In case you haven't heard, there is some serious business going down in Arizona. In 2010, the state passed a bill calling for the dismantling of ethnic studies programs. Last month, in compliance with the state ban on ethnic studies classes, the Tucson Unified School District began removing books found on the reading lists of Mexican American Studies courses from classrooms. The list of books includes textbooks, award winning books and classics. Debbie Reese, a former school teacher and a scholar who studies American Indians in children's literature, has been closely following what is happening in Arizona. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll point you to her blog in which she includes a chronological list of stories and posts related to the events.
Needless to say, it is disheartening to read about what is happening in Arizona. A 2009 Pew Hispanic report (based on the 2009 American Community Survey) found that 31% of the state's population is "Hispanic" with 91% of that group being of Mexican descent. But we didn't need to look up that information to know what Arizona is like, right? Those in opposition of ethnic studies courses argue that they distort history, stir up anti-Caucasian sentiment (though I'm not sure if they ever actually name which race is being targeted by these angry mobs of Mexican American kids) and basically get "minorities" riled up. Books can be powerful and scary, yes?
Back in May of 2010 when the Arizona ban on ethnic studies classes passed I wrote something for another blog I was keeping at the time. So, I thought this a good opportunity to repost this piece about the role ethnic literature and ethnic studies played in my own life as the child of immigrants and the first and only person in my family to graduate from college:
I was, in many ways, lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood that was all brown all around. With the exception of some of my teachers, I can recall having one White (Anglo, non-Hispanic) classmate during my elementary and junior high years--hi, Marsha Hoover, wherever you are! Aside from any interaction I had with White adults in, say, a store or at the library--and this rarely happened because my neighborhood branch was predominantly staffed by African-Americans and we did our shopping in neighborhood stores owned and staffed by Latinos--I didn't interact with Whites. When I went on to high school we had less than twenty White kids in our school. So when I left home for a small college town a six hour drive north of Miami, I suffered major culture shock. College culture in itself was something foreign to me, and something that kids with college graduate parents knew as second nature. There was a language and way about it I wasn't familiar with. Nevermind the fact that after growing up a majority I was suddenly a minority. Despite having graduated in the top ten of my class, I struggled for most of my undergraduate years. I had no support system. My fellow high school classmates who were with me at the same university were all kind of flailing for a lifeline too, and it wasn't like we could call home and get words of comfort and encouragement since most of our parents didn't really even get why we felt the need to leave home for college. I felt like an outsider. I didn't feel engaged. Perhaps, if I were a different kind of person, my experience would have been different too.
During my third year of college three things happened that were huge for me. First, I read Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. I grew up a reader, and I was an English major, but the first time I saw myself in a book it was in this book that I read during my summer break (thanks to a Sassy magazine review of all things!) The second thing that happened was that my work study brought me to the Office of Minority Affairs and Special Programs (which has since been renamed, no longer reflecting its role in the college life of underrepresented students) where I worked as an office assistant and, later, as a peer counselor. The department housed the offices of the Associate Dean of Minority Affairs for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the head of the Afro-American Studies Department (who was one of the first two African-Americans to be hired as faculty in the Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences), and the Upward Bound program. The office also provide peer counselors for students who came in on probationary status to help them transition into college life. Many, if not most, were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. The third thing that happened was that I took an Ethnic Literature class, taught by the aforementioned head of the Afro-American Studies Department (which is now called the African American Studies Program) where we not only read about the African-American and Mexican-American experiences, but also about the Jewish and Japanese-American experiences, among others. My Ethnic Literature professor went on to become a good friend and mentor. These three things were instrumental in my finding a sense of place as a college student and as a person caught between worlds.
Being away from home and a stranger in a strange land prompted me to learn more about my own history and culture. It suddenly became very important for me to hold onto something I took for granted growing up and, oddly, something I felt like I didn't know enough about. My parents, being from two different countries, never really immersed us in their own cultures. We got a little bit here and there, probably more of my father's Cuban culture because he was the bread winner and made most of the household decisions, and because I grew up in a city heavily populated by Cubans. The fact that my mother came to this country from Mexico in her early teens and never expressed much desire to be near her family or her native country or rehash old times and traditions ensured that we were raised in a household that was more Cuban than Mexican. Decades later, I still feel like I walk the tight rope not only between what my world was like growing up (and what it is like when I return home to visit) and the mostly White world I now live in, but also between my parents' cultures. I never feel enough of anything. My Spanish isn't Mexican enough. My ways aren't Cuban enough. I'm quite obviously not White. Quite honestly, I still often still feel a bit confused and lost. With a little one who is half White, I struggle to figure out what cultural practices to pass on to him. What is my culture? It's a lot of things that often feel like they don't quite mesh. And yet, they do, in me.
Did I get off on a tangent again? I think I did. My initial reason for this post was as a reaction to the madness that is going on in Arizona. The anti-immigrant law hurt, but the anti-Ethnic Studies law feels like it hits a lot closer to home for me because as a college student it was my ethnic literature class and my involvement with the OMASP that made all the difference in my ability to stick it out. I've seen a number of articles where it's pointed out that the law prohibits Ethnic Studies classes that promote hatred of other races and segregation as a form of see-not-ALL-ethnic-studies-classes! But who determines what falls into these categories? It's so much easier to make a full on clean sweep, right? Tom Horne compares ethnic studies classes to the "old South." That seems to be such an extreme and inaccurate comparison. To compare a group that has always run the show to one that can barely find enough books that represent their place in this country? I wonder how many elementary and secondary schools even offer ethnic studies classes, especially in light of the fact that public education today is mostly about teaching to a test. Is there even time or money for these types of classes? Perhaps this law doesn't even mean much of much, but what nags at my thoughts is: what goes next?
The locked books image comes from this story on the Colorlines Website.