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Perspectives: Running for Our Lives: Victory for Ethnic Studies

TUCSON – A grueling spiritual run from Tucson to Phoenix in defense of ethnic studies – in 110-plus-degree heat – culminated in a resounding victory in front of Arizona’s state Capitol.

The victory, however, had already taken place when the 50 runners, after completing a nearly 120-mile trek over three days, were greeted with ceremonial music at the Nahuacalli-Tonatierra Embassy of the Indigenous Peoples in downtown Phoenix. Led primarily by high school and college students, the runners were joined by parents, toddlers, elders, teachers, nurses, construction workers and ceremonial leaders. About 150 supporters joined them as they walked through the streets of Tucson, and an equal number joined them as they walked with them to the state Capitol in Phoenix.

The victory had been secured even earlier as the run received an incredible amount of support from the barrios and communities of Tucson, Eloy, Casa Blanca, Guadalupe, and Phoenix. It also involved spiritual support from the Yoeme nation and the Akimel O’odham nation — which provided runners through their own territory.

The purpose of the June 27-29 run was to defeat an Arizona state bill (S.B. 1069) that emphasized the teaching of Western individualism at the expense of ethnic studies. Its passage would have represented the ultimate triumph of ignorance over enlightenment, politics over education, and censorship over academic freedom.

As the runners circled the Capitol on the third day, word trickled down that the author of the anti-ethnic studies bill, Arizona State Senator Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, declared his own bill dead. However, the following day, the person responsible for shepherding this bill, Tom Horne, the Arizona superintendent of schools, said he would attempt to eliminate ethnic studies next year.

While the bill targeted ethnic studies, Horne’s real objective was his opposition to Raza Studies, a highly successful academic program of the Tucson Unified School District that stresses the history of people with indigenous roots in the Americas. Students from this program have consistently outperformed their peers over the past five years. Thus, Horne’s opposition is not about academics but about his insistence on the supremacy of Greco-Roman-based Western heritage at the expense of the heritage of people with indigenous roots in the Americas. All this, while asserting that ethnic studies are racist, dysfunctional, and un-American.

There is not enough room on this page to convey the actual story of this run. Everyone who participated came back with profound truths. This run will one day rank as an event akin to Cesar Chavez’s fasts or the student walkouts of a generation ago – a monument of what people are capable of when they believe in something.

As one of the young people noted, “We went to fight against an anti-ethnic studies bill, but what we really came for was to know ourselves.”

Many thought it was a desperate act of fools, questioning the wisdom of undertaking a long journey by foot through hot desert lands. But everyone who participated understood the seriousness of what was at stake. If this bill passes in Arizona, it will ignite a nationwide movement to ban ethnic studies.

While its opponents argue that ethnic studies are un-American, ethnic studies, in fact, are quintessentially American. They are about peoples that have been an integral part of this continent for hundreds, if not thousands, of years but have been historically marginalized and ignored by Western academics.

Horne has attempted to remand ethnic studies to the status of “forbidden curriculums.” Through his effort, he would impose upon Arizona the notion of acceptable and unacceptable academic areas of study, conjuring up the era of the Inquisition.

It is precisely for these reasons that the mostly young students decided to put their bodies on the line. They walked and ran with their hearts and they spoke with their feet. When they could no longer run, their spirits took over.

This triumph in the desert has now become an example as to how to defeat emissaries from the Dark Ages – no matter where they rear their ugly heads.

Rodriguez is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. He writes for the Arizona Watch commentary page for New America Media, an ethnic news media website.

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