Activists, students and authors gathered Wednesday outside the Arizona capitol to read aloud from books removed from classrooms when a Mexican-American studies program was shut down in accord with a new state law.

"What we are experiencing is racism. The people who are in control of this kind of racism and discrimination have a lot of fear," writer Stella Pope Duarte told Efe.

The author of "Let Their Spirits Dance," a tribute to Hispanic Vietnam veterans, said she was devastated to learn that her book was among those removed from classrooms when the Tucson Unified School District ended its Mexican-American Studies program.

"It's a story of familial love," Pope Duarte said of her book, which was on the reading list of the TUSD Chicano studies course for more than five years.

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She rejected charges that programs such as Tucson's promote racial resentment or anti-government sentiment.

"I believe they will have to prove this line by line and tell us where we are bad," the Phoenix native said.

Threatened with the loss of millions of dollars in state funds, the Tucson school board voted 4-1 last month to end the Mexican-American Studies program.

The decision came after Arizona education superintendent John Huppenthal ordered state funding for the TUSD cut by 10 percent a month if the program continued.

Huppenthal, who always contended the TUSD program was at odds with state law SB 2281, moved to block the funds in the wake of a court finding that supported his view.

Tucson's program violates SB 2281's ban on ethnic studies courses that promote "the overthrow of the United States government" or "resentment toward a race or class of people," state administrative law Judge Lewis D. Kowal concluded in December.

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The end of the program was accompanied by the withdrawal from Tucson classrooms more than a dozen different titles, many of them dealing with Mexican-American history.

TUSD administrators stressed that the books were not "banned," as they were still available in school libraries.

Sujey Vega, an academic and member of the Arizona Ethnic Studies Network, which organized Wednesday's read-in events in Phoenix and elsewhere, told Efe she and other activists are trying to get HB 2281 repealed, though the Republican-controlled legislature looks unlikely to revisit the issue.

Others suggest the question will be decided by the courts.

"This law ends a curriculum for political motivations, it's a violation of the 1st Amendment ... and of the students' rights," Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, told Efe.

A group of TUSD teachers, students and parents have filed suit in federal court to challenge SB 2281 as unconstitutional, but the case is still pending.

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