PICO BLVD — A blend of students, educators and community members filled the Pico Youth & Family Center last week to rally support for the Mexican American studies program in Tucson, Ariz. 

The program is threatened by the state’s House Bill 2281, which would make courses, including the Tucson Unified School District’s ethnic studies program illegal, as well as other courses considered to promote or designed specifically for a particular ethnic group.

A coalition of educators from Tucson called Save Ethnic Studies spoke at the center to lobby against the bill, which is slated to go into effect on Dec. 31.

“(We’re here) to communicate a message that it’s not just an attack on Mexican Americans or Chicanos, it’s actually an attack on humanity,” said Sean Acre, director of the Tucson district’s ethnic studies program. “Preventing someone from learning about their history and culture is an attack on all peoples.”

The program is one of the only K-12 Mexican American studies programs in the nation that focuses on curriculum, said René Martínez, a Mexican-American studies teacher in Tucson.

The courses are designed so students can see themselves reflected in the curriculum and emphasize respect and critical consciousness.

After two years of raza studies, students generally outperform their peers in all subjects — including math, which is not part of the program’s curriculum, Martínez said, adding that the motivation students get from the program extends across all academic life.

Selina Rodriguez, who grew up in Tuscon, said school never came easy to her. But after she began taking classes in Mexican-American studies at her high school, Rodriguez, now program director of the Pico Youth & Family Center, began to excel. 

“A community was backing me up,” Rodriguez, who recently graduated from UCLA with a master’s in urban planning, said. “It gives you more purpose and direction.”

The Pico Youth & Family Center has a partnership with students in Tucson, where there aren’t community centers like the one in Santa Monica, she said. In 2007, a group of students from the Social Justice Education Project in Tucson who were working on a documentary about creating a youth center visited the PYFC to develop a model for their own city. 

Since then, there has been collaboration between the Santa Monica and Tucson youth, students and teachers, with several group exchanges on both ends, Rodriguez said, adding that Arizona is more advanced in raza studies curriculum, while Santa Monica and Los Angeles have more models for community centers.

“We don’t live in Arizona but what happens in Arizona is going to affect directly what’s going on in California,” Rodriguez said.

Irma Carranza, a local parent and community activist, said the problem is many students feel their teachers don’t understand them, which is why curriculum that emphasizes self-empowerment and a student’s own cultural history is important.

“I don’t understand how empowering our children equates to fear with the majority group,” she said.

To help bring ethnic studies to Santa Monica, Carranza and a collaboration of educators are creating a community education center to teach students about indigenous cultures, which the school district doesn’t cover. The center, Community of Wisdom by the Sea, is based on Nahuatl philosophy and will target middle school boys, the age Carranza said the academic achievement gap begins in local schools. 

“The intent is to give kids a sense of self worth, self acceptance and that whole philosophy of looking in the mirror and loving yourself,” she said.

Though Santa Monica High School has a Freshman Seminar program that looks at genocide and tolerance and racism throughout history and within the community, as well as electives including African American and Chicano literature, there is no ethnic studies program, according to Renee Semik, I House principal who oversees the seminar.

“The first responsibility of any educator and any student is to know oneself and to know one’s culture, because out of that comes positive self esteem as an intellectual,” said Oscar de la Torre, school board member and director of the PYFC. “In Santa Monica, being a progressive city and an educated city, we are astonished and we want to stand in solidarity with the movement for honest education in Arizona.”

The center collected $225 to support the Save Ethnic Studies group, who will be filing a lawsuit against Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, the State Board of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne to fight the bill.

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