Banned in the USA: Reflections on the Legacy of Arizona
“Because memory is about history and history is about survival - mine, my family, my community’s, my peoples…”
-Horacio Roque Ramirez, Oral Testimonies
In crude, ironic fashion, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB 1070 reached its two-year anniversary on April 23, the same day Cesar Chavez passed away 19 years ago. April also marked the 65th anniversary of the Mendez vs. Westminster case, which emerged in 1945 after the Mendez family and four other Mexican American families from southern California filed a lawsuit against their school districts for denying their children enrollment in white schools.
The ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court on Mendez declared that the segregation of children of Mexican ancestry from white schools was a violation of equal protection laws. It was the first case in the nation to argue against and overcome “the separate but equal” doctrine. Seven years later, Thurgood Marshall would draw on the arguments made during Mendez v. Westminster (on which he collaborated with Mendez attorney David Marcus) to bolster his own case in front of the U.S Supreme Court for Brown v. Board of Education.
Landmarks like these serve to measure the progress of a people, and remind us of the power intrinsic in unity. Yet, these history-defining cases are at risk of being further denied and suppressed from America's memory, thanks to laws like SB 1070 and the lesser-known HB 2281, which prohibits Arizona school districts from teaching Ethnic Studies.
Recently, the Tucson Unified School District fired Sean Arce, its director of Mexican American Studies. As a result, the district’s Mexican American Studies department is in limbo. A number of Latino books have even been banned from classrooms, including Acuña’s Occupied America.
What’s going on in Arizona, specifically the attack on Ethnic Studies, is confounding and maddening. The laws are creating a very different legacy, one that could not stand in greater contrast to the Mendez and Brown decisions -- one that I wish would simply bury itself in the ground.
Ethnic Studies departments have always met resistance from being recognized as a legitimate field of study. Yet, the current argument against Ethnic Studies cuts deeper because it means a negation of my very identity, my history and my presence in American society as a Latino. To bury the history, the conflict, the truth about our nation’s racism and fear of differences, is to bury my very being.
It was in my Ethnic Studies classes where I debated the most. It was through those studies that I engaged with scholars, my parents and family members in discussions about history, community and current events. Through my professors in Ethnic Studies, I was able to find my voice and my vision. I can’t hardly fathom that the books of my childhood, like Esperanza Rising, What Night Brings and Monster, shelved beside The Giver, The Outsiders and The Hardy Boys Detectives, could be banned simply because they are stories written from the perspective of Americans of color.
And so, I celebrate the banned month of April, knowing that its landmarks - Cesar Chavez and Mendez v. Westminster - will never reach the history pages of corporate sanctioned textbooks. I will follow the Supreme Court as it hears arguments over SB 1070, write about it, and yes, post it on my facebook wall, tweet it, blog it, speak it on the street corner, in buses, trains and in restaurants, schools, mi casa. I will read a banned book in solidarity with Arizona. I will not allow people like me to be banned from American memory, or from it’s present.