Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, specifically targeting the Latino-American ‘La Raza’ Program offered by schools in the Tucson Unified School District, causes deeply divided feelings in both the Senate room and the classroom. It is also the subject of a new documentary being made by local filmmakers Eren McGinnis and Ari Palos, called Precious Knowledge. Work on the film began 2 years ago, and primarily follows the stories of several students at Tucson High School while investigating the history of the bill and the conflicts it has created.
First, I’ll give a little background on the issue. House Bill 2281 is a controversial piece of legislation signed in May last year, piloted by prominent conservatives such as Tom Horne, newly elected Attorney General (though Superintendent at the time) Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, and John Huppenthal, the current state Superintendent. The bill gives Huppenthal the ability to withhold monthly funding from schools that violate the bill’s set of tenets. Opponents of the bill say the broad wording of the bill gives the superintendent too much arbitrary power, and that it is inherently racist, enacted to cull Hispanic pride. Proponents say that it is the La Raza program that is racist, teaching students a form of cultural supremacy.
“At one point, it was all ethnic studies, but now it’s pretty clear the only people Tom Horne is after is Mexican-Americans,” said Eren McGinnis.
TUSD schools have not removed their ethnic studies classes, which includes classes such as Latino Literature and American Government from a Social Perspective, but they may be running out of time. Huppenthal has given the district until the end of the school year to shut down La Raza, though some teachers at the school have banded together to question the constitutionality of the bill in federal court. Using economic pressure is an effective strategy for shutting down the program, as it creates tension within the school itself among supporters and opponents of La Raza Studies.
According to McGinnis, students in TUSD are leading the charge to protect their classes, petitioning government officials and attending board meetings. The high school drop-out rate among Mexican-Americans is close to 50%, but the students who participate in La Raza studies have close to a 100% graduation rate.
“They teach the kids to take their education seriously, and show them the statistics. When the kids start seeing things like that, they realize that if they don’t graduate from high school, their life stories won’t turn out well.”
For the film itself, McGinnis and Palos tried to be as passive and observational as possible, as “fly on the wall” as possible. For the narrative, they chose 3 students they thought could help tell the story they wanted to tell, and at the same time reveal something about Mexican-American socioeconomic and cultural issues.
“We wanted to find students with their own voices, and we wanted them to be representative of the challenges that Mexican-American youth face.”
McGinnis said that these challenges include poverty, parents’ own lack of education, the perceived unimportance of education, lack of role models, questions of self-worth and place in society. But La Raza, which means “the race”, appears to give the students back a sense of cultural pride and motivation to achieve.
Precious Knowledge will premiere on March 24 at the Fox Theater, and is scheduled to air on PBS in the fall.
(Pictures courtesy Eren McGinnis)