Have you seen my dad? image

“¿Qué es deportar?”: Teaching from students’ lives by Sandra L. Osorio

Image Credit: Joe Brusky 
(Text available in Spanish on our website.) 

Our class was part of a developmental bilingual program with all native Spanish speakers. I had introduced literature discussions the previous year when I had the same students in 1st grade, but now I was carefully choosing books with themes I thought would resonate with my students’ lives, including the complexities of being bilingual and bicultural. In Del Norte al Sur, José desperately misses his mother, who has been deported to Tijuana because she doesn’t have the right papers to be in the United States. I knew that some of my students were also missing members of their families. One student’s father had been deported back to Mexico and he had not seen him in years. Another student’s father had separated from her mother and moved to a city more than three hours away. I hoped these two students would connect with José’s problems and begin to talk about their feelings. I soon learned that many other students shared similar feelings and experiences.

Although immigration is passionately debated in the media, it is an issue often ignored in schools, even though it’s central to the lived experiences of Latina/o children — even those born in the United States. This was something I didn’t realize until I created space for students’ lives in the curriculum.

I originally decided to teach bilingual students because of the struggles I had faced as a bilingual child myself. I attended a bilingual (Spanish-English) preschool, but when my parents enrolled me in a private, English-only kindergarten, they were told to immediately stop speaking Spanish to me because it would “confuse me.” This was surprising to my parents — I had not even entered the classroom yet. My parents made the decision to continue to speak Spanish in our household; they wanted me to be able to communicate with our extended family in Colombia. I am grateful for this decision because it allowed me to grow up bilingual and maintain ties to my bicultural heritage.

At school, I don’t remember ever reading a story with a main character who was bilingual or bicultural. Because Latina/o culture and people were invisible in the curriculum, I felt I had to keep my Spanish language knowledge at home and hidden from my teachers and classmates.

I did not want another generation of students to feel like I did. I wanted to help students build and nurture their cultural and linguistic pride. I wanted to make sure that bilingual students were held to the same high expectations as other students. And I wanted them to understand that they did not have to give up their home language to be successful.

So I fulfilled my dream and became a teacher. All of my students were emergent bilinguals who spoke Spanish as their home language and were born in the United States, many in the same town where our school is located. Of my 20 students, 16 were of Mexican descent, three were Guatemalan, and one child had one Guatemalan parent and one Mexican parent.

Bilingual Isn’t Necessarily Bicultural

Our program was supposed to be one of academic enrichment, using both the students’ native language and English for academic instruction. The primary goal was development of biliteracy. In 2nd grade, 70 percent of the school day was to be in Spanish and 30 percent in English. But since 3rd graders in the program were not “making benchmark” on state tests, I was pressured to introduce more English in my 2nd-grade classroom.

For the first couple of years I was a rule follower. I implemented the exact curriculum passed down from the administration without question, including the required language arts curriculum. It was a scripted basal reader program — the exact same one used by the non-bilingual classrooms — only it had been translated into Spanish. Each week we read a story from an anthology and worked on the particular reading skill dictated by the manual.

This was convenient for me as a beginning teacher because it is challenging to find quality texts in Spanish. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of an estimated 5,000 children’s books published in the United States in 2014, only 66 were about Latinas/os. At least, I told myself, my students were reading in their native language on a daily basis.

Yet I began noticing that my students were not seeing themselves in the stories we read. The basal reader had more than 20 different stories, but only one that included a Latina/o-looking individual, and nowhere in the story did it talk about any of the complexities of being a bilingual or bicultural child.

My students were learning to read in Spanish that had been translated from the English, with texts that were Latina/o-culture free. The basal reader conveyed a clear message: Diverse experiences don’t matter. Every student was treated the same, given the same story to read, and taught the same skills. There was no differentiation. There was no mirror. There was no joy.

I began to question whether what I was doing was in the best interests of my students. I realized that I had to be the one to advocate for them.

I decided to bring in more literature written by Latina/o authors about Latina/o children. I began to compile a list of books by award-winning authors on such lists as the Pura Belpré, the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, and the Américas Award. I also looked for additional books by authors I already knew: Alma Flor Ada, Gloria Anzaldúa, and René Colato Laínez. In addition to Del Norte al Sur, the books I chose included La superniña del cilantro, by Juan Felipe Herrera; Esperando a Papá, by René Colato Laínez; Prietita y la llorona, by Gloria Anzaldúa; and Pepita habla dos veces, by Ofelia Dumas Lachtman.

The greatest challenge I faced was getting multiple copies of the books I wanted my students to read in small groups. To clear this roadblock, I applied for and received a grant to purchase books. I also borrowed copies from colleagues and scoured the shelves of multiple public libraries around the area. One way or the other, I was able to get four to five copies of each book.

I centered the literature discussion groups around four themes: Family, Cultural Stories, Language, and English. For each theme, I gave students four or five titles to choose from. I started each unit by giving a book talk in which I shared a few passages from each of the book choices. Then I gave students time to browse through the books and fill out a ballot ranking their top choices. Each group of literature discussions was five days long, including two days of preparation and three days of group discussion that I facilitated. Students prepared for discussions by reading the story and marking the book with sticky notes. They used the sticky notes so they would remember what they wanted to say in the discussion group. To help with that process, I gave them a sheet with sentence starters.

When our classroom shifted from basal-based reading instruction to literature-based discussions, I noticed an immediate change in my students. They were more engaged in the stories. Through the personal connections they shared, I learned new things about them and their families. Our literature discussion groups became a place where we came together and shared our joys and the difficulties we were going through. It became a place where we learned that we were not alone, and that the curriculum could be a space for reflecting and holding our own experiences. Students who had been labeled with “low proficiency” in reading on the benchmark test at the beginning of the school year were often the ones talking the most during the discussions. Our conversations helped them feel more comfortable, see themselves in the curriculum, and explore their multiple identities. They were acquiring the tools and space to unpack complex issues in their lives.

Making Space for Students’ Fears

In Del Norte al Sur, one of the books in our Family theme, we read about José going with his father to Tijuana to visit his mother, who is staying in a women’s shelter while she tries to assemble the documents to return to the United States. José, who lives in San Diego, is able to go visit his mother on the weekends and help her with the garden at the shelter; his father pays for a lawyer to process the paperwork. Although the situation is challenging for José and his parents, it is far milder than the reality of most individuals who are deported. Most children are not able to see members of their families who have been deported for extended periods of time. Many who are deported are never able to return to the United States.

Even though the story wasn’t a perfect match to my students’ own experiences, they started making personal connections to the text. When Lucia shared that her uncle had been deported, I asked her to explain what that meant. “Es cuando la policía para a una persona y les toman los fingerprintes y después se fija en una máquina si los deportan o no, pero deportar significa que los van a mandar a México”. (It’s when the police stop someone, take their fingerprints, and look on a machine to see if they will deport them or not, but deporting means they send them to Mexico.)

Although I was excited that my students were discussing this topic and I asked questions to further the conversation, I wanted to make sure I didn’t push them into an uncomfortable or upsetting space. I paid close attention to everyone, looking for cues about how they were feeling. My ultimate goal in the introduction of these literature discussions was to get my students to develop their critical thinking skills, but first I had to make sure they felt safe enough to share their stories. Before we began the literature discussions, we had developed community norms. Two of our norms were “we feel safe” and “we respect and listen to others.” When we created and reviewed the norms, my students and I talked about not making fun of each other, not laughing at individuals who were sharing, and not interrupting.

When Lucia shared her uncle’s story, it opened up a group discussion. Alejandra told us about a time her father was stopped by the police while they were driving to a nearby city. She also told us about a time her family was driving and her mother spotted a police officer. Her mother said, “Bájense porque ahí está la policía y qué tal si nos detiene”. (Get down because the police are there and what if they stop us.) Alejandra demonstrated how she slouched down in her chair. Her mother told Alejandra and her sisters, “No escuchen lo que está diciendo el policía”. (Don’t listen to what the police officer says.) Alejandra said, “Entonces no escuchamos”. (So we didn’t listen.) As Alejandra talked, we just listened. I made sure not to ask questions because I wanted to allow Alejandra the opportunity to share just as much as she wanted to.

Staying silent took lots of practice. I was so accustomed to jumping in and guiding my students in a particular direction. The pressures I felt to cover the curriculum and raise test scores made me want to push my students along at a faster pace. I had to change that mentality. I wanted my students to do most of the talking because I wanted to open up space for their lives. I didn’t want them to feel judged. I wanted our discussions to be a place where they felt safe discussing any topic. Too often, I found my students waiting for me to speak so they could agree and repeat what I said. I wanted to move away from the idea that teachers were the only ones with answers. My students had important things to share. I wanted them to realize that their experiences could help us understand each other and the book.

Alejandra finished her story by saying that the police officer followed them home and talked again to her father when they arrived. She explained that she and her younger sister were born in the United States, so they are allowed to stay, but her parents and older sister don’t have this advantage. If they are stopped again by the police or ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), her family might be split apart. I had never seen her so vulnerable.

I turned to Juliana and asked if she had anything she wanted to share, or if she knew anyone who had been deported. She fidgeted with her hands, staring at the table, before looking up and saying “Sí, mi papá”. (Yes, my dad.) Lucia nodded. “Oh, sí, ella ya nos contó la historia”. (Oh, yes, she already told us the story.)

Taking Time to Listen

At one point in our discussions Lucia announced, “No me gustan los Estados Unidos para nada.” (I don’t like the United States at all.)

This caught me off guard. “¿Por qué?” (Why?)

Lucia said that here in the United Stated she felt enclosed, but in Mexico she was free to go outside every day.

Alejandra added, “Mi mamá dice que no le gusta aquí”. (My mom says she doesn’t like it here.) She told us about a lady who helped her mother fill out some paperwork and told her mom to call her if she ever got stopped by the police. The lady told Alejandra’s mom that the police had gotten harder and that they didn’t want people from Mexico. They wanted to deport everyone.

Lucia jumped in. “Sí, están mostrando mucho de eso en Primer Impacto, que tratan de sacar a los mexicanos”. (Yes, on First Impact, they are showing lots of that, that they are trying to get rid of the Mexicans.) Primer Impacto is a popular Spanish-language, daily news program. My students were watching the media alongside their parents. This is where they were getting a lot of their information about the current political context in the United States, including hostility toward immigrants, harsh deportation policies, and family separations.

Although I felt pressure to keep the students reading and to move things along so that they could answer specific questions about the text, I resisted the temptation and asked, “¿Cómo se sienten ustedes con eso, ustedes siendo mexicanos y americanos?” (How do you feel about this, being both Mexican and American?)

Alejandra answered: “Yo me siento mal ser mexicana y americana porque mi mamá dice que si la van a deportar que no sabe a quién llevarse, porque le toca llevarse a Perla pero puede dejar a mi hermana y a mí. Y dice mi mamá que si llegan a pararla, que puede que ya nunca la veamos”. (I feel bad being Mexican and American because my mom says that if they are going to deport her, she won’t know who to take because she’ll have to take Perla, but can leave my sister and me. And my mom says if they stop her, we might never see her again.)

Hearing Alejandra talk this way made me extremely sad. Why did a child this young have to deal with issues normally reserved for adults? When I was growing up, I didn’t realize my parents were undocumented. They had overstayed the tourist visas they used to enter the United States, but I only learned about it when I was 10 years old and my parents became U.S. citizens. Both of my parents were given amnesty under the Immigrant Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed by President Reagan. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to worry about my parents possibly not coming home.

My students’ narratives shed light on the complex lived experiences they navigate on a daily basis. On the one hand, they want to be in Mexico or Guatemala with their extended families; on the other hand, they know how hard their parents are working to stay here. As a child, I had many of the same contradictory feelings. My entire family, other than my parents and brother, were in Colombia. I felt like I didn’t belong here in the United States. At the end of one trip to Colombia, I cried and begged my father to leave me there to continue school. He said no, that there were more opportunities for me in the United States, but I’m not sure he realized the impact of the fact that none of my teachers or classmates acknowledged the difficulty of being in a learning environment that ignored and devalued my language and culture.

Embracing Complexity

While Lucia, Juliana, and Alejandra were reading Del Norte al Sur, the other literature groups were reading La superniña del cilantro and Esperando a Papá. (So many students wanted to read La superniña del cilantro, we ended up with two groups working with that book.) Both of these books also raised issues of family separation and the border.

Students in the group reading Esperando a Papá told personal stories about family members crossing the border. One day, I explained that, according to the U.S. government, it’s against the law to cross the border without the right documents. I asked them what they thought about that — was it a fair law? Was it OK to break that law? Camila said, “Mi mamá y mi papá nomás cruzaron, porque querían a lo mejor ver lo que estaba aquí, pero si tú matas a alguien y te vas entonces eso es como no seguir la ley”. (My mom and dad only crossed because maybe they wanted to see what was over here, but if you kill someone and then you leave, then that’s not following the law.) Camila was talking back to the dominant discourse that says it is “wrong” to cross the border without papers and expressing a more complex view of the moral issues involved.

When I brought up the same question to the whole class, the children saw both positive and negative aspects to crossing the border illegally. In terms of positive aspects, they knew and retold stories about family members coming over to find a better life or get a better job. But many of them experienced the constant fear of family members being deported, and they had heard stories about hardships in crossing the border. For example, one child said her female cousin had to cut her hair like a boy for fear of being hurt as she tried to cross over. When Eduardo talked about how hard it was for his dad to climb over the fence, Carlos looked confused. I pulled out my iPad and showed the class pictures of the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Together, we read stories about immigrants to the United States from other parts of the world and the difficulties they faced, including In English, of Course, by Josephine Nobisso; I Hate English!, by Ellen Levine; and No English, by Jacqueline Jules. I wanted my students to understand that they shared experiences with people from other cultures, places, and times. I wanted them to see the injustices and prejudice they faced as part of a bigger pattern of power and marginalization. I tried to help them better understand these aspects by connecting them directly to the stories they shared.

For example, one day Camila told us about a conflict she and Lucia had during recess with English-speaking students from another class. Camila and Lucia were playing on top of the play structure when two girls started pushing them and calling them names. Camila said she told them “That’s not right,” but they continued. Then, Camila told us, “Yo le dije a Lucia en español que mejor nos vayamos de ahí y nos fuimos.” (I told Lucia, in Spanish, that it would be better if we left and we did.) After we gave Lucia and Camila support, we talked about the lack of integration between the bilingual students and non-bilingual students at the school. We discussed what they could do to make friends from other classrooms.

Soon these conversations influenced my planning across content areas. I realized I had to make space for students’ stories beyond literature discussions — in writing, math, and social studies. In social studies, for example, students and their parents became experts as we studied their home countries.

My students’ stories were different from my own. Lucia’s, Juliana’s, Alejandra’s, Eduardo’s, and Camila’s stories have similarities, but also differences. I realized the importance of not grouping all Latina/o narratives into one stereotypical box. Giving my students voice and exposing them to a range of multicultural literature gave us the opportunity to dig deeper and see broader vistas.

. . .

Sandra L. Osorio was an elementary bilingual teacher for eight years. She is now an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

Originally published at www.rethinkingschools.org.

Resources for Teaching About Love

It’s Valentine’s Day–a day filled with joy and surprises, but also angst and disappointments–and sometimes all of the above!

Let’s help children climb out of the emotionally wrought Valentine’s Day box by exploring different manifestations of love with these articles.

Enjoy these articles, available free to all friends of Rethinking Schools. 


Illustration: David McLimans

Can’t Buy Me Love, by Linda Christensen
Christensen gets students to write critically about clothes, class, and consumption.

Poem: Valentine’s Day at Casa del Migrante, by Bob Peterson
The Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico provides assistance to men, most of whom have been recently deported from the United States. Bob wrote this poem after visiting the facility with Rethinking Schools.

A Pedagogy for Ecology,
by Ann Pelo
Helping students build an ecological identity and a conscious connection to place opens them to a broader bond with, and love for, the earth.

“Hey, Mom, I Forgive You”
Teaching the Forgiveness Poem
by Linda Christensen
Christensen shows how she builds community in her classroom as her students write a poem about forgiving-or not forgiving. She starts with her own story.

These articles are free to read for our subscribers. Subscribe today to gain access to these articles from our archives:* 

Making Every Lesson Count, by Linda Christensen
Want to help students learn to write? Get them writing about what they love.

Reading First, Libraries Last, by Rachel Cloues
Scripted programs undermine teaching and children’s love of books.

The Hero’s Human Heart, by S.J. Childs
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, a novel about female revolutionaries in the Dominican Republic, teaches important lessons on how ordinary people can become heroes.

Home Cooking, by Linda Christensen
Food connects us to our heritage and our homes. Getting students to write about food can make them feel at home.

The Struggle for Mexican American Studies Continues

Many of you are familiar with the work of Tucson teacher Curtis Acosta. Acosta is the warm and eloquent—and photogenic!—language arts teacher featured in the film, Precious Knowledge, about Tucson’s now-outlawed Mexican American Studies program. The program is still suppressed, but the work goes on, as Acosta describes in this letter, recently posted to the Education for Liberation email list. Rethinking Schools continues to support this fine program and we urge you to show your solidarity in whatever way you can.

And, speaking of which, if you live near Seattle or plan to attend the upcoming National Council for the Social Studies conference, please join us for the presentation of our Zinn Education Project’s Myles Horton Award for Teaching a People’s History to Sean Arce, a key architect of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Arce will be speaking and showing Precious Knowledge. Details here

– Bill Bigelow

Curtis Acosta

Dear Compañer@s and Supporters,

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the situation in Tucson. However, there are a few links that I felt I should share with those interested in our continued lucha to reinstate Mexican American Studies in Tucson. First and foremost, I would like you all to know that I am still teaching my Chican@ Literature classes at a youth center on Sundays. I have a great group of youth that have joined me. The classes are free and it has been healing to have the freedom to engage in critical dialogue about literature without the threat of demonization hanging over our heads. However, we are only a handful in our Sunday class,  and those good feelings are not balanced by the injustice of thousands of students who are not able to take our courses in their regular public school experience. It is shameful, but we are dogged in our determination to see MAS back in TUSD.

The following link is to an essay that I wrote for renowned author, and personal hero of mine, Ana Castillo. It is a part of her amazing online magazine La Tolteca. I decided it was important to explain in more detail how I used The Tempest in my Chican@/Latin@ Literature classes. If that interests you, please take a look.

How I used The Tempest in my Chican@/Latin@ Literature classes.

Here is a documentary that was filmed about how our classes have been dismantled and the fall out. It’s another unique perspective that may serve as good discussion and dialogue for you and your students.

I hope that we can count on more support for my colleagues Sean Arce and José Gonzalez as they continue to defend themselves against a frivolous lawsuit.

Support the Raza Defense Fund

Since our classes were eliminated there have been many different rumors and such about the future of MAS and the Tucson Unified School District, so I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by award winning writer, Jeff Biggers of the Huffington Post. It was a great way to actually address what the future may bring for us with a  federal desegregation order and plan to be revealed on Friday.

We have two new members of the school board as of last night, and the feeling in town is one of optimism. However, the administration is very much the same and our curriculum and books are still banned. I’m not sure what type of future there will be for my colleagues and myself, but we will keep fighting for restitution of our program. I hope this interview answers any questions you may be having, but if not, feel free to reach out and contact me or my colleagues for further details.

Will Tucson School Board Reinstate or Replace Mexican American Studies? Interview with Curtis Acosta.

We hope you are all doing well all over the country toward liberating and inspiring our youth to not only dream, but to have the will to act!

In Lak Ech,

Curtis Acosta

Tucson, AZ

Outlawing Solidarity in Tucson

by the editors of Rethinking Schools

Rethinking Columbus banned“Banned in Tucson.”

As many Rethinking Schools readers know, in January Tucson school officials ordered our book Rethinking Columbus removed from Mexican American Studies classes, as part of their move to shut down the program. In some instances, school authorities confiscated the books during class—boxed them up and hauled them off. As one student said, “We were in shock. . . . It was very heartbreaking to see that happening in the middle of class.”

Other books banned from Mexican American Studies classes included Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America, and Elizabeth Martínez’ 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures.

We are in good company.

Many commentators focused on the outrageous act of banning books. But the books were merely collateral damage. The real target was Tucson’s acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, whose elimination had long been a goal of rightwing politicians in Arizona. Their efforts ultimately found legislative expression in House Bill 2281, passed shortly after Arizona’s now-infamous Senate Bill 1070, which mandated racial profiling in immigration enforcement. National outrage focused on SB 1070, with barely any attention paid to HB 2281, a law whose origins lay in the same racial prejudice.

The law’s punchline comes in Section 15-112, which prohibits any courses that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Tom Horne, the former Arizona superintendent of public instruction and the state’s current attorney general, sums up the law’s curricular dogma: “Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.”

Of course, by “those students,” Horne means Mexican Americans. To assert that oppression is a myth, especially the oppression of Mexican Americans, one must be historically illiterate—or lying. A few examples: The state of Arizona itself was acquired by the United States through invasion, war, and occupation—an enterprise justified by notions of racial supremacy. As the Congressional Globe insisted in 1847, seizing Mexican territory for the United States “is the destiny of the white race. It is the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race.” A 1910 government report, quoted in the now-banned Occupied America, concluded: “Thus it is evident that, in the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.” Today in Arizona, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than twice the percentage of Mexican American children live in poverty as white children: 64 percent to 30 percent. And Mexican Americans are twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated.

To demand that students think purely in terms of individuals and ignore race, class, and ethnicity is to enforce stupidity as state policy. Moreover, to erase solidarity from students’ conceptual vocabulary leaves them ignorant of how people have struggled to improve their lives—and have made the world a better place. Proposing that we rise purely as individuals—“I think I can, I think I can”—may be a comforting notion for social elites, but it’s simply wrong, empirically as well as morally. Outlawing solidarity benefits only those whose interests are threatened by people organizing for greater equality.

Today’s curricular ethnic cleansing in Arizona is the product of a toxic blend of fear and racism. Here’s Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal on NPR’s Tell Me More: “These issues are going to be huge philosophical issues for the United States as we become—as our whole racial makeup changes. And we need to know that there are a lot of serious concerns about how you educate kids, the values that you pass on to them.”

Translation: Whites are becoming a minority in this country. If children of color are taught to question structures of wealth and power; to think in terms of race, class, and ethnicity; to learn the history of solidarity and organizing; and come to see themselves as activists . . . well, the United States will be a very different place. In his 2010 campaign ads, Huppenthal promised to “Stop la raza.” Destroying Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program is one way he intends to keep that promise.

For rightwing politicians like Tom Horne, John Huppenthal, and Gov. Jan Brewer, it’s not the failure of the Mexican American Studies program that they fear—it’s the program’s success. According to Tucson’s own director of accountability and research, “there are positive measurable differences between MAS students and the corresponding comparative group of students.” Mexican American Studies students score higher on standardized reading, writing, and even math tests than their peers, are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to attend college, and—a feature that doesn’t show up in the data printouts—are more likely to see themselves as activists.

This kind of education is a threat to those who would prefer Mexican Americans as quiet and compliant workers. Mayra Feliciano, a co-founder of the Tucson student activist group UNIDOS and an alumna of the Mexican American Studies program, told Jeff Biggers in an interview, “As long as people like Superintendent John Huppenthal and TUSD board members are afraid of well-educated Latinos, they will try to take away our successful courses and studies.”

Following one of Biggers’ fine Huffington Post blog posts on the Mexican American Studies program, one respondent, “Tucson Don,” directed his comments to a student Biggers had quoted:

“Hey Chicka, nobody is stopping you from learning about your own culture. But you now live in the US, and you can do that on your own time and your own dime! We Americans want you to learn to read (English), write (also in English) and be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide well enough to complete a business transaction without needing a computer to tell you that a $1.99 Egg McMuffin plus a $.99 hash browns and free coffee adds up to $2.98 before tax.” Tucson Don and his ilk echo the century-old words quoted above: the Mexican American is “less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.”

This is the “gutter education,” as the youth of South Africa used to call it, that the Mexican American Studies program was designed to supplant. Those who have read the letters and articles online by MAS teachers Curtis Acosta and Maria Federico Brummer, or who have seen the excellent film Precious Knowledge, know that this is not a program that teaches hate or “resentment.” It sparks curiosity, honors students’ lives, demands academic excellence, prompts critical thinking, invites activism, and imagines a better world.

Its ethos of love, mutual respect, and solidarity is expressed in the poem that has come to symbolize the program, borrowed from Luis Valdez’ 1971 Mayan-inspired “Pensamiento Serpentino”:

In Lak’ech (I Am You or You Are Me)

Tú eres mi otro yo.

You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti.

If I do harm to you.

Me hago daño a mí mismo.

I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto,

If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo.

I love and respect myself.

We encourage Rethinking Schools readers to join the national solidarity campaign, “No History Is Illegal,” launched by the Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) network, to teach about this important struggle. In fact, Tucson’s program should not only be defended, it should be extended: We should demand that local, state, and federal policies support more multicultural, anti-racist education initiatives. As the U.S. school curriculum becomes increasingly shaped by giant multinational publishing corporations, it’s essential to stand up for—and spread—community-supported, social justice curriculum, as exemplified by Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program.

In Lak’ech. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Related Resources:

The Line Between UsThe Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life.

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

Valentine’s Day at Casa del Migrante

Rethinking Schools co-founder and editor Bob Peterson wrote this poem after a visit to Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter for men in Tijuana.  Some of the men who stay there are from Mexico on their way to the U.S., while others have been recently deported.  This poem recounts a conversation Bob had with Juan Torres, whose daughters were born in the U.S.  Juan had recently been deported after he was arrested by California authorities for driving without a license.

Casa del Migrante, Tijuana

Saint Valentine
was not looking over
Juan Torres today
as he landed in
downtown Tijuana
dropped off by la migra
after getting pulled over
a few days earlier by
San Jose police for
driving without a license
— a license he cannot get
because he is undocumented —
leaving his construction job
to go home to his two daughters
Cinthia aged 9 in fourth grade
Karely aged 8 in third grade
both citizens of the U.S.A.
born in California,
the police zapped their
computer connections with the INS
and Juan was no longer
staring down the headlights
of a San Jose cop
but rather turned over
to bright lights of the
Border Patrol
where he was
imprisoned for two days,
then flown to San Diego
with 200 other deportees
and finally bused to
downtown Tijuana
and dumped
in a place he’d not been
for 12 years
when he first crossed over
having left his home in Michoacan
at age 20 “to get a better life.”
Pushed off the bus
in the middle of the night
cold, hungry
Juan climbed into an
abandoned car in a futile
attempt to stay warm
shivering he abandoned
the car and sneaked into a church
resting a few hours
until the sun came up
when he learned from someone about
la Casa del Migrante
where he now sits
telling me
his story over a plate of
frijoles, papas, carne asada y arroz
saying how he talked by phone
to his daughters
and they said.
“We miss you, Papi…
so much!”
Juan looks down at his plate
and then into my eyes
and says “I miss them so much too.
I’m going back
but now you have to walk
for two straight days and one night
to get there.
“Good luck,” I say
and shake his hand.

Related Resources:

Teachers Tour U.S.-Mexico Border, by Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools, Summer 2004

The Line Between UsThe Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, by Bill Bigelow

The Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life.

Using role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video, veteran teacher Bill Bigelow demonstrates how to combine lively teaching with critical analysis.

The Line Between Us is a winner of the World Hunger Year Media Award.

Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson

This comprehensive 400-page book from Rethinking Schools helps teachers raise critical issues with students in grades 4–12 about the increasing globalization of the world’s economies and infrastructures, and the many different impacts this trend has on our planet and those who live here.

Rethinking Globalization offers an extensive collection of readings and source material on critical global issues. Through numerous role plays, interviews, poems, stories, background readings, cartoons, and hands-on teachign activities, the book offeres a memorable introduction to the forces that are shaping the future of our world.

Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson

By Bill Bigelow

Rethinking Columbus bannedImagine our surprise.

Rethinking Schools learned today that for the first time in its more-than-20-year history, our book Rethinking Columbus was banned by a school district: Tucson, Arizona. According to journalist Jeff Biggers, officials with the Tucson Unified School District ordered that teachers pull the book from their classrooms, evidently as an outcome of the school board’s 4-1 vote this week to abolish the Mexican American Studies program.

As I mentioned to Biggers when we spoke, the last time a book of mine was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986, when the regime there banned the curriculum I’d written, Strangers in Their Own Country, likely because it included excerpts from a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Confronting massive opposition at home and abroad, the white minority government feared for its life in 1986. It’s worth asking what the school authorities in Arizona fear today.

I called the Tucson schools this morning seeking a statement about why they ordered Rethinking Columbus removed from classrooms. The superintendent’s office referred me to Cara Rene, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the school district. Rene has not yet returned my two phone calls.

For the record, Rethinking Columbus is Rethinking Schools’ top-selling book, having sold well over 300,000 copies. And over the years many school districts have not banned, but have purchased Rethinking Columbus for use with students. These include: Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ont., Atlanta, New York City, Anchorage, Alaska, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Oakland, San Diego, Portland, Maine, Washington, DC, Cincinnati; Rochester, NY, Cambridge, Mass., Missoula, Montana, and the state of Maryland, as well as smaller towns like Stillwater, Minnesota; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; and Estes, Colorado.

We published the first edition of Rethinking Columbus back in September of 1991, on the eve of 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas—what the Chicago Tribune promised would be the “most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Rethinking Schools was determined to provide teachers with resources to prompt a more critical approach to the commemoration.

In our introduction to that first edition of the book (edited by Bob Peterson, Barbara Miner, and me) we wrote, “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children’s beliefs about society. For many youngsters the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The ‘discovery of America’ is children’s first curricular exposure to the encounter between two races. As such, a study of Columbus is really a study about us—how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people around the world.”

Twenty years later, these still seem like pretty sound reasons to “rethink Columbus.” And we would ask school officials in Tucson: Why not rethink Columbus?

What’s to fear? Rethinking Columbus offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students consider perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum. For example, in 30 years of teaching, virtually all my high school students had heard of the fellow who is said to have discovered America: Christopher Columbus. However, none had heard of the people who discovered Columbus: the Taínos of the Caribbean. That fact underscores the importance of teachers having the resources to offer a fuller history to their students. Further, it points out the importance of developing teaching materials that ask students to interrogate the official curriculum about what (and who) it remembers and what (and who) it ignores—and why?

Of course, the suppression of our book is only a small part of the effort by Arizona school officials to crush the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. The program itself exemplifies an effort to address critical questions about stories sorely lacking in today’s corporate-produced textbooks and standardized curriculum. Students in the Mexican American Studies classes will now be dispersed to other classes, according to the resolution passed this week by the governing board of Tucson schools.

Learn more about the important struggle to preserve this program at Save Ethnic Studies in Arizona, and in articles by Jeff Biggers, at Common Dreams and below. And see my Rethinking Schools blog, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War.”

Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, co-editor with Bob Peterson of Rethinking Columbus, and author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.


Other links:


By Jeff Biggers:

Mexican American Studies Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders

AZ Ed Chief Compares Mexican American Students to Hitler Jugend

AZ Attorney General Says Ethnic Studies “Must be Destroyed”

Precious Knowledge

Profile in Courage: Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce

Why AZ’s Ethnic Studies Should Matter to All Educators

AZ’s New Civil Rights Movement: Ethnic Studies