Fighting for the Right to Remember with National Day of Solidarity for Ethnic Studies

Imani Altemus-Williams

"Our stories will not be banned," an illustration by Julio Salgado.

Co-authored with Betsy Catlin. This piece appeared originally at Waging Nonviolence.

Presente.” Presente.”

One by one, as their names are called by an officer standing in the front of a courtroom in Tucson, Arizona, people with chained feet and hands stand and respond, Presente.”

They are migrants who have been caught and detained while crossing the border without documents, and they’re being processed through the Department of Homeland Security’s recent innovation, Operation Streamline” — a mass-trial procedure that can not only result in detention or deportation but time served in prison for the criminal charge of entry without inspection.” Watching these brown people stand and say presente” in front of a white, male judge is especially powerful if we consider the history that has led to the criminalization of migrants crossing the border. Many have ancestors who were present on this land long before there was any English or Spanish spoken here, before there was Mexico or the United States or any border dividing the two. And now, even that history is being taken away from them.

Saturday, October 12 was named Dia de La Raza” as part of the National Day of Solidarity With Save Ethnic Studies in Arizona. This comes after Arizona House Bill 2281, in May 2010, banned ethnic studies from public school districts and charter schools. In Tucson, this eliminated the Mexican-American Studies program (MAS), which taught the history of colonization in the Southwest and encouraged students to question how current systematic repression and criminalization of the Xicano (Chicano) indigenous community arises from this legacy. The program taught the correlations among race, ethnicity, power and privilege within society, honoring the indigenous roots of many of the students and teachers, as well as those of the people who resided on the land prior to the conquest.

The ban ignited a movement of student youth and educators who are fighting to reinstate the MAS program. Eleven former MAS teachers have filed a civil rights lawsuit in the United States District Court against the state Board of Education to fight the ban. (They are accepting donations to advance the lawsuit.) Meanwhile, a coalition of students from Tucson high schools called UNIDOS is utilizing education, art and nonviolent direct action as its primary strategies. In April 2011, for instance, UNIDOS members chained themselves to Tucson school board members’ chairs at a meeting set to propose the dismantling of the program and managed to delay the decision from being made that day.

This past July, a call went out for organizers, activists, educators, students and artists to travel to join the Tucson Freedom Summer, a period of action and organizing to fight the ethnic studies ban. As well as organizing rallies and addressing the school board, volunteers from across the country canvassed and phone-banked to rally support for La Raza Defense Fund, which was established to raise money for the legal fees of two MAS program teachers, Sean Arce and Jose Gonzales, who are being sued by former teacher and ethnic studies opponent John Ward for $1 million. The Tucson Freedom Summer also included community-facilitated education forums called Encuentros, which addressed topics like the school-to-prison pipeline, black and brown solidarity, and the significance of indigenous philosophy.

People in Tucson and those on nearby reservations have found common cause in this effort. UNIDOS members, for instance, recently traveled to the Dine (Navajo) reservation and met with the community. On the Dine reservation in northeastern Arizona, elders are resisting forced relocation by corporations pursuing uranium and coal mining projects. As the elders and their families are removed from their land, whole communities are being stripped of their cultural identities, making it harder to maintain their traditional practices, which are so tied to the land. In Tucson, meanwhile, young people are embracing traditional ceremonies as a part of their struggle, traditions that they never actually learned until participating in the MAS classes.

The movement is not only growing across the state but spreading nationwide. On Saturday, supporters in New York City responded to the National Call for Solidarity With Save Ethnic Studies by hosting a fundraising event at La Casa Azul Bookstore. They screened the documentary film Precious Knowledge and raised money for La Raza Defense Fund. Activists in Los Angeles are holding a similar event on October 14 at The Gateway Portal in West L.A.

Save Ethnic Studies and the Tucson Freedom Summer Coalition are now organizing a three-day convergence between November 1 and November 3 in Tucson, the Tucson Freedom Coalition Conference: A Revolutionary Praxis of Hope.” The conference’s purpose is to reinvigorate and build the local Xicana/​o movement into a national phenomenon, and organizers see the battle for ethnic studies in Arizona as a critical step.

Arizona has been the incubator for national policies and laws that are built around exploitation, alienation, and dispossession,” says the announcement for the conference. Thus, it is fitting that Tucson, Arizona be the epicenter of a commitment toward liberation and empowerment for allies of the Xicana/​o struggle and all who are dedicated to like struggles in their communities around the nation.”

Already, the struggle in Arizona around ethnic studies has sown the seeds for indigenous solidarity throughout the state and across the border.

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Imani Altemus-Williams and Betsy Catlin are two recent graduates of the New School. Both have been active within Occupy Wall Street and work with undocumented and indigenous activism, anti-mass-incarceration organizing and popular radical education projects in New York City.
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