Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chris Crutcher on Matt de la Pena's book being banned: "This is racism, plain and simple."

Tucson Unified School District has a long history of failing its Mexican American students. This is true elsewhere, too, across the country. The PBS documentary "Taking Back the Schools" (below) is primarily about Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, tired of being tracked into vocational classes and feeling shame for being Mexican American, students in East LA decided to go before the school board asking for changes. They did a survey of fellow students asking them what they wanted to present to the school board. They wanted  bilingual instruction, Mexican American history courses, Mexican American teachers, and an end to corporal punishment. They also wanted access to college prep classes so they could go on to college.

Carmen Lomas Garza, author of In My Family/En Mi Familia, was a young child in the schools then. In the video (at the 5:45 mark) she talks of being made fun of when she took out her lunch of tacos with frijoles, meat, and rice. It was so bad that she didn't want to take that lunch to school anymore.

Her book won the Americas Picture Book Award in 1996, and in 1997 it received the Pure Belpre Honor Award, and was listed as a Notable Book by the International Reading Association.

In 1997, her book also won the Tomas Rivera Children's Book Award, which brings us back to the present and the ban of the Mexican American Studies Department in Tucson Unified School District. Tomas Rivera's books are among those that were taught in the MAS program.

Until it was shut down in January, the Tucson MAS program was doing precisely what students wanted in 1968, and it was doing precisely what college students are been taught in teacher education courses. Use multicultural literature and teach critical thinking!

The outcome? Students did better in school, graduated at higher rates, and went on to college at higher rates than students who were not in the MAS classes. They read Matt de la Pena's Mexican WhiteBoy.

Matt de la Pena

Matt de la Pena's Mexican WhiteBoy is amongst the books that were taught in the MAS literature courses, but it is more than that...  His book is mentioned on page 29 of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kowal's decision about the program, in the section titled "Latino Literature." As such, it is evidence that the MAS program violates the law. Here's the text from that section:
Latino Literature
160. Drafts of the Pacing Guides for the MAS junior and senior Latino Literature courses demonstrate that elements of critical race theory and critical pedagogy encompass a significant portion of the course.
161. Proposed required reading for these classes include "Justice: A Question of Race," by Roberto Rodriguez and "Mexican Whiteboy" by Matt de la Pena.
162. Juniors in Latino Literature appear to study "Our History-Indigenous Roots and the Mexican Revolution Novels."
163. Senior Latino Literature students appear to devote an entire quarter of the semester to "Critical Race Theatre," in which they are required to "critically dissect and identify components of critical race theory through literary works."
164. Student assessments from these courses show that the focus on Latino Literature is the oppression of Mexican Americans by the White European race.
165. As an example, one second semester final exam for a Latino Literature course used in the spring of 2011 tests students with the following essay prompt:
All year long we have read stories where the Mexican Americans were discriminated against, taken advantage of, oppressed, etc. We are destined to repeat history if we don't do something to change it. Reflect on what we have read about this year and in an essay, write about what we can do as a group to change things. What will you do as an individual to change things? Select one of the pieces we have read this year that reflects the point that you are trying to make in your essay.
Throughout the document, some things were underscored (as shown above) by the Department of Education. Apparently, those portions are "the smoking gun", so to speak. From my perspective, however, all of that sounds fine, especially for college prep classes. 

Matt de la Pena has been following and writing about all of this at his blog. He will be in Tucson, at Tucson High School, on March 13. He writes:
Ironically, I'm scheduled to speak at Tucson High School on March 13. A young female student there spearheaded the whole thing. She went to the administration on her own accord and helped raise funds. She's a self-admitted reluctant reader, but she was introduced to my books in a class much like the one above, and something clicked. Because of her effort and passion, this has been the visit I'm most looking forward to this year. I can't wait to meet her. 
He links to the video (below) of Yolanda Sotelo who taught at Pueblo High School and used his book.

Among the comments to his blog post is one from Chris Crutcher. He writes:

Hey Matt, the responders here have said it as well as it can be said. I’ll what I can to bring as much light to this as possible. Let me know if you have ideas. I’ve been able to laugh off book bannings based on irrational right wing Christian fears (and politically correct left-wing fears as well) for years. There were even times I (foolishly) believed those folks wanted the same things for young people that I wanted; just had a different belief about how to get there. But this is racism pure and simple. I’m sick of living in a country in which it’s become more heinous to CALL someone a racist than it is to BE a racist. There will come a time, I hope in my lifetime, when the ethnic scales will tilt and these assholes will be voted out of office. Until then, let’s do what we can to make their lives interesting.

Crutcher is right. This is racism pure and simple. Crutcher's "I'm sick of living in a country in which it's become more heinous to CALL someone racist than it is to BE a racist" is especially powerful.

I'm glad some of the well-established authors like Crutcher are paying attention. Students in TUSD's MAS program read works by Mexican American, and American Indian, and Asian American, and African American authors. They were taught to think critically. They went from being uninterested---and perhaps reluctant readers like Matt was---to being students like Matt who go on to college.

I'm closing this post with part one of a four-part video of Matt de la Pena talking with high school students. His personal story is important, and the opportunity to read his books from a Mexican American perspective in a Mexican American class should never have been taken away from the students in TUSD.

For a chronological list of AICL's coverage of the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies program, click here.

To participate in the Feb 1, 2011 National Teach-In, go here.

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