bill to eliminate the program.

What was so scary and threatening about these classes that led the Arizona elected officials to eventually pass HB2281 which would lead to the eventual outlawing of MAS in Tucson? More importantly, how did a motley crew of teachers, students, community members, scholars, and lawyers, successfully challenge this state-sponsored racism? These are the two questions guiding this book, which lead to some very complicated and important answers given a contemporary renaissance of Ethic Studies in K-12 education.

Some may ask if it is appropriate to refer to this piece of legislation as “state- sponsored racism”? After all, how could it not be in the interest of the state to outlaw classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government”? Would it not be important to sanction districts with classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people”? Theoretically, the answer is yes, but the devil is in proverbial the details. After 7 years of litigation and more than a decade of controversy, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled that racism and partisan politics were at the core of creating and implementing the law. This is the story of both the creation of this racist law as well as the collective resistance that helped lead to the federal ruling. What unfolded was the highest profile Ethnic Studies case in U.S. history.

This protracted fight, however, required the creation of the MAS boogieman. That is, in order to develop mass opposition to the program, there had to be a strong misinformation campaign. To do this, the MAS opponents engaged in a protracted propaganda effort in what Herman and Chomsky refer to as the manufacture of consent. Those demonizing the program knew they had to win in both the court of public opinion and legislative spheres – understanding the two are closely related. While the anti-MAS hysteria required the central actors and their supporters to be interconnected, we will describe them separately with the understanding that the narrative and position of one enhances the narrative and position of the others. Also, once HB2281 became codified as law in the form of A.R.S. § 15-112, the anti-MAS hysteria picked up exponentially consistent with Ibram X. Kendi’s thesis that racist policy fosters racist thought.

Some might ask why we are describing the opposition before describing the program, and that is a legitimate question. First, the center of this text is about resisting racist state policy. Second, by telling the story in this nonsequential order, it makes the reader consider what could have been so controversial to warrant this vast amount of time, energy, and monetary expenditures. We will begin with John Ward. He is, by some accounts, a courageous whistle blower, and by others a self-hating Hispanic who could not relate to critically-engaged Brown youth.

John Ward: Whistle Blower or Disgruntled Employee?

We could acquiesce and shuffle through life, hat in hand, picking up society’s crumbs. Or we could resist and assert our humanity. We resisted.

-Salomón Baldanegro, Sr. (Tucson activist), in The State Out of the Union

When marginalized peoples assert their collective humanity, it tends to ruffle some feathers. In this case, the ruffled one was John Ward. The MAS program was in existence for several years before Ward became a “teacher of record” in one of the classes, developing out of the Hispanic Studies Department of the late 1990s.9 From his experiences, Ward penned the now infamous or famous (depending on your perspective) op-ed in the Tucson Citizen entitled, “Raza Studies Gives Rise to Racial Hostility.” In his approximately 800- word complaint, Ward layout some very serious allegations against the MAS program and its employees. Although, it was curious how Ward initially framed the classes when he described them as, “similar to a sociology course one expects to see at a university.” Considering that Brown students continually suffer from the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (that is the only time you will hear us positively quote George W. Bush), it begs the larger question of why offering a class similar to one the University of Arizona offers would be problematic.

Without addressing that issue, Ward continued, “Where history was missing from the course, it was filled by controversial and biased curriculum. The basic theme of the curriculum was that Mexican-Americans were and continue to be victims of a racist American society driven by the interests of middle and upper-class whites.” The history of racism against Mexican-Americans by White people is historically, sociologically, and educationally-established fact. Ward’s statement highlights a central tension of the MAS controversy. While many buy into to the ideology of the U.S. as the “land of opportunity,” the empirical realities of social mobility do not reflect this perspective. It is interesting that Ward framed those critically examining anti-Mexican American racism as the “biased” ones when, in fact, the biggest area of bias existing in his own worldview that ignored these realities.

Regardless, Ward continued to rail against the “biases, racism, and American- hating,” he saw in the MAS program. He specifically took issue with MAS teachers using Tucson Unified as a source of curricular material. Specifically, they explored the under- representation of brown kids in AP classes, and Ward took issue with the conclusion that, “there are fewer Mexican-Americans in Tucson Magnet High School’s advanced placement courses because their ‘white teachers’ do not believe they are capable and do not want them to get ahead.” Given the vast adoption of “deficit models of education” (i.e., ones that blame the marginalized for their subordinate social position), it seems likely that this is an important component of this under-representation. However, Ward took any critique of socially-structured inequality as an assault on both American values and “reason,” and this has been a central way opponents of the program have framed their arguments – that being honest about anti-Mexican American racism and social inequities are akin to hating America and hating White people.

Ward’s narrative took a quick turn when he switched from what he saw to how it affected him personally being removed from the MAS class where he was the teacher of record. People within the MAS class claimed that Ward was visibly frustrated with the content of the course, and it hit a boiling point when he cursed at a student and slammed a book during class time which led to his removal. Ward instead claimed that the rationales for his removal were more insidious, “When I raised these concerns, I was told that I was a ‘racist,’ despite being Hispanic. The culmination of my challenge to the department’s curriculum was my removal from that particular class.” Ward was very upset about the class and his removal, but his self-description of being “Hispanic” is interesting because opponents of MAS tend to claim that color-blindness is the only acceptable method of social analysis – otherwise, we are “betraying” Dr. King’s dream. This descriptor instead means that race does not matter until, of course, it does.

Despite numerous weaknesses in Ward’s narrative, it was taken up by the conservative right in Tucson and beyond as the gospel truth. It became the center of anti- MAS organizing, and it led to a $1 million lawsuit filed on behalf of Ward against MAS affiliates Sean Arce and José Gonzalez. On February 13, 2013, Ward’s lawsuit was dismissed, but the damage was already done. His op-ed served as a rallying cry for anti- MAS activists, and the lawsuit drained both resources and energy from two of MAS’s central proponents, while eventually depriving countless students of educational opportunities in the process. Between Ward’s op-ed and his lawsuit being dismissed, Dolores Huerta gave a speech that further entrenched the anti-MAS crowd. Actually, that is not entirely accurate. One off-the-cuff phrase from her speech served this purpose.

Dolores Huerta Comes to Tucson

Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.
-Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

In 2006, labor leader Dolores Huerta was giving a speech at Tucson Magnet High School where she offered some thoughts on anti-Latino politics. Specifically, she said that because of their legislative agenda that “Republicans hate Latinos.” A little context here is necessary. In late 2005, and in preparation for the 2006 midterm elections, Republican congressman John Sensenbrenner introduced HR4437 which not only created harsh, draconian penalties for undocumented people nationally but went so far as to criminalize those who offered humanitarian aid to these people.18 The strategy behind the bill was to serve as a wedge issue, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment among the Republican base, thereby driving up voter turnout in the midterm elections. With this as a political backdrop, Huerta’s statement seems both sound and accurate. That is, if a group of people are willing to strip another of their humanity to gain a partisan advantage, “hate” is an appropriate label.

The irony of the situation is that many on the right instead framed Huerta’s talk as “hate speech.” In particular, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne was incensed. He sent his deputy secretary, a Latina named Margaret Garcia Dugan, to Tucson to offer a rebuttal at a school assembly. Essentially, her speech argued, “I am an example that Republicans don’t hate Latinos.” Attendance for students was mandatory, and there would not be a chance for a Q&A period. As Garcia Dugan began speaking, students in the audience revealed white shirts saying, “You can silence my voice but not my spirit.” Many also symbolically placed painters’ tape across their mouths as a silent protest in response to the lack of any dialogue with Garcia Dugan. Eventually, many walked out.