[17 May 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We begin with the conviction that the role of man was not only to be in the world, but to engage in relations with the world—that through acts of creation and re-recreation, man makes cultural reality and thereby adds to the natural world, which he did not make.
“We want to talk about the stuff that nobody talks about. They never cover our classes, they don’t go inside them, they don’t investigate.” Speaking with a group of Raza Studies alumni, Curtis Acosta urges awareness and action. It’s not only that Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is condemning Tucson Unified School District’s Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies as “racist” and “hateful,” but also that he’s convincing state legislators to ban the program. “We’re getting jacked on the message,” says Acosta, “The narrative, if you will, has been hijacked.”
Precious Knowledge pushes back. Premiering on Independent Lens on 17 May, Ari Luis Palos’ documentary makes a very clear argument against Arizona’s HB 2281, passed in February 2011. That argument begins with students who assert how they’ve benefitted from TUSD’s Mexican American studies program, including Crystal Terriquez, the oldest child in her household, juggling childcare and school. “I want to go to college because I want to set that example for my sisters,” she says, as you see her cooking for those sisters. Her mother Selene agrees. “I’d rather she get her education,” she says, as Crystal’s eyes fill with tears, “So she doesn’t have to go through what I had to go through.”
Gilbert Esparza shares a similar story. “When you grow up in a poor area, you don’t have the same chances as other people do,” he says while driving through the impoverished neighborhood where he grew up, he says, “in my nana’s house,” with his mother, her seven siblings and their kids. One building’s walls showcase an elaborate mural of chains, the view of another site is blocked by chain-link fencing. For much of his childhood, he says, he “hated” school. He felt that “The education system is just so against me, that they don’t want me here, that they want me to just drop out.” Gilbert is filmed in a classroom as he recounts this feeling, as well as how that feeling changed when he discovered Raza Studies.
The appeal of the TUSD program is based not only in its content but also in its perspective, says Christine Sleeter, president of National Association of Multicultural Education: “It reworks the academic discipline from the point of view of a group that has been a minoritized group within the United States.” For Gilbert, Crystal, and Pricila Gardo, such reworking was crucial to own “critical thinking.” The film provides a brief history of how this thinking developed within institutions, following the emergence of Raza Studies during the 1990s, in response to blatant racism within the state school system and local communities. This story is told with archival protest footage and interviews with teachers and administrators, remembering both “how it was” and what has changed.
The changes are illustrated when Precious Knowledge shows students engaged as what Acosta calls “knowledge warriors.” In classrooms, they nod and write notes, give presentations and ask questions. They ponder the politics of incarceration and labor in the US, studying magical realism and slant rhymes, share ideas with each other and appreciate their teachers’ use of humor and hiphop in the classroom. Acosta reminds his students not only to read the words, but also to “read the world,” after Paulo Freire.
The students are confronted with a daunting chance to do just that when Horne and other legislators get hold of the idea that Raza Studies is “anti-American.” Though Horne apparently makes it a point never to visit a classroom (and to forget, when questioned publicly, whether he’s been invited or not), Huppenthal does come to a high school, where he sits with the students in their circle of chairs and worries out loud about the fact that they’re reading Marx and Che Guevara. He notes that there’s no image of Thomas Jefferson on the wall (so, wonders Acosta, he’s concerned about the “decor of the classroom?”).
After his visit, Huppenthal sits down with the filmmakers: “I don’t think my visit that day was a typical day,” he says, “It was more of a discussion.” He can’t know that you’ve seen these discussions as the typical method in that classroom, but in the film’s context, he looks awfully narrow-minded. Horne too appears in an interview, after he appears before a crowd, announcing the fight he’s mounting against the TUSD program. On hearing protestors off screen, he comments, “The chanting behind us, I think, demonstrates the rudeness they teach to their kids,” articulating his own opposition between us and them.
It’s not a little striking that when he sits down with the filmmakers, he criticizes Raza Studies’ use of “tribal” affiliations to divide students, rather than bringing them together. “The function of civilization and our public school system is to transcend that,” he concludes. So, asks the off screen interviewer, “You don’t think they’re doing anything right, then?” His answer is unequivocal: “No.”
HB 2281 was passed, of course, and so you know how this particular messaging campaign ends. But the film holds out the possibility of a changing future for Arizona. It’s a struggle still in motion, carried on by Raza teachers and alumni.