Camiliano “Cam” Juarez knocked on more than 37,000 doors in his fight to bring certain books and ideas back into the classrooms of Tucson.
In November 2012, Juarez, a 41-year-old urban planner who had never held elective office, won election to the governing board of the Tucson Unified School District. His victory, along with that of educator Kristel Ann Foster, shifted the balance of power on the five-member board. Last month, the new board voted to bring several books about Mexican American history back into Tucson classrooms.
The books had been removed -- “banned” in the eyes of Latino activists -- thanks to a conservative backlash against ethnic studies and the Tucson district’s Mexican American studies program.
“The conservative press tries to pigeonhole us as agents for Mexico,” Juarez said in a telephone interview with The Times. “But it’s just a wedge issue that was created to get people elected. Our position is that we don’t believe we should be ashamed of our last names and our identities.”
The new board also approved a list for a new multicultural curriculum, including Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Sandra Cisneros’ “House on Mango Street” and the oft-banned American classic “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
But it was the rehabilitation of seven Mexican American studies books that got the most of the attention. The books are, for the most part, widely assigned in universities and colleges across the West. One, “Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement,” is a decidedly mainstream book produced to accompany a 1996 PBS series. Another, “500 Years of Chicano History: In Pictures,” is a kind of coffee table book that graces the homes of many Latino professionals.
A report on the conservative Daily Caller website found images in the picture book history troubling, including one of women firing guns (during the Mexican Revolution, when many women took up arms) and another of an iconic poster from the 1970s in which an Aztec warrior points his finger and asks, “Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?”
“These books were part of a course that were deemed illegal by the State Legislature,” Juarez said. “The state Department of Education drew a line in the sand with these books.”
After the board voted to allow the seven books back into the Tucson curriculum, state officials expressed “concern,” but have taken no action against the district, Juarez said.
“I own most of the banned books,” Juarez said. And he calls Rodolfo Acuña, the author of “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” another of the seven banned books, a friend.
Acuña’s survey of Mexican American history, originally published in 1972, has become something of a red herring in the Mexican American studies debate in Tucson. Juarez said local conservative activists have come to the school board meetings reading a passage in which they say Acuña calls for people to “kill the gringo.” But the quote is clearly being taken out of context, Juarez said. Acuña uses the quote in summarizing one angry speech made by one of the most radical members of the Chicano Movement in the 1960s, as part of a broad survey of Mexican American activism in the era. (Now it its seventh edition, “Occupied America” is published by Pearson).
The value of such books is plain to Juarez: Students are more motivated to learn when they see things in their curriculum that relate to their experiences. “When you see yourself in what you’re reading, it’s a very effective tool for learning,” he said.
As to those who disagreed with his defense of Mexican American studies, Juarez likes to answer with a quote from Cesar Chavez: “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”