By Rodolfo F. Acuña
When anything titled a “white paper” comes across my email, I usually ignore it. Why is truth always called “white”? Why not brown, yellow or black? Is it because black is considered negative, i.e., Black Friday, black as sin, Halloween, or death whereas white is the color of god and goodness?
So when I received a paper titled “White Paper: Cultural Responsive Pedagogy,” I only read it because it was authored by Dr. Augustine Romero, the director of Tucson Unified School District’s department of student equity. Romero is charged with putting Humpty Dumpty together again—i.e., the Ethnic Studies program that the TUSD school board smashed to bits. (Humpty Dumpty refers to a large canon used during the 17th Century English Civil war).
Romero is a controversial figure and many of his former colleagues refuse to talk to him. They see Romero’s decision to stay in his administrative post with the District as a defection because, according to them, it gives the destruction of Mexican American Studies legitimacy. As proof, they point to the pattern common in institutions of higher learning that destroy ethnic studies programs, and then remake them in their own image.
Although informative, the paper came across as an apologia. Romero says that MAS was a highly successful, well-constructed program, not shying away from the fact that it was destroyed at the behest of the Arizona Attorney General and Superintendent of Schools, a decision that was solely based on politics — pedagogy played no role.
Clearly Romero is conflicted.
In reading the paper, I found myself agreeing with Romero as to pedagogy; the paper would have been highly appropriate in an academic setting. However, the paper never explains why he absolves the District and joins a corrupt group. Romero says that the District is in the midst of “its second attempt to obtain unitary status in its federal segregation case,” adding that the District does not understand how “to make schools more effective and joyous places for all students.” He concedes that the TUSD destroyed an “effective and special” program.”
What is disturbing is Romero’s lack of context, which is necessary for most professionals to understand what is happening in Tucson. The truth be told, most progressive educators view Romero as a champion and advocate for MAS, a fighter for its integrity. Witness his multiple YouTube presentations.
Curious to learn more, I read a piece that Romero wrote in the Arizona Daily Star around the first of the year. Romero said, “We fully understand that we have created something special for young people.” He vigorously defended the program but the Daily Star headline left me wondering if Romero, by this time, had resigned himself to go along with the District. It reads, “Mexican American Studies’ demise will foster even stronger program.” It left me wondering if by this time Romero was contemplating absolving those who had thrown Humpty Dumpty off the wall.
As I have said, I respect Romero as an educator; I am in agreement with Romero on pedagogy. However, as a historian I am offended by his lack of context, which will lead to bad history. History differs from education; it is a study of documents, and whether Romero wants to admit it or not, his paper is a historical document. At the heart of the Tucson MAS struggle is the Truth, and Romero’s paper distorts the narrative.
No doubt that my differences with Romero are due to an epistemological gulf. How people acquire knowledge determines the questions they ask and the answers that they arrive at. This is true even within branches of the same discipline; for example, an American historian may reach different understandings of the question of U.S. Imperialism than a Latin Americanist.
Romero appeals to pedagogy in his apologia, and the result is that it plays into the hands of “All the King’s horses, And the entire King’s men,” who threw Humpty Dumpty off the wall.
The question that gnaws at me is how can Romero conclude that the demise of the MAS program will foster “an even stronger program”? How will the demise help the Mexican American community to help Tucson “heal from the devastating attacks on our program and community?” Is Romero in denial?
I repeat, as an educator, I respect Romero’s arguments about education and methodology. However, I cannot buy his arguments that being destroyed and humiliated will strengthen Mexican American Studies. Perhaps if I were a theologian or a minister I could understand Romero’s apologia. But as a social scientist I have to examine his statements critically.
Real life does not work that way:
For instance, how can Romero reconcile the conspiracy to destroy the MAS program and to get rid of its chair Sean Arce? State Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne ran on the platform of destroying MAS. They ignored credible evidence that disprove their claims that MAS is unpatriotic and advocates the overthrow of the government.
Moreover, the fact remains that TUSD Superintendent of Schools John Pedicone censored books and broke the District’s court-approved unitary plan. Tucson is at this very moment operating in defiance of a federal court order and the District remains segregated.
The study of history should not be based on half-truths. Something is or it isn’t.
The year 1492 began the occupation of the Americas, resulting in the genocide of tens of millions of Indians. It is true that many Indians died of small pox and other diseases. But who brought the diseases to the New World? What caused malnutrition and the destruction of their political and social institutions? Should we condone the rewriting of history, and conclude that the Indians emerged stronger as a result of this genocide?
Antonio López de Santa Anna was a dictator. But does this justify the invasion of Mexico and the subsequent racism toward Mexicans? Should we erase our memories so Americans can heal?
In recent times, there has been a history of conflict between management and labor. Strikes have been brutally suppressed. Consequently, there has been alcoholism, spousal abuse and child neglect. Should this be forgotten and management absolved in the name of healing?
In 1983 in Morenci and other Arizona mining camps the copper barons replaced striking workers. Phelps Dodge and other companies pressured Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt to send in the Arizona State National Guard to break the strike. All of the union workers were permanently replaced.
Overnight the area went from Democrat to Republican; white workers replaced Mexican and other union miners. Consequent to this, many miner families lost their homes, and families disintegrated as alcoholism and spousal abuse increased. The breaking of the Arizona copper mining unions is a forerunner of what has happened in Tucson with the destruction of the Mexican American Studies program and the replacement of its leaders and teachers.
We all know that the destruction of a union and the destruction of a community victimizes those who are replaced. Morenci was not a better community after they got rid of the Mexican and union miners who had struggled for the better part of the century for a union and equality.
People never forget.
Ask Jews or Armenians if they have forgotten their holocausts. Why is it right for other groups to remember and necessary for the Mexican American to forget in order to heal? I remember many of my Jewish buddies in the army during the 1950s saying that they would never forget – and they shouldn’t forget because remembering helps the healing process, and should help us to understand the suffering of others. I say the same to my Armenian students. Why should they forget? Should they forget because it complicates U.S. relations with Turkey?
In 1950, President Harry S. Truman returned Mexicans flags captured during the Mexican American War and laid a wreath at the monument to los niños heroes in Mexico City. It was interpreted by many as a symbolic apology. The event contributed to a temporary healing.
Isn’t “I am sorry” part of the healing process? To the best of my knowledge those who have defied court orders in Arizona., those who have impugned and libeled the Tucson Mexican community by calling it unpatriotic and un-American have not apologized. Far from wanting to heal wounds, they remain bellicose and belligerent.
In Tucson, I have interviewed many Mexican American students and their families who are offended by the defamation of their community. They are hardworking, loyal Americans, many of whom are veterans of the Vietnam and other U.S. wars.
Dr. Romero and, for that matter, all of us, owe that community the Truth. In 1904 white vigilantes in Clifton and Morenci broke into Mexican homes and forcefully seized recently adopted Irish orphans from Mexican families. Instead of apologizing, the Copper Companies and the vigilantes justified this atrocity by falsely saying that Mexican women were whores and unfit to raise white babies. Almost a century passed before historian Linda Gordon set the record straight in The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction.
History will show that it was the state of Arizona and the Tucson Unified School District that are unpatriotic and un-American for nullifying the U.S. Constitution. Why should Mexican Americans bend and scrape so others can heal? The Mexicans have long ago thrown away their sombreros and insist on living on their feet.
Dr. Rodolfo Francisco Acuña, called the “father of Chicano Studies,” is a historian, professor emeritus, activist and the author of 20 titles, 32 academic articles and chapters in books, 155 book reviews and 188 opinion pieces. Currently, he teaches Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge.