Death threats, recall petitions and a legislative backlash haven’t fazed Dr. Roberto Rodriguez.
The professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona delivered UMKC’s fifth annual César Chávez keynote lecture. The event took place last Thursday at the Student Union Theater.
Rodriguez, an award-winning journalist who received his Ph.D. in 2008, has dedicated his academic pursuits to reclaiming a culture he asserts is as oppressed by Western ignorance and supremacy now as it was in the days of European colonization.
Rodriguez said the maiz (corn) cultures of present-day Central America date back 7,000 years to when the crop was domesticated.
Likewise, he said the indigenous people of Central America cultivate their own philosophy, one he said is misunderstood by Western historians who continue to perpetuate myths about indigenous Mesoamerican cultures.
Part of the misunderstanding is a result of the Spanish conquistadors’ mass burning of Mayan texts during the Inquisition.
Rodriguez said three central tenets of Mayan philosophy are at the core of his studies and are in keeping with what he referred to as the universal golden rule:
- In Lak Ech, meaning, “You are my other self,”
- Panche Be, meaning, “To find the truth in the roots,” and
- Hunab Ku, meaning “We are all part of creation.”
“This isn’t simply about culture, it was our humanity that was taken from us,” Rodriguez said.
Today, Rodriguez believes the Inquisition has taken on a new form in his home state.
The Arizona legislature outlawed ethnic studies programs in public schools that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” in late 2010.
The legislation, H.B. 2281, shut down one of the state’s most successful ethnic studies programs, the Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican American Studies program, formerly known as Raza Studies.
According to Rodriguez, it boasted a near 100 percent graduation rate. More than 80 percent of the program’s high school graduates went on to attend college.
The program came under fire repeatedly by then-State Superintendent Tom Horne, who is now Arizona Attorney General.
“Mr. Horne accused the program of being outside of Western Civilization and Greco-Roman culture,” Rodriguez said. “That idea is accurate.”
Some also accused the program of racism.
Raza translated literally into English means “race,” although Rodriguez pointed out that its connotation in indigenous cultures more closely approximates the English word “roots.”
“It hurts my colleagues when they are accused of hate,” he said. “What we do is teach that all human beings are equal and that there is no such thing as better or worse.”
Last year, when the Tucson School Board attempted to shut down the program, students chained themselves to board members’ chairs.
A week later, seven were arrested, including six students. The program was disbanded in late 2011 after a judge’s ruling.
More than 50 books have been banned from the Tucson district, including five authored by Rodriguez, as a result of H.B. 2281.
“I never realized we’d be living in a society in which thinking differently could be illegal,” Rodriguez said.
At the University of Arizona campus where Rodriguez teaches, a petition demanding his removal has been circulated. He has also received several death threats, and the author of one of them will be tried in April, thanks to Rodriguez’s persistence.
“The police determined the threats were actually a joke,” Rodriguez said. “I asked them how, and they said they asked the guy.”
Rodriguez described H.B. 2281 as part of a three-pronged attack on the state’s Latino population.
The others include S.B. 1070 and legislative proposals to deny birthright citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, which they are guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
S.B. 1070, passed in June 2010, gives local police the authority to stop and detain suspected undocumented immigrants.
A federal lawsuit challenging the law is pending.
Rodriguez said the bill has made racial profiling inevitable for persons with a foreign accent or those who have an indigenous profile.
“No matter what they say, it’s racial profiling,” he said. “They’re taking the powers from the migra [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and giving them to local police. We live through terror every day.”
Rodriguez’s discussion of the Arizona political climate brought attention to bills pending in the Missouri legislature that target undocumented immigrants.
If passed, Missouri S.B. 590 would require public schools to check the immigration status of all students, although it won’t prevent undocumented students from attending school. It also gives law enforcement the ability to stop and detain suspected undocumented immigrants.
Another bill, H.B. 1186, would offer driver’s license exams in English only.
S.B. 473 would require the state auditor to track the costs of illegal immigration to the state, and would allow voters to determine whether the state attorney general should sue the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
“They’ve identified people as the enemy,” Rodriguez said of the measures against undocumented immigrants. “If they aren’t accused of stealing jobs, they’re accused of living off welfare. This population produces wealth. They work until they can no longer work, and then they are sent home.”
Anabelle Vargas, an elementary education major in the Institute for Urban Education, said Rodriguez’s lecture was eye-opening.
“I didn’t know that they were trying to pass laws like that here in Missouri,” she said. “It encouraged me as an educator to be an activist and fight for rights.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Division of Diversity, Access and Equity. The César Chávez Keynote Lecture is held each year in March, the birthday month of the Latino civil and labor rights activist, who co-founded the present-day United Farm Workers of America with Dolores Huerta.
Kristi Ryujin, Assistant Vice Chancellor – Diversity Initiatives, served on the César Chávez committee with Marji Datwyler, Donna Strickland, Andres Dominguez, Dr. Miguel Carranza, Consuelo Cruz, Dr.
Theresa Torres, Dr. Uzziel Pecina, Adriana Pecina and Raphael Alvarez.
“Dr. Rodriguez provided a thoughtful and engaging lecture on the human rights violations of the legislative bills passed and those being proposed in the state of Arizona,” Ryujin said. “His lecture provided food for thought on the ways communities can engage in non-violent protest that helps inform and make change in our communities.”