Banning Critical Teaching in Arizona: A Letter From Curtis Acosta

Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful film, Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. One of the teachers featured is Curtis Acosta, along with his remarkable students.

In the letter below, which Acosta allowed Rethinking Schools to reprint here, he offers a perspective on the curricular repression that teachers and students are confronting in Tucson. For a flavor of what knowledge is outlawed by the new law, take a look at the essay assignment Acosta gave students about Ana Castillo’s novel So Far From God, excerpted below, and the changes that school district authorities demanded.

Rethinking Columbus bannedThere has been a lot of national attention paid to the banning of Rethinking Columbus and other books used in the Mexican American Studies program. But the book banning is just collateral damage. The real target of those in Arizona who have pushed the Mexican American Studies ban is critical, social justice teaching—teaching that is alert to issues of race, class, and culture, and that asks students to reflect on issues of oppression and struggle.

There is a kind of curricular ethnic cleansing going on and educators and people of conscience around the country need to stand in solidarity with Tucson students and teachers.

As Curtis Acosta indicates in his letter, teachers there are meeting to reflect on the kind of national support that would be most helpful. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep this issue alive in our workplaces, unions, professional organizations, Facebook pages, listservs, and in local and national media we may have access to.

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor

To my friends and all our supporters,

Let me try a few cleansing breaths before all of this.

First, I am deeply moved by the love, commitment and creativity to help honor our plight and support our fight. Thank you all so much and I apologize to all of my friends who I have not responded to as of yet. We all are overwhelmed here in Tucson and I need a new email system for organizing all the love. Muchismas gracias y Tlazocamatli.

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

This week has provided more challenges. The teachers have still not received specific guidelines for curriculum and pedagogical changes that need to be made in order to be in compliance of the law. TUSD leadership has asked the site administrators on each campus where our classes are taught to lead the process which means that my colleagues and I are all separated from each other, and have not yet come together as a group since the destruction of our program. It also is a way to divide and conquer since we are all struggling at our individual sites for clarity and consistency. To be more specific, I meet alone with my site administration, with only my union representative as support, but separated from my MAS colleagues who also work at my school. The district leadership has done this move to wash their hands of us and any accountability to us. However, they continue to send out press releases that claim that books that are now boxed in a warehouse are not banned, and that anyone can teach critical issues like race, ethnicity, oppression, and cultura, but do not mention the exception being the censored teachers in the MAS program. The double speak is unseemly and lacks honor. I am so happy that our friends around the nation are holding them accountable since the power structure in Tucson has made sure the local media tows the line. This has been the case for years.

What I can tell you is that TUSD has decreed that anything taught from a Mexican American Studies perspective is illegal and must be eliminated immediately. Of course, they have yet to define what that means, but here’s an example of what happened to an essay prompt that I had distributed prior to January 10th.

{Chicano playwright Luis Valdez once stated that his art was meant to, “…inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling.” The novel So Far From God presents many moments of social and political commentary.} Select an issue that you believe Ana Castillo was attempting to illuminate for her audience and write a literary analysis of how that theme is explored in the novel. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

{Culture can play a significant role within a work of fiction. For generations in this country, the literature studied in English or literature classes rarely represented the lives and history of Mexican-Americans.} In a formal literary analysis, discuss what makes So Far From God a Chican@ novel and how this might influence the experience of the reader. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

The brackets indicate what I had to edit since the statements were found to be too leading toward a Mexican American Studies perspective. In plainer terms, they are illegal and out of compliance. A quote from a great literary figure, Luis Valdez, is now illegal, and a fact about education in our nation’s history is also illegal.

You can imagine how we are feeling, especially without any clear guidance to what is now legal and what is not, and what makes matters worse is that TUSD expects us to move forward and redesign our entire curriculum and pedagogy to be in compliance.

I cannot speak for all my colleagues but it has become clear to me that I must abandon nearly everything I used to do in the classroom and become “born again” as a teacher. At least for the foreseeable future, since the list of individuals that are waiting to pounce upon us at our first wrong step is long and filled with powerful figures.

However, we have not lost faith that we will overcome all of these atrocious, absurd, and abusive actions to our students and to learning environment centered upon love and academic excellence. Our students have already learned so much this year and this process is teaching them so much more. They are restless, ready to act and eager for their voices to be heard, and our community is equally supportive to their desires. Our lawsuit moves forward and the unconstitutionality of the law will be debated before Judge A. Wallace Tashima. Three of the four men who voted to disband our program will be accountable on November 6th since their seats on the school board are up this election. We are strong in spirit that a better day is ahead.

Lastly, there has been an idea put forward by my good friends, Tara Mack and Keith Catone, that there should be a national day of solidarity where teachers would teach our curriculum all over the nation. I will be discussing this with my colleagues in MAS this weekend and then to Tara and Keith. They have been amazing and fired-up to help, but I have had to navigate the Tempest in our classrooms and schools before more specifics come your way. The first day we are to be officially in compliance is February 1st, so that may be a wonderful, symbolic day to keep our spirit alive through the nation.


Curtis Acosta
Chican@/Latin@ Literature Teacher (forever in mind and in spirit)

19 thoughts on “Banning Critical Teaching in Arizona: A Letter From Curtis Acosta

  1. Great Post and Letter! This debate and fight is a unique one that cuts to the core of many individuals and what they stand for. The biggest travesty is that outside of the communities it affects, very little is being reported. What if someone made it illegal to teach the “white perspective” of science or english? It would be blasted all over the news and media.

    Right or wrong, every idea or concept deserves to be brought in front of the public majority and allowed to be debated. After this, whether the idea/concept lives or dies is completely up to the public. Shouldn’t they determine what their children are learning? Shouldn’t they determine what is important to them? Just my two cents!

  2. I will stand in solidarity and modify your curriculum to my preschool program on whatever day you and your colleagues decree.

  3. I know there are many teachers nationwide who would be very interested in teaching on the National Day of Solidarity. How can we be kept up to date on this development?

  4. Curtis is an amazing educator. His courage and devotion to truth and social justice sets the precedence for excellence in education.

  5. I’m reminded of how ridiculous this ban is when I reflect upon the idea of ethnicity. White folks like me aren’t acknowledging that there’s such a thing as white privilege. In particular, whites who are in favor of the ban also seem to be in denial of their own ethnicity. They’re simply human or some other nonsense. They’ve never been “othered” and can’t understand how it feels. They simply don’t see a need for ethnic studies program that make visible the invisible and move various ethnic perspectives from the margin to the center. I used to teach in TUSD and I taught my students about the forms and functions of dance from an anthropological perspective. Ballet was derived from pre-Christian folk dances of Europe, and it is an ethnic dance form. (see Kealiinohomoku 1970)…

  6. Curtis Acosta,
    The irony of the legislation that terminated the MAS classes is how successful the classes were to those who attended. How could a curriculum that promoted higher graduation of minority students not be applauded by the community, parents, and the school board? Obviously, there was a political agenda coming from Phoenix in regards to ethnic studies.

    Unfortunately, laws recently enacted by the Arizona legislature have been testing the limits of constitutionality such as SB1070 and SB1288 dismantling ethnic studies. The paranoia of the those in power in Phoenix have temporarily stopped the teaching of ethnic studies, but eventually demographics and public opinion will over rule their narrow definition of legitimate curriculum.

    The Hispanic population of Tucson, AZ must realize the significance of this short sighted decision when 60% of Tucson High School is Latino. The film: “Precious Knowledge” is an eye opening movie. More power to the people. Keep up your excellent work.

    Best regards,
    David Cowan


    Ignorance Disguised as Legalization of Empire: NO MORE!The Geography of Self

    Posted by Tupak Huehuecoyotl on Friday, March 8, 2013


    There were stars
    before the sky was turned black by war guns
    of alien armies who wished to put flame to
    the land, searing scars of inhumanity and greed.
    The echoes still roar
    hollow eyed sockets
    of false reality still see those rockets,
    scorching the earth with titles
    of manifest destiny, against
    they stood.
    They who are we
    Indigenous Peoples
    The stars will
    return in the sky.

    Tupac Enrique Acosta

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