Let’s face it: if Dolores Huerta had never uttered those three infamous words at Tucson High in 2006 —“Republicans hate Latinos” — then this entire debate over ethnic studies would probably not exist today. I believe that Ms. Huerta is one of the most extraordinary, revolutionary, and inspirational individuals of our time, however, she crossed the line by making such a harsh and, to some, even hurtful statement at a public school assembly. Moreover, she has done a disservice to the very people she has fought so hard for her entire life by allowing her own words to be used against her as fuel for the ethnic studies debate — a debate which may never have ensued had she simply taken those three words back. If, after all the backlash that occurred as a result of her remarks, the organizers of the assembly or even Ms. Huerta herself had simply made a public statement to ensure the community that those three words were merely the opinion of an individual and in no way a reflection of TUSD’s view on Republicans overall, then perhaps they would have received a slap on the wrist and everyone would have moved on. To my knowledge, however, nothing of that nature was ever said and the situation was only made worse when Tom Horne sent one of his top Latina aides to present a different perspective at Tucson High and students responded inappropriately, leading to even more controversy…and the rest is history. As a result, we now have HB 2281, a lawsuit challenging HB 2281, and numerous multicultural programs and public education dollars at stake.
Ironically, the very individuals and groups who have been fighting so hard to keep ethnic studies programs in place are the same ones who could have put a stop to the debate during its infancy five years ago. Instead, they have chosen to glamorize the debate by staging walk-outs and protests in an attempt to recreate the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, resulting in just the opposite of what was intended: a law which threatens programs that were never at stake of being threatened in the first place. While it is evident that racism still exists in the 21st century, that doesn’t mean we have to fight it in the same way it was fought fifty years ago. We obviously need to have a conversation about it because clearly there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed, but that conversation does not need to include laws banning programs, organized protests, threats to education funding, and lawsuits.
If individuals on both sides of the ethnic studies debate truly desired and wanted to make a real difference, they would sit down together like civil adults and talk it through (just like we tell our children to do) — out of the spotlight. Who knows? They might be surprised to learn that they have the same goal of educating our children and eliminating racism, but just have different views on how to accomplish that.
If I could write a poem or a song about the power of words to Dolores Huerta, the refrain would go something like this:
You worked so hard to move us forward
But just three words was all they heard
And now we’ve fallen back
Can you take it back?
Throughout time, her words have served as a symbol of strength and equality, a means to organize and unify, and, most importantly, a voice for those without words of their own. This time, however, they served only to divide and incite hate. While we might be past the point of no return, I would still like to personally urge Ms. Huerta to take those three words back. It may be naïve of me to think a gesture as small as taking these words back might have any impact at all on the ethnic studies debate, but I am hopeful that it will. Perhaps by apologizing to those who have been most deeply offended, they will then be able to find it in their hearts to not only forgive, but to reassess the ethnic studies programs with fresh eyes and open minds. Perhaps by realizing that the content of the ethnic studies programs in general has not been shaped by the viewpoint of a single guest speaker from five years ago, everyone can move past the bickering and just sit down and talk about it.
My only question is: How can we get Dolores Huerta, Tom Horne, John Huppenthal, and TUSD all at the same table to have this conversation?