Documentary shows racial tensions in Arizona schools Crystal Terriquez, a former student in a Tucson, Arizona high school and participant in a Mexican-American Studies program offered by that city's school district, poses next to a truck on graduation day during a scene from the documentary "Precious Knowledge."EFE
Los Angeles – A documentary to be screened at next week's Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival examines the tensions sparked by attempts to eliminate a Mexican-American Studies program from Arizona high schools.
"More than 50 percent of Mexican-American students drop out of school in the United States, but of the students who take the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, (Arizona) high schools, 93 percent graduate," Eren Isabel McGinnis, the producer of "Precious Knowledge," told Efe.
"Yet, despite the program's success, educational authorities in Arizona want to shut down Mexican-American Studies because they say it incites (people) to overthrow the government," she added.
Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, said in a ruling last month that the Tucson Unified School District is not in compliance with sections of a state law governing course content.
The law prohibits classes in the state's public schools that "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic race," "promote resentment toward a race or class of people" or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
Although another section of the law bans courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, he did not cite that section in handing down his ruling.
"This decision is not about politics, it is about education," Huppenthal said, adding that the ruling followed an "Arizona Department of Education investigation and review of TUSD's Mexican American Studies Department's classroom materials and instructional content."
If TUSD's governing board does not bring the program into compliance within 60 days, it runs the risk of losing 10 percent of the monthly state funding it currently receives, his ruling said.
A group of teachers has filed suit to block enforcement of the state law cited by Arizona education officials, A.R.S. 15-112, and the case is still being heard in court.
"Precious Knowledge," a film directed by Ari Palos that premiered in March at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, where it received the audience prize, will be screened twice at the LALIFF next Tuesday.
"Arizona right now is a racist state and many people support laws just because they're anti-Mexican-American," McGinnis said.
"As far as what's happening in Tucson, the community is angry, students are angry, teachers are angry, because the government is shutting down the program and that's what this film's about," she said.
McGinnis, who has produced 19 films, said Mexican-Americans' high dropout rate "is a serious problem" because it is bigger than that of any other ethnic group in the country.
"The Mexican-American Studies program, which is elective, teaches Latino students the contributions made to the United States by people like them, from their own culture; therefore, instead of learning about Mark Twain or William Shakespeare, they learn about (novelist) Sandra Cisneros or (United Farm Workers co-founder) Dolores Huerta," she said.
Sean Arce, director of the TUSD's Mexican-American Studies Department, said that six out of 10 high schools in that school district have offered the program for the past 10 years and around 15,000 students have participated.
Crystal Terriquez, who graduated from a high school in Tucson and took Mexican-American Studies classes there, told Efe that students from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds enroll in that particular TUSD ethnic-studies program.
That same school district also has African-American Studies and Pan Asian Studies departments, according to Terriquez, who currently is in her second year of the Pima Community College's Translation and Interpretation Studies program and hopes later to enroll at the University of Arizona.
"The result of the Chicano studies classes for me was that, after sitting alone in the back of the classroom, I began to sit in the front because what I learned made me feel good about myself and feel that this was also my country," Terriquez said.
"In these classes, they encourage us to follow good Mexican-American role models and to want to be like them," she said.