Protecting the Prickly: La Raza Studies

Ashley Thorne

Saguaro cactuses, native to the Sonoran Desert, thrive in the city of Tucson. There, with large nets of far-extending roots, they soak up more rain and grow twice as tall as those in drier western Arizona. Long-nosed bats pollinate the saguaros; Gila woodpeckers, purple martins, western kingbirds, gilded flickers, and elf owls nest in holes in saguaros. A common myth is that humans can survive in the desert by drinking juice from cactus flesh. But that mirage will only leave thirsty wanderers more parched, for the cactus juice actually contains the dehydrators alkali and salt.

Under Arizona’s native plant law, poaching the cactuses is a criminal felony. Prickly spines help enforce that law; most people think twice before touching cactuses. These are plants that can take revenge.

Much in the same way, most people are wary of questioning politically correct ideas in higher education. Unchallenged, these ideas embed themselves in the arid sands of academia. In our first two articles based on leads from Argus volunteers, we have seen how firmly politicization and even socialist ideology have taken hold in the university.

But their roots often extend deeper, down to elementary and high school education.

For example, the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), the public school system for the Tucson, Arizona area, has adopted “La Raza studies” into its ethnic studies teachings.


Chicano Identity Politics

“La Raza,” which means “The Race,” is a term usually used in the United States by Hispanic people to identify themselves as Latinos. There’s also the “Raza Unida Party,” a U.S. political third party, and the National Council of La Raza, “the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States.”

In order to understand La Raza, it’s helpful to know its background in the context of MEChA.  MEChA (which stands for “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan” and means “Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan”) is a Chicano organization dedicated to regaining control of “Aztlan”—the Southwest region of the United States. Members of MEChA refer to themselves as “La Raza.” The preamble of the MEChA constitution states the organization’s purpose:


Chicano and Chicana students of Aztlan must take upon themselves the responsibilities to promote Chicanismo within the community, politicizing our Raza with an emphasis on indigenous consciousness to continue the struggle for the self-determination of the Chicano people for the purpose of liberating Aztlan.

A slogan of MEChA is “Por La Raza, todo. Fuera de La Raza, nada” which means “For the race, everything. Outside the race, nothing.”

One of MEChA’s goals is for education to “be relative to our people, i.e., history, culture, bilingual education, contributions, etc.” and for “community control of our schools, our teachers, our administrators, our counselors, and our programs.”

Every year on September 16, (the birth date of Mexican Independence), MEChA calls for “a national walk-out by all Chicanos of all colleges and schools.” These walkouts, also known as the Chicano Blowouts, are “to be sustained until the complete revision of the educational system: its policy makers, administration, its curriculum, and its personnel to meet the needs of our community.”

La Raza studies is an academic program/course at four California institutions (Contra Costa College, San Francisco State University, College of San Mateo, and Sacramento State University). And it’s the new name for the Hispanic department of TUSD’s ethnic studies program.


“Everything-for-the Race” Pedagogy

What exactly is being taught in La Raza studies? That’s a question many Arizonans have been trying to find out. We have some clues.

One of the textbooks for the program is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed asserts that Western cultures (especially the United States) systematically exploit non-white people, causing them to live “a borrowed and colonialized cultural experience.” Applying the pedagogy means teaching students to gain “critical consciousness” – an understanding that they are oppressed, to give voice to their grievances, and to liberate themselves from the bonds of imposed assimilation. Freire’s philosophy set out critical pedagogy as a form of education. Now, forty years after his book was published, his theories have gained popular approval in schools and universities. Herbert Kohl reviewed the book in The Nation,writing, “Wherever education is explicitly involved in struggles for equity and justice, Freire’s ideas and his books, especially Pedagogy of the Oppressed, will live on.”

And they do live on in Tucson. Another textbook for the La Raza studies program is Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolpho Acuña, considered by at least one reviewer to be “the Chicano bible” (Cynthia Oxozco, Professor of History and Chicano Studies, University of New Mexico). Acuña was one of the first to teach Chicano studies, and his book Occupied America, tells the history of Southwestern United States from the perspective of Mexican Americans. For instance, the book is sympathetic to Mexico in a reference to the battle at the Alamo. In another place, Acuña wrote:

Gutiérrez attacked the gringo establishment angrily at a press conference and called upon Chicanos to ‘kill the gringo,’ which meant to end white control over Mexicans.

Actually, “kill the gringo” meant “kill the gringo.” But admitting that makes Mexicans look radical, infuriated, revolutionary. Acuña sidestepped that image and substituted it with one of browbeaten Latinos rising to overthrow injustice.

Revolution, however, remains in the air, housed in the term “transformation.” On the TUSD website, La Raza studies describes its curriculum as “transformative,” with values such as “cultural relevance” and “social justice emphasis.” In fact, the Raza studies program derives its curricular model from the Social Justice Education Project, which is co-sponsored by the University of Arizona and TUSD. The Social Justice Education Project teaches students to conduct action research focusing on “how Latina/o high school students experience social inequalities in and beyond education.” The Project goal is for students to use their findings “to transform education and address the[se] inequalities.” To do so, University of Arizona “partners” (i.e. researchers, graduate and undergraduate students) teach students the “skills that will empower them to produce their own solutions to educational and community injustices.”


Advocacy Ousts Education

Let’s consider these things a moment. Is education supposed to be “transformative”? Should it “address inequalities”? Should it empower students to solve injustices? Perhaps. In general, education changes people. Those who learn it well understand the world differently than they did before. During the time of slavery in America, slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write because of their owners’ fear that knowledge would empower slaves to understand and overcome injustice. That fear is evidence that education has the capacity not only to transform people but to equip them to recognize social problems.

Yet while education has these capacities, they are not its first purposes. Rather, its purpose is to objectively teach what is worth knowing in areas such as mathematics, history, science, literature, and rhetoric. The power for change should be a side effect, not a school subject.

That’s where the Social Justice Education Project and the La Raza studies program get things backward. They make awareness of inequality the priority and scant objective history as a result. On its website, the Raza program lists its goals:

  • Advocate for and provide culturally relevant curriculum for grades K-12.
  • Advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice.
  • Advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the Mexican American/Chicano cultural and historical experience.
  • Work towards the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student.
  • Provide and promote teacher education that is centered within Critical Pedagogy, Latino Critical Race Pedagogy, and Authentic Caring.
  • Promote and advocate for social and educational transformation.
  • Promote and advocate for the demonstration of respect, understanding, appreciation, inclusion, and love at every level of service. 

Notice that each goal involves some form of advocacy. “Advocate for” and “promote” are the key words here, whereas “teach” and “knowledge” are absent. Instead, the mission is to create “critical consciousness” in the community and to advance “the interests of Raza populations within TUSD, the United States, and the world in general.” Raza studies is, in other words, training for Chicano activism.


Below is a diagram from the Raza studies website:


The Raza Studies Model:
Critically Compassionate Intellectualism

Increased Academic Achievement for Latino Student

Academic Proficiency for Latino Students + Academic Identity for Latino Students



Culturally and Historically Relevant
Social Justice Centered
State Standards Aligned (Honors alignment in most cases)
Academically Rigorous


Raza Studies Curriculum (Darder, Nieto, Yasso et al)



Critical Thinkers
Community Service
Critical Consciousness
Social Transformation


Raza Studies Pedagogy (Freire, Darder, Solorzano, et al)

Student-Teacher-Parent Interaction

Centered in the Creation of an Academic Identity

Raza Studies Student-Teacher Relations Model (Valenzuela, Moll, Vygotsky, Noguera, et al)



In the middle column we again see the critical consciousness pedagogy with the reference to Freire. At UMass Amherst, “Writing for Critical Consciousness” is a seminar in the Social Thought and Political Economy program; here, critical consciousness is a leg in the tripod of the raza studies model. The website also unabashedly boasts “a pedagogy based on the theories of Paolo Freire.”

Trouble in Tucson

The Raza studies program hasn’t always been so bold. In November, Tom Horne, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state, asked to see the textbooks and curricula used in the program, and its funding sources. Horne said he was concerned that Raza studies was “teaching people to make their primary personal identity the ethnic group they were born into rather than identifying as an individual in terms of character and ability.” But transparency was not on TUSD’s agenda, and the school district turned him away. The Arizona Daily Star published an article entitled, “Horne meddling in TUSD's ethnic studies efforts,” which said that Horne had “overstepped” in his inquiries and had no right to question the content of the program. Another Tucson newspaper warned, “Memo to Tom Horne: butt out.”

Tom Horne didn’t butt out. On June 11, he sent a press release saying that he sought to eliminate the TUSD ethnic studies program. In the release, Horne wrote,

Most of these students’ parents and grandparents came to this country, legally, because this is the land of opportunity. They trust the public schools with their children. Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.

Horne also wrote,

In the summer of 1963, having recently graduated from high school, I participated in the civil rights march on Washington, in which Martin Luther King stated that he wanted his children to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. That has been a fundamental principal for me my entire life, and Ethnic Studies teaches the opposite.

In August, Augustine Romero, director of the ethnic studies program, sat for an interview at AZTalk, the online publication of the Arizona Republic. When asked, “Are you surprised some people call Raza studies racist?” he replied,

What is surprising is the shamelessness of racists who try and play the race card or play upon the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I truly believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would be standing on our side as we struggle to help our misguided and uneducated adversaries find a place within themselves wherein they can see the beautiful nature of our program, and at the same time come to terms with the malevolence within themselves.

While we can’t know whose side Dr. King would be on today, it is interesting to note that Romero calls his adversaries “uneducated.” His characterization makes sense in the context of the Raza core belief that being “educated” means upholding the movement’s view of oppression. Romero parrots multiculturalists who say that those who disagree with politically correct doctrines are “ignorant” and must be enlightened. Enlightenment generally takes place by means of diversity training. It is assumed that education equals support for multiculturalism, so the only way to describe non-conformists is with a spiteful kind of pity: those “misguided and uneducated adversaries.”


No Hugs, Please

Should programs such as La Raza studies give cause for concern? Mexican-American students significantly under-perform in school and in college, and reports have shown that Mexican Americans have the highest dropout rates of any demographic group. Ethnic studies programs are created in large part to combat these statistics.

In fact, TUSD has repeatedly defended its department on the basis that La Raza studies helps Chicano students improve academically overall: “Research regarding Raza Studies students has found they outscored their peers in reading, writing and math as measured by the state's academic accountability exam (AIMS).” In an August 17 article for The Arizona Republic, Doug MacEachern rejects the truth of this claim. He writes, “As provided by TUSD, the two pages of bar charts and the brief paragraphs that accompany them (prepared, according to the district, by Romero himself) simply don't provide enough information to know whether the raza-studies program” made any difference in the academic achievement of students who chose to enroll in it as an elective. Moreover, MacEachern writes, “Often, Romero and his comrades defend their program based on ephemeral ‘virtues’ that, by and large, only they can define.”

If students in the Raza program really are improving in math and English, that’s wonderful news. So far, this hasn’t been conclusively proved to be the case—but if it is, great. Yet even then, we must ask, “at what cost?” Raza studies steeps students in social group politics in a quest to give them a sense of community, heritage, purpose, identity—all of which are legitimate human desires. But in the process, it trades the chance to strive academically as an individual for the license to sustain the camaraderie of grievance. This will ultimately only stunt students’ scholastic growth, breed bitterness, and propagate racial division.

Native American legend has it that the saguaro cactus originated out of rebellion. One day, a little boy ran away from home, and his grandmother went looking for him. The boy said to himself, “I will turn into a saguaro, so that I shall live forever and bear fruit every summer.” His grandmother heard him and recognized his voice in the whistles of the wind around the saguaro cactus. She tried to take him in her arms, but the sharp needles pierced and killed her.

Mexican Americans are without doubt deeply rooted in the American Southwest. But there are obvious drawbacks to advancing the claims of racial solidarity over the wider embrace of American society. La Raza’s bristling hostility may indeed fend off less intrepid critics than Tom Horne and Doug MacEachern, but the ultimate harm is to the students themselves. La Raza urges them to drink of that sweet nectar of identity politics, but it will never quench their deeper thirst for the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the competitive world of civilization.

The TUSD La Raza studies program was brought to our attention by Steven Anderson, a Phoenix resident and an Argus volunteer.

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