If State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is right, then the Mexican-American Studies classes I observed on Friday, May 21, at Tucson High Magnet School are a greenhouse for Chicano revolutionaries bent on turning the Southwest into an Aztlán paradise.
Instead of Aztlán, however, I watched students—most of them Hispanic, but some white, and some African-American—texting on their cell phones between classes, passing yearbooks around for friends and teachers to sign, and wearing lots of Tucson High Badgers T-shirts and baseball caps.
In María Federico Brummer's Latino-literature classes, she and her students, all juniors, did a media analysis of the past week's TV and newspaper coverage regarding HB 2281, the new law that bans ethnic-studies classes in all Arizona public schools.
In Jose Gonzalez's American government and social-justice classes, also part of the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American Studies Department, the teacher passed out a final exam to all the seniors, while students grabbed cookies and chips they brought to celebrate the final class.
I'm not the first journalist to visit these classes, now under a national microscope, due in part to the passage of SB 1070, the immigration law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in April. HB 2281 followed a month later, furthering the state Legislature's anti-Hispanic reputation.
A couple of weeks ago, a CNN reporter visited, filming the classes and later telling Horne that not much subversive action was observed. Horne replied that what the reporter saw was cleaned up for the reporter's benefit.
"These teachers are not representative of teachers in our state. These are a small group of radicals, anti-capitalist, anti-Western-civilization, anti-free-enterprise, teaching the kids that boundaries are artificial," Horne told CNN.
But Horne, who is currently running for attorney general, has yet to actually visit the classrooms, which troubles the students.
Also troubling is the attention from TV stations and newspapers, which students and teachers claimed propagates Horne's lies rather than getting to the truth.
Marisol Aguirre, a senior in Gonzalez's government class, said the attention comes at the worst possible time—when students are preparing for finals and graduation.
"If they had come earlier when we were in the middle of the lessons, then they would have seen what we really talk about. Instead, they look at the books we use, or they come to our protests, and they take everything out of context," Aguirre said.
On the same day that I was there, KGUN Channel 9 reporter Steve Nunez and his cameraman came to Federico Brummer's second class and observed the students doing a media analysis—which happened to focus on a report KGUN 9 had done on former TUSD teacher John Ward, who Horne has cited over the last few years in his battle against the ethnic-studies classes.
Nunez asked Federico Brummer if the media analysis was for his benefit. "No," she told him. "We do this every week."
Nunez asked for a few volunteers to sit in a semi-circle with their teacher so he could ask questions. He held up a class textbook called Chicanos, and he pointed to a picture of 1960s-era Chicano movement protestors.
"How do you explain to Tom Horne that you are not being taught to be revolutionaries?" Nunez asked.
"Not teaching a history that is there is not OK. ... You can't silence these voices," was one response, from junior Edward Bush, one non-Hispanic student picked by Nunez to answer questions.
In Federico Brummer's first-period class, Francisco Alarcon had his own reaction to the KGUN interview with Ward, who claims the students were being taught that they were oppressed.
"We are being taught that we are oppressed? We're being taught that we want to overthrow the government?" Alarcon asked. "Should this (class) really be made against the law, when everything they say is untrue? Why is Tom Horne so fixated on taking away our classes?"
Alarcon said the TV and newspaper coverage is part of the problem.
"The media does not tell the truth. They don't tell the whole story. I don't like media people," he said.
Many students are still upset about coverage of a protest that some of them organized outside of TUSD headquarters on Friday, May 14. The protest included a play done in a style called Chicano Teatro, a form of people's theater used in protests in which a message is often communicated in an exaggerated style, or in metaphor. The students participating in the show said they walked around the crowd during the protest, while someone wearing a Tom Horne mask went from student to student, taking away textbooks—symbolically killing the students' culture and education.
However, KVOA Channel 4 reported that the skit showed Horne killing students and being killed, and never explained the style of theater the students used. In reaction to the story, the station did not apologize; instead, the TV station sat down two days later with a few of the students and allowed them to "clarify the controversial ethnic-studies skit."
Gonzalez said he understands why the students distrust journalists. Some TV stations seem to want to make the students controversial, when in reality, the students are just kids. "They aren't the controversy," he said.
The government teacher picked up an American history book, The American Vision, used in other TUSD history classes. He pointed to a picture of a painting depicting a battle during the American Revolution.
"No one has asked if this is teaching our kids to be revolutionaries," he said.
Other parts of the book, on Vietnam and the civil rights movement, show pictures of protests. Gonzalez shrugged, and walked back to his desk and a pile of yearbooks his students have left him to sign.
Francisco Molina, a junior in Federico Brummer's first-period class, said he doesn't understand why Horne and others wouldn't want classes taught that make him want to go to school.
"For me, looking forward to coming to school is new," Molina said. "I want to come and learn about my cultura. Why does Tom Horne want to take away these classes? It doesn't make any sense."