Arizona and Chile: Concealing history in the classroom

Truth is being hidden from students, while racism against Mexican Americans is growing.

    Arizona's laws have become increasingly discriminatory [EPA]

    Leeds, United Kingdom - When students attending Tucson schools returned to the classroom after Martin Luther King Day, they were in for a shock. They arrived to find out that their Mexican-American studies program had been dismantled and that many books they had used in class were now banned. Among those were some important works on Chicano and Mexican culture, including the best-selling Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years and even more bizarrely, a classic of the English language, William Shakespeare's The Tempest.  

    The Board of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), the local authority responsible for the ban, was of course acting in compliance with an Arizona state Law (HR 2281 [PDF]) which bans ethnic studies classes across the state. Had they decided to ignore the law, they would have been deprived of up to US $1 million of state funding each month. In plain words, regardless of their opinion on the matter, they were between the sword and the wall.

    Strategic reasons aside, however, one can only speculate on whether the long-term price to pay for banning classes that address racial, ethnic and civil disobedience issues is likely be much higher, and whether the board should have shown some courage and challenged the state. If there is one thing clear here, it is that whatever problems they believe they have, they will only get worse by imposing dictatorial measures such as this ban.

    By attempting to shut down Mexican-American and ethnic-focused programs in the hope that racial, ethnic and political issues will magically go away, they are being at best naive and at worst deluded. As a matter of fact they are behaving like ostriches with their heads in the sand - as if this would make any difference to the weather above.

    What the state of Arizona and the TUSD are trying to do is to obliterate public debate on issues that they find unsettling. For some time now, Arizona has been at the end of heavy criticism from within and outside of the United states, especially after passing the controversial Anti-Immigration Law, known as the SB 1070 [PDF], which aims to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants.

    Ignoring the obvious

    Both SB 1070 and HB 2281 have an inescapable racist component, particularly directed at Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, although other Latin American immigrants are not immune either. To get away with bigoted laws, they have claimed, in a very devious way, that ethnic and racial oriented classes can only foster division among the pupils and in society in general.

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    Dr Milagros Lopez-Pelaez Casellas, author of the recently published book What about the Girls?, which focuses on the work of Chicano writers Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton and Jovita Gonzalez - two authors that will likely be left out of future syllabi across the state, commented that "these laws are nothing but mechanisms to legalise racist and discriminatory policies".

    Evidently the state of Arizona and the TUSD have failed to notice that almost 60 per cent of these same pupils - or at least of those under the authority of the TUSD - have Mexican-American backgrounds. They have also failed to see that even the name of their state, Arizona, is in itself a Spanish variation of the Aztec word Arizuma, meaning "silver-bearing". No matter how much they wish to rid themselves of their Mexican population and culture, they are unequivocally bound to fail.

    Tampering with history, the way that Arizonan legislators and teaching authorities have just done, is obviously nothing new. Many leading banks and companies throughout the Western Hemisphere have done their utmost to sweep under the carpet their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The Vatican has attempted to erase all memory about the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Pope Pius XII, who despite all the money and power of the Holy See, is still today known to many as "Hitler's Pope". The list could go on forever.

    One recent example, nevertheless, is worth mentioning. Only a few weeks ago, the government of President Sebastian Pinera of Chile decided to change the term used to describe Augusto Pinochet's regime in all primary school textbooks. What until then had been defined in the classrooms across the nation as a "dictatorship", was suddenly renamed a "military regime".

    Let us remember for a minute that the Pinochet regime was not a holiday in the sun. His dictatorship began in 1973 with a gory coup d'etat that culminated with the death of democratically elected President Salvador Allende, and with the end of a long tradition of democratic civility that had characterised Chile.

    Hiding the truth

    In the following years, Pinochet's famous DINA (Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional) was responsible for arrests, executions, torture and disappearances. According to the Rettig Report published in 1991, at least 2,095 people were assassinated, and more than 1,100 were "disappeared" and never found. Among those murdered were singer Victor Jara, General Carlos Prats and opposition politician Orlando Letelier.

    Erasing the word "dictatorship" from Chilean primary schools' textbooks somehow bears a striking resemblance to banning books that discuss race, ethnicity and civil disobedience from Tucson's schools. It is somehow impossible to look at one and not to make a connection with the other. In both cases authorities have willingly chosen the path of repressing historical memory in order to reinforce social control.

    Today both Arizona and Chile find themselves inextricably linked together on what it is, without any doubt, the wrong side of history. With their actions they have both shown a lack of political maturity and a profound ignorance of social, political and cultural issues.

    They may think that history will ultimately forgive or forget their actions, but they are mistaken. The Mexican-American population in the United States will never forget this bout of bigotry, and neither will the other Latin Americans living across the union, who will be carefully observing whether more measures like these are likely to follow. Nor will the many Chileans who were tortured by Pinochet's lackeys, or who had relatives killed or disappeared because of their political views by what can solely described as a repressive dictatorship.

    There is still time for change and there are signs that people won't just accept these arbitrary impositions. In Chile, not only the members of the opposition, but even many politicians from the governing party, have shown their disagreement with Pinera's ill-advised and unintelligent move. In Arizona, a group of students have filed a lawsuit against HB 2281, and many of the teachers on the state payroll have opposed what University of Arizona's Professor Roberto Rodriguez has called a "draconian" attack on the Latin community within the context of a "civilisational war".

    Ultimately, both Chile and Arizona face historical struggles against politically powerful forces obsessed with hiding and distorting the truth. Of their resolution and strength to fight these measures will depend on what sort of citizens both places will produce in the future. Will they be tolerant, civic and culturally open-minded people? Or will they just be as stubborn and ignorant as those who have passed and enforced these changes? Only time will tell.

    Manuel Barcia is Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, as well as Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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