The Real American Dirt: How Targeting Mexicans Led to Banned Chicano/Latino Books and Classes

The Real American Dirt: How Targeting Mexicans Led to Banned Chicano/Latino Books and Classes

By Irene Sanchez

Xicana Ph.D.

The most recent discussion on NPR surrounding the novel American Dirt featuring Myriam Gurba- the Chicana author who was the first to critique the book, author Luis Alberto Urrea, author Sandra Cisneros and author of American Dirt-Jeanine Cummins, has reminded me about the injustices that Chicano/Latino communities still face in the U.S. We stand on the grounds of injustice not only in the publishing industry and in terms of representation of our #ownvoices, but also these discussions have illuminated how these injustices are a reflection of the treatment and visibility of Chicano/Latino communities historically and presently in schools and the larger U.S. society. 

Ethnic Studies courses provide multiple lenses for students to learn about themselves and communities and move towards empowerment. Certain states have now made Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement. In California there is proposed bill AB 331 that would make a semester of Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement. This requirement offer benefits for all students so that they may understand themselves, their communities, and marginalized groups in the U.S.

The Chicano/Latino studies class I teach took 46 years after student protests to be placed in schools that are 92 percent Latino students-majority of Mexican descent in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County. Even though there is plenty of proof Ethnic Studies courses help increase academic achievement according to research by Stanford University, classes like these face opposition. I remind my students that classes like ours were not only banned in the last decade, but so were the books. 

The books I use everyday to teach my classes as a Chicano/Latino Studies teacher remind me daily that our knowledge has been banned both in books and in curriculum in our schools in recent history. The banned books by mainly Chicano/Latino authors including author Luis Alberto Urrea, came from a larger attack starting with the Tucson Unified School District targeting of the award winning Mexican American Studies Program. This targeting of Mexican American Studies in TUSD led to the approval of the 2010 State of Arizona S.B. 2281 which outlawed classes or courses that: 

“(1) promote the overthrow of the United States government; (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

This law led to TUSD declaring the Mexican American Studies Program was out of compliance with the state law. By January 2012 the program was dismantled and by April 2012 the former Director Sean Arce was fired. After a seven year legal battle the case Arce v. Douglass had a final ruling in 2017. It was found that the ban of Mexican American Studies was done with racial animus towards Mexicans and thus unconstitutional under the First and 14th amendment. 

This fact that our books and classes were banned is one I often remind my students of and will continue to. Our books and our classes have been under attack to the point where they are deemed unlawful. Our communities have been targeted to the point actual violence has occurred. In all this, it has not been lost on me that the class I teach would not exist had Sean Arce -the former director of MAS in TUSD- not been fired as he was also the founding teacher of the class in the district I now teach in.

The movement for #dignidadliteraria that sprung from the discussion around American Dirt has started deeper conversations on representation in literature, but it also reminds me about who decides what Chicano/Latino students and other marginalized communities are taught about themselves. It is also seen how if we challenge the dominant narrative and curriculum we are then turned into a “threat” when the real violence is the denial of these histories and stories and centering of those dominant narratives that dehumanize our students and communities.

Real violence can and has happened as a result of targeting Mexicans like the El Paso massacre reminds us. This violence is apart of history both recent and not so recent. The ban on MAS and the banning of the books the program used is something that sends us a misleading message much like American Dirt did. It tells Chicano/Latinos that our own knowledge is not valid, but more so who we are is also considered dangerous. The real danger to all of us though is racism and discrimination that has targeted our communities and continues to. This is why more than ever we need our #ownvoices telling our own stories not just about the past, but also the present.

Art: Lalo Alcaraz

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