When those behind Tucson’s successful Raza/ethnic studies program visit Santa Monica this Friday at the Pico Youth & Family Center as part of a Southern California tour, the legacy of Chicano studies in Santa Monica will come more clearly into the light. Society often relegates Latino accomplishments to the shadows. Tucson’s Raza studies team, and their campaign to raise awareness and funds for legal opposition to Arizona’s HB2281 (the Anti-Ethnic Studies bill), coincidentally mirrors the “soft war” — in the form of police misconduct, slander of Latino leaders, censorship, and, most typically, a consistent disregard — waged upon Chicano education activists here.
In Tucson, the multi-racial students enrolled in Raza studies classes graduate at higher rates and with higher scores than all students in the district. More so, Raza studies ties educational objectives to social justice projects in students’ own communities. This unique approach is one of the reasons for the success of the program.
Here in Santa Monica, Chicano studies remains a hidden legacy. Most people don’t know that in 1971, SMC students organized the first Chicano studies classes. In 2001, the author, Oscar de la Torre (a Santa Monica High School counselor at the time) and several teachers rejuvenated the Chicano/Latino literature course, which is still taught today. Local activist Irma Carranza reminded me that the Freshman Seminar, aimed at socializing a multicultural student body at Samohi, was a product of community input to teach students ethnic studies and culturally relevant curriculum. Recent studies at Harvard and UCLA indicate that student achievement increases when Latino students see themselves reflected in instruction and programs.
In Arizona, Republican Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne, made the program his personal vendetta after Dolores Huerta criticized Republican policies against Latinos. Some have stated that the main problem with the program is that it is successful. Authorities there prefer “good Mexicans,” circa 1950, Mexicans that stay in the shadows. My two years teaching at Samohi, for example, ended when administrators began to see my work as a threat. Students walked out on my behalf and extended my stay temporarily. More recently we’ve seen the police attack on de la Torre, not without the complicity (or participation) of school administrators and the superintendent.
de la Torre has been one of the most important voices in recent education policies affecting not only the Pico Neighborhood. Oscar has involved himself numerous times in peace mediations. He persuaded the district to invest in state-of-the-art construction for the lowest-funded school site, the predominantly Latino Edison Elementary. He was also behind the building of the first library in the Pico Neighborhood.
Police abused their power when they launched a sham investigation and threatened to press criminal charges on de la Torre last Spring, slandering his possible campaign for a City Council seat. On March 16 of this year, Oscar broke up a fight between a black and Latino youth down the alley between Samohi and the youth center he directs. One student recorded the fight on a cell phone. Police then began a lengthy investigation of Oscar and the center. This case was dropped when de la Torre responded with a press conference of his own, and TV news reported the police use of taxpayer monies to do Tea Party politics against the outspoken Latino.
Ironically, this censorship and political attack by police on a Latino leader coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, when police physically attacked Chicano activists and murdered a key critic of police misconduct, Ruben Salazar, at the time a Pulitzer-winning reporter and television news director. In this same month L.A. police killed a young unarmed man who had attended Samohi. A few days later, LAPD shot and killed a drunk day laborer in Pico Union, Manuel Jamines, sparking waves of protests. Official reports say that the officer arrived on bicycle, and within 40 seconds had shot Jamines twice in the head, killing him instantly. Officials were quick to defend the officer, to the point of calling him a hero
A police officer who murders a drunk man within 40 seconds of encountering him is called a hero. An educated Latino school board member who breaks up a fight in an alley within a minute and has the two youth shake each others’ hands is accused of a crime, and betrayed by school officials. As the youth say, we have things twisted.
In response to this case, and a beating of a local youth by police officers, AMAE and the UCLA Raza Graduate Student Association held a “Know Your Rights” event at Virginia Park on Aug. 11. At the outset of the event, park officials instructed the organizers of three things: de la Torre could not speak, we could not mention the case against him, and no “bashing” police. If he spoke, the mike chords would be pulled. Since when does the police dictate what kind of conversations we have, and who can speak? Are all SM communities susceptible to this treatment? This is censorship.
Things like the library plans, Edison’s construction, and City Hall’s White Paper are important accomplishments which we have a lot of people to thank. We still have a lot to do. Currently Latino educators are establishing an indigenous educational academy for Pico teens. An art show Oct. 2 at Bolivar Café will raise funds for supplies. Plans for Raza studies curriculum continue on the Westside, even as most social science, literature and history teachers employ Chicano and ethnic studies lessons without acknowledging or perhaps not knowing where the research came from.
Richard Rodriguez recently wrote: “Great empires expand beyond their own borders. Empires in decline build walls.” While Arizona fortifies its walls, Santa Monica is in a position to influence the world with innovative education. We should not fear a good example.
Elias Serna is a Pico Neighborhood native, president of the Association of Mexican American Educators, SM/West LA, and member of the art group Chicano Secret Service.