Miami University brought the struggles of Mexican American students close to home with a screening of the documentary Precious Knowledge Sept. 13.
Precious Knowledge shares the stories of four students enrolled in the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School in Arizona. The documentary was filmed during the 2008-2009 school year when House Bill 2281 (HB2281) was debated and passed by the state of Arizona.
HB2281 imposed a ban on ethnic studies classes including the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School, by claiming that they promote anti-American ideals.
Elena AlbarrÃ¡n, assistant professor of Latin American, Latino/a and Caribbean studies, organized the screening of Precious Knowledge and a panel discussion with the filmmaker and participants in the film.
According to AlbarrÃ¡n, part of the purpose of the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School was to give an ‘at-risk’ group of students, a chance to gain a sense of self-confidence.
“They were able to transfer that to their other areas of academic pursuit and the numbers demonstrated that they succeeded compared to other kids that didn’t have those kinds of classes,” AlbarrÃ¡n said. “So ethnic studies programs, the Mexican-American Studies programs in particular, really gave a boost to that generation of kids that were otherwise tremendously at risk.”
According to AlbarrÃ¡n, many of the students from the documentary are now college graduates, are in college, or are pursuing activism on their own.
“They have a sense of self-worth that the traditional curriculum, history and social studies curriculum in particular, in the school system didn’t provide them so this is enormously valuable in a place that they represent the majority of the population in Tucson rather than the minority of the national population,” AlbarrÃ¡n said.
AlbarrÃ¡n lived in Tucson for nine years prior to coming to Miami.
“I’ve been in Ohio,” AlbarrÃ¡n said. “Kind of observing events unfold in one of my home states that make me feel like this has happened very quickly and it seems to me like a real reversion back to a civil rights era.”
According to AlbarrÃ¡n, HB2281 is part of a string of legislation that provides a mechanism for racial profiling.
“That’s kind of where this really small issue can resonate nationally, in the national conversation and in Ohio,” AlbarrÃ¡n said. “What does it mean when a whole group of people is suddenly subject to a separate set of rules or separate set of tensions and legislation that really targets them because of the way that they look phenotypically.”
First-year Ariana Ruiz said she was disappointed in the state’s decision to ban ethnic studies.
“For people to go out of their way to make it so [the students] could not learn about their ancestry or their heritage, kind of going out their way to make sure they can’t learn it in a school sense, it was kind of heartbreaking,” Ruiz said.
Sophomore Jennifer Diaz said it is important to stay informed about the issues discussed in the documentary.
“It’s not affecting us directly but maybe sometime later on legislation like [HB2281] could enter Ohio,” Diaz said.
Area and ethnic studies programs like Latin American, Latino, Latina, and Carribean Studies, Black World Studies, Asian American Studies, Women Gender and Sexuality studies and American studies at Miami play a crucial role in education, according to AlbarrÃ¡n.
“It’s not one [role] that’s intended to serve a token minority population of students but rather to demonstrate that this is part of the United States,” AlbarrÃ¡n said. “It’s not something that should be considered an exotic other, to pick up only as an extra credit, but this is really part of cultural conversations, economic conversations and political conversations.”
According to Diaz, ethnic studies classes allow students to understand people from other cultures.
“If you take a class like that I feel you can understand somebody a little bit more, maybe not generalize everybody, but it gives a basis of what they had to go through or what their cultural practices are when they go home,” Diaz said.
Redefining what it means to be “American” is really what Precious Knowledge conversation is all about, according to AlbarrÃ¡n.
AlbarrÃ¡n said she was about to wrap up Q&A session with the panel after the film, when panelist and one of the teachers in the film, Jose GonzÃ¡lez stopped her to allow for one more question.
“We were done and I said ‘thanks everyone for coming,’ and Jose GonzÃ¡lez said ‘wait, this young lady has a question I can see,'” AlbarrÃ¡n said. “He had kind of this great teacher moment. He said ‘I can see in her eyes that she’s been wanting to say something all night.'”
The woman asked her question.
“She stood up and stood in the aisle and said ‘A lot of the debate was about whether the Mexican American studies program was American enough, whether it was anti-American, seditious, and it seems to me that nobody in the other side of the debate went to the trouble of defining what did they think ‘America’ was,'” AlbarrÃ¡n said.
AlbarrÃ¡n was surprised at the audience’s reaction.
“It was this perfect question, everyone burst into applause, people started crying, people started hugging, it was really powerful how she had articulated it, and that’s really the question at the core,” AlbarrÃ¡n said.
According to AlbarrÃ¡n, around 500 people attended the screening and around 300 of them stayed to listen to the panel. In addition, AlbarrÃ¡n said the event drew students from a multitude of different departments and student organizations such as College Democrats, College Republicans, Wilks Institute students and the Association for Latin American Students (ALAS).
“The turnout was so overwhelming that it seems to me that there is a broader interest and thirst for asking these questions, and not even specifically about Latin A
merica or Arizona in particular but these questions of institutional racism and educational justice,” AlbarrÃ¡n said.
AlbarrÃ¡n said in the four years she has been at Miami she has not seen such an enthusiastic response to any other event.
AlbarrÃ¡n said she hopes students were inspired by the film.
“I want for people to follow up on the emotional impact that it had and do something,” AlbarrÃ¡n said. “[Like], ‘this upset me to know this happens in this country now what am I going to do learn more about it or change something in my day-to-day to address what I consider what I see as an injustice'”