Teachers advise next generation of Latino leaders

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Civil rights leader, César Chávez, said it best: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride …”

A group of mostly Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) teachers have taken Chávez’s values to heart, and have formed a coalition to support each other as they help students who want to organize and get politically involved in their communities.  

Maria Chacon, a history teacher at Central High School, says the teachers are responding to the students’ requests for help as they engage in actively working with DREAM Act youth, advocating for immigrant student rights, and exploring ways to learn Mexican American history without violating Arizona’s law banning ethnic studies programs in schools. 

Chacon makes it clear that the teachers are not initiating the students’ actions. 

“The students express their desires and the teachers help them organize to accomplish them,” she says. “Our newest endeavor is to get the students to bring their parents to the PUHSD board meetings.” 

Chacon adds that the students are responding emotionally, and then politically, to Arizona laws that affect their families and friends. 

“When laws are aimed at influencing one particular ethnic group, the students of that group have thoughts and feelings about them,” she says. 

“In the past, students organized car washes and bake sales to support their causes.” Now, they are more actively working on DREAM Act issues, advocating for immigrant students’ rights, and making their school communities more aware of issues affecting Latinos in Arizona.

Another big issue for students, she says, is the state’s ban on ethnic studies. The teachers support the students without breaking the law, she emphasizes. “We discuss with them how they can share their culture with friends through the M.E.Ch.A. clubs without violating the law.”

Three years ago, Guadalupe Meza from South Mountain High School helped the students organize the first ever PUHSD  M.E.Ch.A. conference. The tradition continued and the numbers of participants has grown every year. In September, 2012, the Central High School M.E.Ch.A. hosted the third of these conferences with the theme, “Our History; Mi Voz!” Participants included academics, public and elected officials, and representatives from several social services and advocacy organizations.

Elizabeth Toledo, assistant principal for student opportunities at Central High where Chacon teaches, says school administrators support the advisement role of teachers as long as they are nonpartisan and not representing any political candidate. 

“We encourage the students to vote. It’s our responsibility to educate the students regarding what their responsibilities are for becoming politically engaged. That’s the only way they are going to make a difference,” she says.  

Chacon doesn’t believe there will be a backlash against the advocacy of teachers and students for Latino issues. 

“We are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing – which is getting students civically engaged and learning the ideals of our democracy,” she says.

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