Guest Post: Should Pagans Care About Ethnic Studies in Arizona?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 7, 2011 — 59 Comments

While much attention has been paid to Arizona’s controversial laws concerning immigration, portions of which are currently being challenged in federal court, other controversial pieces of legislation passed in the state have been largely overlooked. One such law essentially bans ethnic study courses in publicly-funded schools, and seems specifically designed to eliminate the Mexican-American Studies Program at the Tucson Unified School District.

“…this [law] prohibits school classes, which I’m going to quote here, “promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed for particular ethnic groups or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals.” […] it’s a state law, but it’s really aimed at the Mexican-American Studies Program at the Tucson Unified School District. It’s a high school program which students can take instead of general U.S. history and government. The class teaches government from a Latino perspective, emphasizing heroes such as Cesar Chavez. And the head of the Department of Education of the state, Tom Horne, has been trying to get this law passed for four years, his office has.”

The new law, which went into effect on January 1st, was initially fought by Tuscon Unified School District (TUSD) but that resistance has faltered as threats of severe funding cuts have been issued as punishment for non-compliance. In addition, the governing board of TUSD is considering a controversial new resolution that would make all the Mexican-American Studies courses electives instead of counting towards the social studies requirement (assuming they are deemed legal). This latest development has spurred acts of civil disobedience by students, and a final vote has been delayed until a forum can take place.

I often ask myself what the “Pagan angle” is to any story I write about. Why should we specifically involve ourselves in any particular issue? There are a million blogs that cover politics from across the spectrum, so I try to leave partisan issues by the wayside unless it directly affects us or our interests. In this case, Aine, an 18-year-old Pagan from Arizona, wrote to me with an argument that this is something we should care about, and something our clergy and leaders should be responding to. Aine has taken classes in the now-controversial Mexican-American Studies Program at TUSD and writes eloquently about why the battle being waged over ethnic studies classes in Arizona might just be a Pagan issue.

I’ve come to talk about an issue that has begun tearing at the already fragile seams of our state. Many people involved in the ethnic studies debate in Arizona have turned it into a politics game, creating such tension in the community that families have even become fractured in the fight. Which is what it is; don’t doubt it. There is a reason our youth are chaining themselves to chairs and throwing their fists up. And it is not political.

This may not seem like an issue that concerns Pagans, due to the amazing spin job and duality crafted by the media and those in power. But I am begging, pleading, with my fellow Pagans that you please listen with open hearts and minds, forgetting the surface politics, and understand why the fight in Arizona does matter to us. To all of us: Wiccan, Feri, Asatru, Pagan, Heathen, whatever you are.

I have attended the ethnic studies classes (Mexican-American Studies) for two years, beginning in my junior year of high school. I took both junior and senior Latino Literature, as well as Mexican-American History and Mexican-American Government. These classes were instrumental in my development as a human being and as an interested member of my community invested in its growth. These classes helped my development as a Pagan. And this is because they are based on ancient philosophies indigenous to the American Southwest, including Mayan and Aztec belief.

I have heard elders in these traditions speak of the Mayan calendar, of the great temples of ancient cities. Names that were once foreign to my tongue roll easily now: Tezkatlipoka, Huitzilopotchli, Quetzalcoatl. Yes, we also learned of the Conquistadors, and Cesar Chavez, and the walkouts in 1969. We also learned the old names of the mountains surrounding our town, the old customs and practices of the native people, their understanding of this land. This, if no other reason, should be why Pagans are invested in keeping the ethnic studies program in Arizona alive: knowledge.

I’ve heard and read many complaints from my fellow Pagans bemoaning our lost history, the oral knowledge that was wiped out or forgotten. In Arizona, we have our indigenous knowledge being returned to us. We’re relearning the lost tales, the buried knowledge, from people who heard it from the elders who remember the truth before it was contorted or burned. This is what the people in power are trying to dismantle.

Perhaps they have good reason. Learning your history empowers you, especially we who have been so powerless. Not only are we learning the old knowledge of the Southwest, we have read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Critical Race Theory. We have read Shakespeare’s The Tempest and viewed it as a prophetic play to the actual colonization of the Americas. We have read a memoir written by an ex-gang member and a book about the real border horror we live so close to. We have been exposed to material most people don’t read until college.

This is what those in power are afraid of. And they have infected others in the community with their fear, preaching that our students have been brainwashed. Turned into leftist, liberal revolutionaries that hate our government. Yet never have our teachers said that we must believe everything we read. Quite the opposite. Our teachers have told us to follow our hearts and our heads, to think critically. What is valued in our classes is the ability to formulate your beliefs in an intelligent manner, not what those beliefs are. We are not expected to believe what our teachers do, or to follow in their footsteps. We are being turned into human beings, not robots programmed with the command to destroy the U.S government.

It is this humanization that is what our opponents so fear. When we are fully human, empowered, we will not sit idly by and let our rights be taken away. We will not dance beautifully for those who have lied about our program, our teachers, and us. We will not watch as our precious knowledge is stripped away again.

Please understand that this fight is not about “Right” or “Left” or “Center”. You don’t have to be Mexican-American or brown to care about these classes. This fight is about our right to be educated, to learn. To learn everything about the peoples who have shaped this country, whether you think it is great or not (and, because of these classes, I think it is great). Some people say culture should only be taught at home. But surely, as Pagans, many of us whom grew up in homes where our roots were not acknowledged or smothered by a belief system that has held our world in its clutches for millennia, we can understand that sentiment of isolation breeds silence. If we are unable to learn about cultures both in our blood and not our own, we will become divided, no longer capable of comprehending others. Our cultures are being lost, our indigenous cultures, and beyond the façade of politics surely we can see that what is at stake is knowledge. The ability to learn freely.

I have sat with Catholics, Christians, atheists and Muslims and discussed openly my Paganism, my sexuality and gender identity, and it is in these classes that I feel truly safe. The classes breed compassion, love, and understanding. That is why we are fighting so hard, why teens are chaining themselves down and yelling. We have talked quietly, and peacefully, and reasonably, and those in power have ignored us. They have called us racist and brainwashed. Our teachers are receiving death threats because they dare to teach a history of people called savages, people who discovered 0 (zero), who created one of the most accurate calendars in the world, and who conveyed ideas not through writing but image. Perhaps this does not seem as serious a loss as the killing of philosophers, or the burning of libraries, or the forced conversions we have all heard of. But it is. The law and the people supporting the destruction of these classes are attempting to silence a voice that speaks of knowledge, and hope, and peace. Courage, love, and a warrior spirit I am sure many Pagans and Heathens can relate to.

I do not exaggerate when I say we are fighting for our lives. Countless students have been saved from dropping out by these classes, because they teach us that we do have a voice, that we do have power, and that what we say matters. The future of our education is at stake, and it doesn’t matter what political side you are on. Everyone who cares about freedom of speech, freedom of the indigenous people to teach their knowledge and accept their place as a group that has contributed to our country, freedom of the youth to be heard even if we can’t vote—support us. Support us in any way you can. Send money to the lawsuit fighting the law, send emails to the activists with ideas on how to get our message out in ways more people will listen to and understand, send your thoughts and energy and hope. We need hope so badly. Some people have been fighting this fight for years, and we’re tired. We need support, we need to know that we’re not alone in this fight, we need to know that our spiritual communities care.

At the most recent protest there were clergy with a Virgen de Guadalupe altar outside the TUSD Board Meeting. For a long time I resisted requesting the aid of the Pagan clergy (or Pagans at all) here for fear of the backlash, the false connection of our classes to liberal politics.

But the time for fear is over, and I am begging every Pagan and Heathen to help in this fight. We need you, in any way you can help. We have fought for our own sacred knowledge, for the traditions of the Norse and Germanic people, for the knowledge of the Celts and Druids, for the hidden histories of the Romans and Greeks. Don’t let our indigenous knowledge be lost, or slowly killed, or marginalized. We know how it is to try to find our roots, our place again, and I am begging that you do not let them take our roots away. It doesn’t matter if your white, black, brown, yellow, red, any color: your roots, both blood and land of birth, that’s what matters.

Anything you do, whether talking with family and friends about the issue, or writing to our schools to show your support, or ritualizing or praying or the multitude of other things Pagans do, will help. Just listening and understanding us, our struggles, our truth, is help. But, please, help. We need it. Thank you.

I’d like to thank Aine for sharing this first-hand perspective of such contentious issue. To find out more, Jeff Biggers at The Huffington Post seems to be closely following the story, as are local blogs the Tucson Progressive and The Three Sonorans. Local opposition to these laws and proposals seems to be centered in the group “Save Ethnic Studies.” You can find some more background on the resolution to change the status of ethnic-studies programs, here (and here). For the “pro” side, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne penned a critical report of these classes when he was superintendent.

For those who want to contact Aine, I can pass along your info, or you can offer advice and insights in the comments.

Jason Pitzl-Waters