On Tuesday, April 3rd, I had the pleasure of watching Precious Knowledge, a documentary about the battle over the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson, Arizona. The film followed three students, Pricila Rodriguez, Crystal Terriquez, and Gilbert Esparza, who went to Tucson High School and benefitted from these classes.
Nationwide, only 50% of Mexican-Americans graduate high school. However, the graduation rate for students in the MAS program is 93%. It makes sense that students taking these classes would feel encouraged. When scenes from the classroom were shown in the film, it was exciting to see. It made me happy to see kids in Tucson openly talking about social justice and oppression in a high school classroom. Everyone seemed really engaged in the discussion. Gilbert said that he feels as though the education system is against him. Several students commented about feeling out of place in school. As an African-American student, I completely relate to “feeling out of place.” This feeling doesn’t just come from being one of few minority kids in the classroom; it also comes from what is taught in the classroom. Even when Mexican-American, African-American, or Asian-American history is brought up, it is told from the same Anglo-American perspective.
What made the movie interesting was hearing the opinions of those who were against ethnic studies. Some statements received a lot of laughter from the audience—but these opinions are no laughing matter. Elected officials called what was being taught in MAS classrooms, “hate speech,” saying that it built up resentment in Mexican-Americans towards white people. Apparently, learning about race and culture is against American ideals. It is so important to learn about who you are, but elected officials want to take that away from minority students. In America, there are people from different races and not everyone is treated equally. There is no way to avoid that, but high school history classes have done a good job putting the past in the past. MAS classes challenge the status-quo, and serve to embrace America and its flaws.
At one point, John Huppenthal, the current state superintendent, visited a MAS classroom. Huppenthal reported back to a Senate hearing that they called Benjamin Franklin a racist, which he found disrespectful. He also said that the class wasn’t as bad because he was there and other elected officials made the same argument. Mexican-Americans are probably being put under attack because they are the largest minority group in the United States and the population is still growing. There has always been a fear of what happens when the oppressed get angry. This film was so great because it showed empowered people, unafraid, fighting to save the MAS program.
Ithaca College has a specific center for studying race called the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity. I’ve heard nothing but positive things about these classes and it is so essential that our college has them. Everyone should take at least one class in the Center while they are here; I plan on taking Intro to African Diaspora. I’m so privileged to have the opportunity to do so, but we need to fight to save ethnic study programs in high schools nationwide because not everyone gets the chance to go to college.