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Racial Lens Used to Cull Curriculum in Arizona

Tony Diaz is smuggling books into Tucson. Amy Goodman covered the story. The books confiscated include incredible list.

Winerip is masterful in giving us the ugly Tuscon story through the ideas of one student who has been turned on to books.

by Michael Winerip

TUCSON â Ana Verdugo is a fan of Matt de la Peñaâs young adult novels; she read his âMexican WhiteBoyâ in two days.

Like the lead character, Danny, Ana is a Mexican-American whose family does not have much, is being raised by her mother and has a father who spent time in jail.

Like Sofia, the lead female character, Ana, a high school junior, is hoping to go to community college, where she wants to study accounting. âMost books I read, I donât know the people,â Ana said. âThis book is the truth.â

Last fall, she had the idea of inviting Mr. de la Peña to Tucson High. âI didnât think heâd say yes,â she recalled, âbut maybe he would.â

For the next several months, Ana and the school librarian, Amy Rusk, worked to raise $1,000 for his speaking fee. It was not easy â their most successful bake sale netted only $124.

Still, on Tuesday morning at 8:30, Mr. de la Peña walked into the Tucson High library, although there was a surprising plot twist.

On Jan. 1, after a new state law targeting Mexican-American studies courses that are perceived as antiwhite was upheld, it became illegal to teach âMexican WhiteBoyâ in Tucsonâs classrooms. State officials cited the book as containing âcritical race theory,â a violation under a provision that prohibits lessons âpromoting racial resentment.â

For those who have read the book, like Ana, it is hard to figure. In âMexican WhiteBoy,â the heroâs hope is to become a pitcher on his schoolâs baseball team.

The novelâs story is pretty much the American dream.

Andrew LeFevre, a state spokesman, said that while the Education Department had found the Mexican-American studies program out of compliance with the law, it was the Tucson districtâs job to decide how to enforce the ruling. âI think the district said: âLetâs be safe and collect this material. We donât want a teacher from Mexican-American studies to use it in an inappropriate fashion.â â he said.

The conflict dates to 2006 when Dolores Huerta, a labor activist, gave a speech at Tucson High, telling students âRepublicans hate Latinos.â

Tom Horne, the state education superintendent at the time and a Republican, sent his deputy to the high school to convey their concerns. But students saw the visit as an attack on free speech, and 200 walked out in protest.

Ka-boom. Mr. Horne accused the districtâs Mexican-American studies program of using an antiwhite curriculum to foster social activism. At the time, the program served 1,400 of 53,000 students in the Tucson district, which is 60 percent Latino.

In 2010, after several attempts, the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Republican governor passed a law prohibiting classes that advocate overthrowing the government, are designed for students of one ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals. The state wanted Tucsonâs Mexican-American studies program disbanded.

When Tucson officials resisted, the attorney generalâs office issued subpoenas. Investigators obtained textbooks, PowerPoint presentations, teachersâ college theses, exam prompts, poems and lyrics from hip-hop songs.

Class lessons were singled out over apparent political bias, among them âFrom Cortes to Bush: 500 Years of Internalized Oppression.â Seven texts were ordered removed from all classrooms, including âChicano! The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movementâ by F. Arturo Rosales and âPedagogy of the Oppressedâ by Paulo Freire.

âMexican WhiteBoyâ fell into a category of books that could no longer be taught but could be used by students for leisure reading. To get an independent assessment of the program, the state hired a consultant, for $110,000, to conduct an audit.

The audit found that while some aspects of the program needed changing, it was doing a good job. It noted that students who took Mexican-American studies were more likely to attend college, and that the program helped close the achievement gap. The state ignored the audit, calling it flawed.

John Huppenthal, the new state superintendent, told a reporter that he was fighting a war. âWhen we encountered this situation, we did what Hannibal did to the Romans,â he said. âThis is the eternal battle, the eternal battle of all time, the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality.â

In January, facing a $15 million penalty from the state for failure to comply, the Tucson resistors threw down their arms. Administrators went from room to room, collecting hundreds of copies of the seven textbooks.

Mr. de la Peñaâs visit, which began in October as a literary event, had political implications by March, although little he said was directly political.

Mostly, he told the 300 students his story of reluctant reader to successful writer. He explained that, half-Mexican, half-white, he had grown up speaking no Spanish; too white for Mexican kids, too brown for whites.

He got to college because he could play basketball. His hope was to play professionally until, in one of his college games, he guarded Steve Nash. (Nash: 36 points, 4 assists; de la Peña: 3 points, 1 assist, 8 turnovers.)

He told them that if they were serious about writing, they had to be ready to accept lots of failure. He once wrote a poem for a girl he liked, but after reading it, she never spoke to him again. His goal as a writer, he said, âis to give grace and dignity to people from the other side of the tracks.â

âIf you are Mexican-American, embrace it,â he said. âIf the classes are offered, take them; if not, try to get them back.â

Mr. de la Peña donated his fee to buy 240 copies of his books, which he gave to the students. âI want to give back what was taken away,â he told Samantha Neville, a reporter for the school newspaper, The Cactus Chronicle.

As for Ana, this may have been the greatest day of her life. Having finished all four of Mr. de la Peñaâs novels, she is now reading âThe Lucky Oneâ by Nicholas Sparks, about a Marineâs search for a mysterious woman in a tattered photo he finds, who turns out to be strong but vulnerable.

âItâs not the same,â Ana said. âI donât know anybody like that.â

E-mail: oneducation@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times





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