Like many dramatic films, Precious Knowledge, a documentary directed by Ari Luis Palos, sets up an inevitable conflict between two forces on a collision course.
On one side is a group of students and teachers at an Arizona high school who want to use education as a tool for self-awareness and empowerment. On the other, is a group of conservative lawmakers who feel their curriculum is divisive and anti-American. When they meet, metaphorical blood is shed, tears flow, and in at least one sense — despite a tragic climax — there’s a happy ending.
Palos and producer Eren Isabel McGinnis capture the dignity of the struggle to defend an ethnic studies program under siege by a xenophobic hysteria that has given Arizona the reputation of being the most anti-Latino state in the U.S. The film, which is shot austerely, reveals a stark southwestern landscape.
It begins with brief portraits of students, such as Pricila and Crystal, who like many of their peers come from disadvantaged backgrounds with little hope of getting into college — the dropout rate for Mexican American students nationwide hovers around 50 percent. Still, they have hope because of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program, a model curriculum for other programs in several major cities in the country, which has a graduation rate of 93 percent.
The filmmakers take you into the students’ humble hogares and follows them into a place of hope and light; their ethnic studies classroom. At the start of every Latino literature class the teacher leads students in a recitation of “In Lak’ech,” a Mayan-inspired poem by the legendary Chicano playwright Luis Valdéz. It starts with, “You are my other me/ If I harm you / I do harm to myself / If I love and respect you / I love and respect myself.”
The sentiment behind this poem is essentially the same as the Golden Rule, which has been taught in conventional educational curriculums in the United States. But because it is chanted to the beat of an indigenous drum, or used to introduce several ideas with origins in Aztec-Maya and Latin American tradition, the MAS program fell victim to an extraordinary surge of anti-Mexican sentiment. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, who had long campaigned for English-only in schools appears early in Precious Knowledge, denouncing the MAS Tucson program.
“There’s a primitive part of us that is tribal,” Horne said, describing the intent of ethnic studies with a look of grave concern. “The function of civilization is to get people to transcend that.”
MAS student Crystal on graduation day.
Meanwhile, Palos and McGinnins take us deeper into the allegedly dangerous classrooms, where literature instructor Curtis Acosta moves easily between Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” to explain the difference between “true rhyme” and “slant rhyme,” and the classic texts of magical realism. The students begin to understand that despite being stereotyped as underachievers, they have a culture and worldview they can use to learn effectively.
The rhetoric heats up with cameos by the recently removed State Senator Russell Pearce, a prominent sponsor of the infamous SB1070 “papers please” law, and Horne’s eventual successor John Huppenthal, who appears more concerned than angry about ethnic studies. In one of the doc’s most gripping sequences, Huppenthal, a state senator at the time, accepts an invitation to visit a MAS class. You see him warily interacting with students and teachers. Later, Huppenthal’s line of attack and the peril the program was facing became clear in riveting footage of a committee hearing of the Arizona State Senate.
The strategy used by opponents of ethnic studies in high schools was to emphasize the use of a single, controversial text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Brazilian educator Pablo Freire. They use its references to Marxism as the linchpin to prove the program’s anti-Americanism.
During Huppenthal’s visit to Tucson High School teacher José González voiced doubts about Benjamin Franklin’s views on people of color, which he found to be “planting evil ideas” in students’ minds. From there, the conflict escalates, and some shocking footage is shown of angry reactions by white counter-demonstrators directed at the students, and supporters protesting the impending ban of ethnic studies. When the group of students and teachers reach the capitol building, there’s a tense standoff with police and you tell from the look in the protesters eyes that they were doing what they had to do; because of what they had been taught.
Where some see “hate speech,” students felt the need to protect their right to engage in critical thinking. They learned about Tezcatlipoca, an Aztec deity known as the Smoking Mirror and a concept invoking memory and self-reflection. Together with Freire’s ideas about “reading the world,” and using knowledge to take action and create change, the students showed how seriously they took the love of themselves and others.
The closing sequence of Precious Knowledge follows the Hollywood tear-jerker formula. A banned classroom sits dark, unused. Books are prohibited from the libraries. Teachers lose their jobs. But, there is a moment of redemption when Pricila and many of her classmates are graduating, and we share the moment with her family when she receives her acceptance letter to the University of Arizona. And we are led to hope that with the knowledge she carries, the darkness that has shrouded this corner of the country will someday be lifted.
Precious Knowledge premieres on Independent Lens tonight, May 18, on PBS stations around the country. Check local listings. The film can also be seen onlinebeginning Friday, May 18, and will remain online for the next 21 days.
(Photos, from top: Chris Summitt, Ari Palos)