The case for ethnic studies is compelling
Arizona Daily Star

Opinion by Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


When I was in high school at Cholla in the early '70s, we didn't have ethnic studies. Fortunately, I had a few teachers who understood the lifelong valuable concept of studying ideas from people who didn't look like the majority.

One of my teachers, Geta LeSeur, who taught English and whom I've written about previously, introduced to her ethnically diverse classes literature from women and men of color, along with the accepted works of white males.

Native American. Black. Chicano. Poetry. Essays. Novels.

Prior to this period, it was unheard of — in nearly all of Tucson, I dare say — to read literature outside the foisted norm. I didn't know African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans and Mexican-Americans wrote prose and poetry.

This powerful, eye-opening literature spoke truth to me as a young Chicano trying to make sense of the confusion around us.

There were the Vietnam War, civil-rights marches, Nixon and Watergate, Wounded Knee, César Chávez and grape boycotts, and more.

The rich literature gave me a realistic view of my changing world, and LeSeur and other forward-thinking Cholla teachers helped me develop critical-thinking skills and instilled a lifelong love of learning.

That was the precursor to ethnic studies, which since then has been introduced and expanded in schools and universities across the country, including Tucson. But ethnic studies are maligned and misunderstood by many, including Tom Horne, Arizona superintendent of public instruction.

Horne last month asked Tucson Unified School District's Ethnic Studies Department to give him copies of course materials and the program's cost. He told the Arizona Daily Star, "This is not about education or academics; it is about values."

Really. Whose values?

Would those be of TUSD, parents and students who have asked for and benefited from ethnic studies? Or are they the values of someone who, by his own admission, is opposed to ethnic and gender studies?

I wrote a column last month critical of Horne. I challenged supporters of ethnic studies to educate the superintendent, and I challenged Horne to present the evidence against ethnic studies.

Last week, Horne responded in a column published in the Star. He did not offer evidence that students suffer academically.

Instead Horne wrote that he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and, un-King-like, he attacked unnamed teachers and the unnamed director of Raza Studies, a component of TUSD's Ethnic Studies.

As evidence of the program's failings, he said his deputy was treated disrespectfully by a small group of Tucson High Magnet students associated with Raza Studies, who even showed their disrespect to the principal. Horne also cited a secondhand conversation with a Cholla English teacher who, like Horne, opposes ethnic studies and bilingual education.

Is this all you have, Mr. Horne? A rude reception and a complaint from an ally do not make for a failing academic program.

Given the poor general academic performance of ethnic minority students, why would you attack a program with strong academic success for these students?

Many students who participate in ethnic studies say they have been enriched, personally and academically. They believe they possess the confidence and skills to succeed and to participate in the diverse world around them.

Students who before felt ignored and unworthy now have something positive to offer our society.

Mr. Horne, what do you have to say to these students? Aren't these values worth learning and cherishing?

● Contact columnist Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 573-4242 or His blog is at