PHOENIX — In 2006, Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies curriculum was relatively unknown. The program — a series of middle and high school classes highlighting Mexican American contributions to U.S. history and culture — had shown promise in lifting Latino students out of lower test score brackets and boosting graduation rates. Only a handful of detractors had shown up at school board meetings to grouse about the curriculum’s race-focused teachings.
Then, Jonathan Paton, a Republican lawmaker representing Tucson at the time, got ahold of a recording of labor organizer and Chicano rights icon Dolores Huerta telling an auditorium of Tucson High School students, “Republicans hate Latinos.” Suddenly, GOP lawmakers in Phoenix were decrying “Raza Studies,” as the program was known, as a plot to indoctrinate children with ideas about white people as racists and people of color as their victims. (“Raza” is Spanish for “race,” though the teachers who adopted the name said the intended translation was more akin to “the people.”)
A legislative panel ordered school administrators to defend the program at the state capitol in Phoenix, with one lawmaker accusing the district of running a “sweatshop for liberalism.” By 2008, lawmakers were setting their sights on banning TUSD’s Mexican American studies program altogether with a bill to prohibit classes from teaching beliefs that “denigrate American values.”
“Organizations that spew anti-American or race-based rhetoric have no place,” Russell Pearce, a Republican representative who sponsored the first attempt to outlaw the classes, said at a 2008 hearing. “We ought to be celebrating unity as Americans and not allowing, with taxpayer dollars, these organizations.”
Proponents of the program saw it as a way not only to engage students but to ensure that past wrongs against marginalized communities wouldn’t be repeated. “At one time in the history of our nation, part of our ‘American values’ were the enslavement of other human beings,” Linda Lopez, a Democratic representative, shot back. “It was through dissent and through the revolution of the minds of the people of this country that we were able to do away with those kinds of American values.”
The contours of Arizona’s Mexican American studies debate a decade ago will sound familiar to anyone following the current sparring over the teaching of concepts lumped together as “critical race theory” — which some two dozen states have introduced legislation to ban. Republicans back then saw teachers indoctrinating children to do the left’s political bidding, building a Marxist youth program to fight the power and the white man. Educators and their Democratic backers saw an opportunity to inspire underperforming Latino students by overhauling the way American history is taught. The focus today is on the teaching of slavery and the history of discrimination toward Black, rather than Latino, Americans, but the language and the politics have clear echoes.
Yet, when Arizona lawmakers turned their eyes toward their own “critical race theory” ban this past spring, few seemed to remember how the previous attempt to prohibit race-related studies in schools had turned out here. In 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law banning Tucson’s Mexican American studies program. But today, 15 years after the curriculum first caught the attention of Republican lawmakers and a decade after they outlawed it, the courses — or at least a version of them — live on, thanks to a court-appointed monitor overseeing TUSD’S longstanding federal desegregation order, a dark reminder of the district’s own discriminatory past. A federal court later ruled that the 2010 ban violated students’ constitutional rights. Today, the program is larger than it’s ever been.
Paton, the Republican lawmaker, argues that the current critical race theory debate is different — a “nationalized movement” that he believes will make a mark on the 2022 election cycle. And polling suggests there’s something to that: A recent national survey found that while only about half of Americans said they know what critical race theory is, of those, 58 percent had a negative opinion of it. Nearly three-quarters of independents described it as “bad for America.”
Still, as critical race theory becomes a rallying cry for conservatives, from former President Donald Trump down to local school boards, Arizona’s years-long fight over Mexican American studies is a vivid reminder of what a messy, drawn-out affair a battle over local curriculum can become. The years of protests, political brawls and courtroom battles divided the Tucson community and mired the district in controversy, before reaching a resolution no one is really satisfied with to this day.
It turns out banning a curriculum is easier said than done.
If there’s one thing proponents and detractors of Mexican American studies in Tucson agree on, it’s that the program was a forerunner to the school teachings being debated today. At its core, critical race theory is an academic concept that looks at history, law and political science through the lens of race; a main tenet is that disparate racial outcomes are the result of institutions, not merely individuals, perpetuating racism. While the term often has been misapplied in the current debate — it is a university-level concept, not commonly taught to children — the founders of Tucson’s Mexican American studies program openly embraced it and still use it today. (On its website, though, while TUSD promotes its “multicultural” curriculum meant to “expose biases, stereotypes, and policies that can restrict achievement,” doesn’t use the buzzwords of “critical race theory.”)
Mexican American studies in Tucson originated in 1997, when Latino plaintiffs in a desegregation case dating back to the 1970s asked for courses that better reflected their history. In 2002, educator Augustine Romero became director of what was originally called “Hispanic studies.” He then changed the name to Mexican American studies and sought to radically revamp the way the district taught its students their own history.
Despite a few pockets of wealth, Tucson Unified School District is a largely poor district that serves a majority-Latino population. White students make up only about 20 percent of the district, and the vast majority of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches. TUSD’s students fall behind their peers around the state in standardized testing, and students of color fall even further behind their white peers.
Romero and other Mexican American studies founders hoped that by connecting history with current events and ethnic identity, the program would inspire Latino students in particular to envision a better future for themselves, their communities and the country. The classes, taught by a small corps of teachers spread across the district, counted for required graduation credits, though they weren’t mandatory — students were free to take standard American history or literature classes instead. In 2010, before the ban kicked in, the program included roughly 2,000 students per year and existed in five high schools, as well as some middle and elementary schools.
María Federico Brummer, who began teaching in the program in 2006, says the classes spoke to her students in a way that sparked intellectual curiosity and motivated them to imagine more for themselves. “As a middle school teacher, I could see it. I knew this was the way we should be teaching our students,” she says. “You saw these students were feeling more academically engaged, students feeling for the first time that they could be scholars in some way and that school wasn’t a foreign place for them, but someplace where they could have a future.”
Several surveys and independent audits backed that up, finding that students enrolled in the program saw improved scores in reading, writing and even math. They also were less likely to drop out, and more likely to feel engaged in school.
But critics, including Paton, the Republican lawmaker who had picked up on Dolores Huerta’s comments, described the program pointedly as a cult of personality around Romero and other early leaders that had an “almost pseudo-spiritualistic” vibe. Teachers who opposed the program reported harassment from Mexican American studies teachers and students. Several opponents of the program were put on a blacklist and have long suspected their opposition was the cause.
“It was just really weird. There was a lot about self-confidence and connection to my people — kind of liberation theology,” Paton says. “They were teaching about Aztlán. … It was completely wackadoodle.” (Aztlán is the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztec people, as well as a term used by Chicano activists to refer to the area seized in the Mexican-American War.)
Doug MacEachern, a conservative editorial columnist for the Arizona Republic at the time, found in the program a never-ending source of commentary. “Until these ideologues got their claws in them, these kids actually had a good chance at an education,” McEachern said in an interview. “I try to stay away from these terms, but you can’t: They were turning them into Marxist foot soldiers.”
After years of attacking the program, Republican lawmakers finally put a bill to ban classes that teach “racial resentment” and advocate “the overthrow of the government” on the governor’s desk in 2010. Brewer signed the legislation — as well as Arizona’s hardline immigration legislation, SB 1070 — the same year.
When the hammer finally came down, Federico Brummer joined other teachers in going class-to-class to round up the books they had used in the curriculum. Some students cried, she says, as she boxed up copies of Elizabeth Martinez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America. Students held a 24-hour vigil.
Under threat from state lawmakers and politicians in Phoenix to revoke millions in state funding for violating the ban, Tucson’s school board disbanded the program in 2011. That was when the fight reached its climactic moment, an intense confrontation not unlike the school board fights playing out today — though it was students, not parents, who led the protest.
On an April day that year, a group of more than a hundred students and supporters swarmed a school board meeting in the district office. Nine of them stormed the dais and wrestled with security before chaining themselves to the governing board members’ chairs. “Our education is under attack,” they chanted. “What do we do? Fight back!”
The meeting was shut down, temporarily delaying the inevitable dissolution of the program. The affair made national news, deepening the divide between the two sides and heightening the tension in the community.
Critics like MacEachern argue to this day that the students wouldn’t have protested without orders from their teachers. “Who bought them the chains and the padlocks?” he asked. But the teachers were proud of the students’ display, and they say they hadn’t planned it — that the ban was an attack on the students as much as it was on the program.
“The most beautiful part of it is that they were able to keep that a secret even from us,” Romero says. “The honest truth of this is, when I stood up and saw the students rush in, they scared the heck out of me too.”
All of this occurred at a trying time for Arizona’s Latinos. The immigration and education bills came on the heels voters’ overwhelmingly backing a proposal to bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition to local universities and community colleges. It was the same era when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was racially profiling Latinos in traffic stops and conducting workplace raids looking for undocumented immigrants. (Arpaio was later convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying an order to stop racially profiling, a crime for which Trump pardoned him.)
As stressful as those years were, in a way they were also gratifying for leaders of the Mexican American studies program. The students were living through the same struggles their icons had faced in Chicano rights movement decades earlier — the same kinds of struggles they had read about. They were fighting for better education the same way Dolores Huerta fought for better working conditions. They were making their own history.
“I saw our students organize and grow and make not just themselves proud, but their families and our community proud with the work they were doing to save our program,” Federico Brummer says.
Indeed, the ban wasn’t the end of Mexican American studies in Tucson. In 2012, a federal court appointed a “special master” to oversee negotiations in the district’s decades-old desegregation case — an academic named Willis D. Hawley, who saw the program’s benefit to Latino students. Hawley ordered the district to reinstate Mexican American studies while finding a way to comply with the 2010 state law. So, the program’s teachers and administrators began to rebuild. They ditched the name Mexican American studies in favor of “culturally responsive” classes and curriculum. But the books the program used were re-incorporated, and most of the same teachers stayed involved.
Veterans of the Mexican American studies program say it was never really the same after the state’s ban, however. Federico Brummer was required to undergo “retraining” to unlearn some of the tactics used in Mexican American studies, she says. As they restarted the program, Arizona Department of Education officials, led by John Huppenthal — a chief opponent of the program who became state superintendent of public instruction, the state’s highest educational authority, just after the ban passed — sent monitors to the classes to keep an eye on teachers and even read their lesson plans.
The TUSD’s culturally responsive curriculum program today is bigger than Mexican American studies ever was: It now includes more than 200 teachers in history, literature and social studies classes for about 6,000 students. It’s in every high school and middle school in the district, with plans to expand into elementary schools. But without the original dedicated core group of teachers, the classes just aren’t as good, says Federico Brummer, who is now director of the TUSD’s Mexican American Student Services. The spike in test scores that teachers saw in the heyday of the program has mostly faded away, too.
“We have an issue about quantity versus quality,” Federico Brummer says. “We have teachers being ‘voluntold,’ ‘You’re going to teach this language arts course from a Mexican American viewpoint.’ And that’s totally different.”
What does Tucson’s embrace of ethnic studies portend for the rest of the country as it debates whether schools should — or even do — teach critical race theory? The political context today is different, as is the curriculum that’s up for debate, but there are some lessons from how the fight in Arizona played out.
There could be political ramifications, for one thing. A lasting legacy of the immigration fights of the early 2010s is that they inspired a new generation of Latino activists who helped to turn Arizona purple and, more recently, blue. At the same time, the same kind of independent suburban voters who view critical race theory suspiciously also were key to pushing Democrats over the top in Arizona in the 2020 election.
While education fights inherently differ by state, another takeaway from the Tucson saga was the role the courts ultimately played in deciding the fate of Mexican American studies, including examining the intent behind the state’s ban. Shortly after the district got rid of the classes, students and parents filed a lawsuit alleging that the ban violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. After the case made a tour through district court, then up to the court of appeals and back to the trial level, a federal district court judge ruled in 2017 that the law was enacted with “racial animus” and used “discriminatory ends in order to make political gains” — and therefore was unconstitutional.
The court’s decision relied in large part on online screeds that Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, had posted on a blog under a pen name. (He later admitted to authoring, and apologized for, the posts.) In one post, Huppenthal called Mexican American studies the “KKK in a different color.” “I don’t mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English. And, I’m not being humorous or racist. A lot is at stake here,” he wrote in another.
Romero recalled testifying before the state Senate on the topic when Huppenthal was a state lawmaker. “He said, ‘What upsets me is you talk about the idea of race and racism, and you talk about oppression. It means there are oppressors out there, and I don’t think it’s the case,’” Romero remembers. “And I’m looking at him thinking, ‘You are the oppressor — of course you wouldn’t see it.’”
(Huppenthal said in an interview that the idea that he’s an oppressor is laughable. He grew up on Tucson’s impoverished southside, alongside many Mexican American friends and neighbors, and the fact that the Mexican American studies leaders view everyone as either an oppressor or oppressed is exactly his problem with the program’s paradigm. But after opposing the program for years, Huppenthal now thinks banning a curriculum is the worst possible solution: It only drives its popularity, and forces supporters to hide their teachings behind different names, he says. “A much better approach would be to say if you want to teach critical race theory in Arizona, OK, you can do it, but you gotta put it out on your billboard,” he says. “See how that fares in the marketplace. You wanna lose half of your students?”)
Despite the 2017 court ruling, Paton, the lawmaker who supported the ban, chalks the decade-long battle with TUSD’s Mexican American studies program as a partial win for Republicans. Banning it didn’t solve what he views as the problem — TUSD still teaches ethnic studies — but it’s a milder variety.
Now, Tucson, as well as Arizona’s other school districts, will have to contend with the state’s new legislation opposing critical race theory. Lawmakers slipped a provision into a state budget package, which the governor signed, barring the teaching of “any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race” or teaching that anyone “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race.” Teachers found to violate the law could lose their teaching certificates. Another new law would bar state and local governments from spending money on, or requiring employees to take, any training that teaches that an individual, by virtue of their race, is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
TUSD’s legal department is investigating the law’s implications, according to school board member Adelita Grijalva, a supporter of Mexican American studies and culturally responsive classes, who adds that she doesn’t believe the courses violate either of the two new laws. (Unlike in 2010, TUSD was not an explicit target of the laws. And unlike the 2010 ban, which empowered the superintendent of public instruction to determine if a class broke the law, the new ban would require the courts to step in if the state attorney general or a county attorney challenged a class.)
Many Republicans here believe the real war might be yet to come as a wave of conservatives, riding the renewed interest in critical race theory, eye local school boards seats and other offices. In fact, Tom Horne, who pushed lawmakers to adopt the 2010 ban during his time as superintendent of public instruction preceding Huppenthal, sees an opening for a political revival. Horne, who served one term as Arizona’s attorney general before getting bogged down in a string of scandals, has already announced a 2022 bid to once again become the state’s top education official, on a platform that largely amounts to: I stopped Mexican American studies while I was in office, and I’ll stop critical race theory if elected again.
“When I was fighting against it 20 years ago, I was a voice in the wilderness because people in Phoenix didn’t care. It was just in Tucson,” he said in a recent interview. “Now everybody cares because it’s spreading like wildfire.”
“It’s the exact same thing,” Horne says.