New Documentary Tackles La Raza Studies
Wednesday, 16 February 2011 17:17
Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, passed to shut down programs like Mexican-American Raza Studies in the Tucson Unified School District, causes deeply divided feelings in both the Senate room and the classroom. It is also the subject of a new documentary being made by local documentary makers Eren McGinnis and Ari Palos, called Precious Knowledge. Work on the film began two years ago, and primarily follows the stories of several students at Tucson High School while investigating the history of the bill and the conflicts it has created.
House Bill 2281 is a controversial piece of legislation signed in May last year, piloted by prominent conservatives such as Tom Horne, newly elected Attorney General (though Superintendent at the time), Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce and John Huppenthal, the current state Superintendent. The bill gives Huppenthal the ability to withhold monthly funding from schools that violate the bill’s set of requirements.
The bill states that classes cannot teach resentment of other races, cannot be designed for a specific ethnic group, cannot tell students to overthrow the government and cannot “advocate solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
Opponents of the bill say the broad wording of the bill gives the superintendent too much arbitrary power, and that it is inherently racist against Hispanics. Proponents say that it is the La Raza program that is racist, teaching students a form of cultural supremacy.
“At one point, it was all ethnic studies, but now it’s pretty clear the only people Tom Horne is after is Mexican-Americans,” said Eren McGinnis. Native American studies are protected under the U.S. constitution, and McGinnis said other programs, like African-American and Asian programs, will be left untouched because “Horne received no complaints about those.”
TUSD’s Raza program is the only one of its kind in the nation, said McGinnis, which makes Tucson the true center of the ongoing conflict. McGinnis, a documentary maker who has a history of focusing on issues of social justice and civil rights, said that she is “in the right place at the right time” for a film like this, and hopes to raise awareness and show how the legislation has affected students, families and communities.
TUSD schools have not yet shut down their Mexican-American classes, which include classes such as Latino Literature and American Government Ethnic Studies, but they may be running out of time. Huppenthal has given the district until the end of the school year to shut down La Raza classes, though some teachers at the school have banded together to question the constitutionality of the bill in federal court.
“Using economic pressure is a really effective strategy for shutting down a program,” McGinnis said. “And it creates tension and divisions in the school itself. Teachers who don’t teach ethnic studies might think, ‘why should we suffer because of them?’”
According to McGinnis, students in TUSD are leading the charge to protect their classes, petitioning government officials and attending board meetings. She is impressed by the activism shown by students in trying to protect their classes, classes she believes have a positive effect on Mexican-American youth.
According to McGinnis and Palos' findings, the high school drop-out rate among Mexican-Americans is close to 50 percent, but the students who participate in Mexican-American/Raza studies have close to a 100 percent graduation rate. The classes are electives, available for anyone with interest, none of them mandatory.
“They teach the kids to take their education seriously, and show them the statistics. When the kids start seeing things like that, they realize that if they don’t graduate from high school, their life stories won’t turn out well,” McGinnis said.
For the film itself, McGinnis and Palos tried to be as passive and observational as possible, to be the “fly on the wall,” especially when sitting in on classes. For the narrative, they chose three students they thought could help tell the story they wanted to tell, and at the same time reveal something about Mexican-American socioeconomic and cultural issues.
“We wanted to find students with their own voices, and we wanted them to be representative of the challenges that Mexican-American youth face.”
McGinnis said that these challenges include poverty, parents’ own lack of education, the perceived unimportance of education, lack of role models, questions of self-worth and place in society.
Precious Knowledge will premiere on March 24 at the Fox Theatre in Tucson, and is scheduled to air on PBS in the fall.
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