Lessons from Arizona: Mas Sabe el Diablo por Viejo que por Diablo

Mexico is a nation of memories – the people treasure their favorite stories of the past. They know the oldies. Go to a Mexican concert or night club, and unlike Anglo American events the audience spontaneously breaks out in song.

As a child, I’d listen silently to my elders — children did not speak unless someone called bacin (literally a bed-pan).  It was fascinating  how everyone would recall a proverb and nod. No one had to explain what it meant.

There were hundreds of sayings, which I absorbed with time. I felt like an adult when I understood them. The older people seemed like the most communicative, they were in the know. The refranes became part of my shared knowledge.

My favorite saying — one that I have often repeated is “Mas sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.” I have repeated it in my writings and it becomes truer as my hair turns white.

It is not just age that makes one wiser, but the chaffs and sparks of life. I have known people of my age who have learned little about life, and their most profound decision is the color of their RV.

A big part of my life has been Arizona. I have memories of my childhood and grandparents talking about it as if it were the Holy Land. The names of people and places over time became familiar through published proverbs — so much so that by the time I visited Tucson at the age of five or six, it was déjà vu.  The streets seemed familiar as if I were seeing them through the eyes of my grandparents.

In 2010, I spoke at a teacher institute sponsored by the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies Program.  Although there were clouds in the horizon, I was able to grasp the situation. I could foresee the imminent storm and ugly stain of xenophobia that had increased since the early 1970s, acerbated by the arrival of large numbers of white easterners and Midwesterners, who incessantly complained about Mexicans messing up their Pleasantville – too much color. This was so even though “the Mexicans” cleaned after them and cared for them in hospices.

A month before the MAS Institute the Arizona Legislature passed the draconian SB1070 that made it a crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying required documents and obligated police to make “lawful stops, detentions or arrests“, to determine a person’s immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion that the person was an “illegal alien”.  I did not have to read much to realize that this was the beginning of  open warfare on immigrants – a race war many of us had predicted.

Almost simultaneously HB 2281 wove its way through the Arizona Legislature. It prohibited public schools from offering courses at any grade level that advocated ethnic solidarity, promoted the overthrow of the US government. It was as if the ghost of Joseph McCarthy had returned to haunt us.

After meeting with Sean Arce, students and teachers I enlisted in the struggle. Being from California I knew my limitations and the landmines ahead. It reminded me of the refrain, “amor de lejos es de pendejos.” In this environment you did not have the luxury to become a true believer, and as an outsider was limited to advice and support. Because of the distance, I could do little about ameliorating the predictable mistakes and misjudgments.

You gain more from activism than any library. You learn to rely on your instincts.  The barrio is the ultimate learning laboratory where you test what you have learned. I immediately recognized that 1070 and 2281 were related and they did not happen by accident.

This led me to two questions: why Arizona? And, who was paying for the disorder? I instinctively “followed the money.” Arizona is a small state, and it was and is part of a national campaign to privatize public institutions and resources. For the corporations, privatization means paying little or no taxes and the opening huge new markets without a heavy investment of capital. It is analogous to the federal governments handing out free land and giving away of national resources such as the airwaves.

The assault on Arizona was possible through the selling of two American commodities — fear and hate. Go to the movies and to Magic Mountain to have the shit scared out of you. This tactic was used in Arizona as the Koch Brothers and other merchants of fear paid Tea Party organizers and encouraged the growth of wannabe Nazis called minutemen.

Fear and hate of Mexicans is nothing new. Its commodification made it profitable and SB 1070 was the perfect vehicle. Many Arizona prisons had already been privatized so 1070 was a boon —  the federal government and the taxpayers paid to incarcerate “the illegals.”  It opened a free market on guns and gun manufacturers made a killing selling to the fearful as well as Mexican cartels. The banks made a profit laundering the dirty money.

2281 complemented 1070, and it was just as insidious – it ensured supplies of future inmates. It sought to keep Mexicans ignorant about the political, economic and social realities of Arizona. Finally, schools are profit centers for corporations. The ruling elite influence the appointment of high paying administrators and control over lucrative contracts. In Arizona, Charter schools are totally privatized and outside the control of boards of education. They are islands of white flight that is spurred by fear of Mexicans.

No doubt the organizers against 2281 made mistakes. Unlike the forces of reaction such as the Tea Party, they did not have paid organizers. Personalities loomed as did petty jealousies of early supporters. That was, however, to be expected; however, it can rip a movement apart.  “Porque los celos son el furor del hombre, y no perdonará en el día de la venganza”.

Through this experience  I learned that what is ultimately important is not the Chicana/o Studies model. I thought that we had the key at Northridge with our area studies model. However, the lesson from Arizona was that while the curriculum is important, the gut of the Tucson success was not the model but teachers who believed in their students and in the importance of the subject matter. They acted as a team to instill in the students that they were actors in history. This is something that you cannot design.

In California the struggle to get a curriculum into the public schools is underway. But if we are to make a difference we have to go after the Colleges of Education that train teachers. In 1985 I went after Chancellor Anne Reynolds for proposing to raise the CSU’s admission requirements. She almost had me fired, and even the liberals attacked me. LA Times columnist Frank Del Olmo came to my defense pointing out if students came unprepared to the CSU, it was because they were poorly prepared by the CSU that trained most of California’s teachers. “Árbol que nace torcido jamás su tronco endereza“;

Finally, the devil learned from Arizona how a state was totally privatized and taken over by corrupt corporate interests. When the UNAM controversy came to light in November 2013, I immediately sent up the alarm that this was the final leg of the privatization of CSUN. I warned the Provost that the deal would come back to bite him. Mexico like Arizona is controlled by people who believe that greed is good, and our provost is blinded by the color green. “Acuestate con perros y tendrás pulgas“.

— by Dr. Rodolfo Acuña

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