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“If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress”: Transformative Youth Activism and the School of Ethnic Studies


In the wake of the Tucson Unified School District dismantling its highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, students staged walkouts across the district to demonstrate their opposition. Student-led walkouts were portrayed as merely “ditching,” and students were described as not really understanding why they were protesting. After these events, a group of student activists called UNIDOS organized and led the School of Ethnic Studies. This was a community school dedicated to teaching the forbidden MAS curriculum. In this article we present counternarratives from organizers, presenters, and participants in the School of Ethnic Studies. These narratives demonstrate the transformative resistance of students who created their own form of liberatory education. Our analysis highlights how student organizers led the creation of an autonomous, community-based educational space to allowed young people to engage in political analysis, self-reflection, and strategic organizing. We conclude with the implications for Ethnic Studies, urban education, and counternarrative.

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    Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a line of academic inquiry which seeks to uncover how superficially race-neutral social policies can and do recreate systemic racial oppression. CRT challenges the objectivity of social science research while concurrently highlighting the value of experiential knowledge from communities of color. It was originally developed within the legal field, and has been applied in education (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995).

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    For full text of HB2281, please refer to: http://www.azleg.gov/legtext/49leg/2r/bills/hb2281s.pdf.

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    For more in-depth coverage of this legal challenge, please refer to: www.saveethnicstudies.org.

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    Description of this event is inadequate. For video from the inside of the protest, please see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPZxCDMbZec&feature=player_profilepage.

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    For student first-hand descriptions of this event, please see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJW4q2QMZos&feature=player_embedded#! For the list of banned books, please refer to: http://drcintli.blogspot.com/2012/01/tusd-banned-books-lists.html.

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    http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=767&Itemid=74&jumival=8189 (11:05).

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    For Dr. Pedicone’s full letter, please see: http://content.clearchannel.com/cc-common/mlib/667/01/667_1327931624.pdf.

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    For images of the art event, please see: http://chrissummitt.com/blog/protestaz/unidosart/.

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    I began my student activism indirectly in junior high school (1968 Walkouts), but more directly in high school in 1970–1971, when I joined my campus MEChA.

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    After the January 2012 dismantling of MAS, my colleague Norma Gonzalez at MAS-TUSD was forced to take down the image of the Aztec Calendar as she was teaching it. The principal said that it was now was illegal to teach Mexican history and culture.

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    Precious Knowledge is a dual reference. First, is the concept of Quetzalcoatl (Quetzal = Precious/Beautiful and Coatl = Serpent (symbolic of knowledge)) which was a foundational component of the MAS curriculum. Second, is the documentary about TUSD’s MAS program of the same name (http://www.preciousknowledgefilm.com/).

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    This concept is outlined in Dr. Cintli’s presentation, “Outlaw Arizona,” which cites 9 international treaties that protect these rights.


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Correspondence to Nolan L. Cabrera.

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Cabrera, N.L., Meza, E.L., Romero, A.J. et al. “If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress”: Transformative Youth Activism and the School of Ethnic Studies. Urban Rev 45, 7–22 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-012-0220-7

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  • Mexican American Studies
  • Ethnic Studies
  • Youth activism
  • Transformative resistance
  • Counternarrative
  • Tucson Unified School District