Controversy over the Mexican-American Studies program of Tucson Unified School District has been covered by local, state and national media over the past 12 years. Now it’s been chronicled in “Más,” a new docu-drama for the stage premiering in Phoenix on Saturday.
The play, developed through a partnership between Cultural Coalition and Arizona State University’s Performance in the Borderlands, is based on more than 400 pages of interviews with students and other community members who were impacted by the program and its elimination in 2012 as a result of passage in 2010 of an Arizona law targeting it.
In August, a U.S. District Court Judge found the law to be a violation of student’s rights and racially motivated.
“We just wanted to note this history because we thought no one else would notice or pay attention or it wouldn’t go down in the history books as this has happened,” said playwright Milta Ortiz, whose husband, Marc Pinate, is the play’s director.” We thought this was an important thing to document.”
Ortiz said the play brought about a lot of emotion to audiences during the premiere in Tucson, especially those that were portrayed in the performance and relived their struggles through the theatrical lens.
The title is an artistic choice. Más, the Spanish word for “more” is used because she believes schools need more educational programs that encompass diversity, gender equality and compassion.
Tucson Unified’s Mexican-American Studies (“MAS”) program began in 1998 as a way to get students engaged by helping them see “themselves or their family or their ” in their studies, and to help close the achievement gap between Mexican-American and white students in the district. The program included art, government, history and literature courses from kindergarten to 12th-grade levels, with each course focusing on historic and contemporary Mexican-American contributions.
The legislation, House Bill 2281, “prohibited courses and classes” that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
The legislation was drafted by Tom Horne, who was superintendent of public instruction. He pursued the legal case against the MAS program after being elected Arizona attorney general in 2011.
The controversy over the MAS program caught the attention of Ortiz and Pinate. Both had seen the documentary “Precious Knowledge” about the closing of the program.
Impassioned by the story of the students featured in the film, Ortiz and Pinate wanted to do something and thought the best way to do so was through art. The play “Más” was born. The performance is September 23rd at Phoenix Center for the Arts for two show times at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range in price from $10 to $15.
Roughly 95 percent of the play stems from recorded interviews, Ortiz said.
One of those interviewed is current Tucson Unified Governing Board member Adelita Grijalva, who served on the board when it voted 4-1 to stop teaching Mexican American Studies and transition to culturally relevant history classes. Grijalva was the sole vote to try to save the program.
“MAS and the curriculum were created in response to (the federal) No Child Left Behind (act), and the direction that we should have programs to engage students that were falling behind, and statistically, our children of color were falling behind,” Grijalva said. “It actually succeeded in doing its objective, which is increasing student achievement, getting young people to graduate, getting them excited about learning.”
Grijalva said it was difficult to be on the board with people that opposed her perspective, especially when the community grew angry with not only the state, but the board as well.
Tucson Unified Governing Board member Mark Stegeman said he had opposed the Mexican-American Studies program during the vote, largely because HB 2281 and threats by then Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal to cut funding to the district because of the program. Stegeman told AZEdNews he did not feel comfortable commenting about the issue while the court case continued.
The TUSD Governing Board has said it will consider voting on reinstating Mexican American Studies after the conclusion of the U.S. District Court of Arizona case.
Carmen Guerrero, executive director of Cultural Coalition and a co-producer of the play, said “Más” is particularly relevant now due to the country’s current political . She said community members in Tucson praise the MAS program, and the uplifting message of the play and dance presentations brings audiences to tears.
“Our hope is educating the audiences about how important it is…to make sure our Legislature reflects our community at large,” Guerrero said. “Not just one set of the population.”
Slideshow: Images from the play “Más” Photos courtesy Milta Ortiz/Playwright of “Más”