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White Elbows: "Better Than What?"

Rodolfo F. Acuña: My mother always knew that Mexicans had to be better than gringos if they were going to make it. We had to be cleaner; she would scrub my elbows until they were raw, trying to make them white. She bought us an Encyclopedia Britannica that none of us could read.
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"Mexicans Have to Be Better than Gringos", Mother would say.

My mother always knew that Mexicans had to be better than gringos if they were going to make it. We had to be cleaner; she would scrub my elbows until they were raw, trying to make them white. She bought us an Encyclopedia Britannica that none of us could read.

"Do your homework!" “Don’t complain!” “You have to be better than them.”

These sentiments were also mixed with illusions of superiority: “We have a culture,” my grandfather would say, “they don’t even know who their grandparents are.” “We have a language.” “We have a culture.”

This clash of positive and negative qualities included intelligence, desirable characteristics and personality traits. They produced in my case one messed up individual.

I tended to adopt positive and negative illusions of the standards set by society, and in my comparing myself to others, developed a minority complex.

John Pedicone

John Pedicone

Slowly, I came to realize that illusions are meant to control people. For generations, European immigrants believed that their children would have a better life than them! “Suffer and you shall be rewarded.” Latino immigrants still believe it and they get wrapped up in these expectations.

Gradually, I began to ask “better than what?” “Why?”

I couldn’t do anything about my elbows, no matter how much I scrubbed them. Both my negative and positive illusions were bad. Some people were going to run faster than I did no matter what and a rocket scientist was a better mathematician than me.

This all brings me back to Tucson, a classic case of false perceptions. It is one of the reasons why the Mexican American community is under siege.

The Mexican American community had great expectations when John Pedicone was selected as superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District. Many believed that because his name ended in a vowel and he was of Italian ancestry, he would be sympathetic to them.

Pedicone also had a doctor in education which gave the illusion that he was an expert in pedagogy. Pedicone listed that he was on the faculty of the University of Arizona which gave the aura of authority.

Many community members also assumed that because he was vice-president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, which should never get confused with the African-American civil rights organization, that he was community minded. (I looked at its web site and it reminded me of the Republican presidential convention).

They were encouraged by what he said regarding TUSD’s La Raza Studies:

"If you look at the data, it is hard to argue with the success this program has with a historically under served population. We have not been successful with a number of populations of students and anything we can do that changes that formula needs to be looked at and examined. For me it's not a call to erode the program but it's a call to expand it. We need to look at what they're doing in that program that is working and expand it to other environments."

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At the time, few people questioned his qualifications; they just assumed he was better qualified than they were to run a school district.

Soon after he was selected, Pedicone showed his colors and manipulated behind the scenes to kill La Raza Studies. The illusions became a nightmare.

Pedicone was no barrio boy -- that’s for sure. Raised in Chicago by hard-working parents who were college educated he received his training in the Midwest with little indication that he taught or had experience with Latino students. He received his doctorate in administration -- not pedagogy.

Pedicone never taught in a Mexican American school, transferring in 1982 from the Midwest to Flowing Wells Schools in Northwestern Tucson -- a district of 10 schools and 6,000 students, as an assistant principal. Thus, he acquired little if any classroom experience.

After serving six years as superintendent of the mini school district, he retired in 2004. Six years later he emerged as the leading candidate for the TUSD superintendent of schools. He got the job and is paid a whopping salary of $250,000 a year, more than most university presidents and superintendents of much larger systems in California where the cost of living is much higher.

In Pedicone, Tucson got a superintendent who went back on his word, had no experience in teaching Mexican Americans that are over two-thirds of the students, is not an expert on curriculum, and, for all accounts, is more a politician than educator. His qualifications boil down to the fact that he has a doctor in front of his name and his name ends in a vowel. But is he better qualified to lead a district where Mexican American students are dropping out of school and where white students are fleeing to charter schools?

Mark Stegeman

Mark Stegeman

Pedicone has found his soul mate in University of Arizona professor Mark Stegeman, a minor economist, with no experience in K-12 education. Stegeman is burdened with an extremely thin publishing resume. Stegeman, according to sources, was the Democratic Party candidate because he was the only one who had enough money to hire a campaign manager.

What qualified him? He had a doctor in front of his name, giving the illusion that he was better qualified than others to run the schools. Stegeman has no articles in the field of education, has few in economics, no public school teaching experience and very little knowledge of the Mexican American community. Despite this thin resume, out whim he has decided to kill La Raza Studies program because he says that the courses leave out important topics.

Having been a teacher for over 50 years, eleven of which in the public schools, taught adult school, community college and at the university level, I find Stegeman’s assertion insulting and racist. There is a difference between fact and opinion. The doctor before Stegeman’s name may give the illusion that he is qualified; however, there is a difference between facts and illusions.

Both Pedicone and Stegeman should take courses in epistemology. How one acquires knowledge determines their views and interests. It determines qualifications to deal with problems.

The only thing I can say about Miguel Cuevas is pobrecito. Cuevas is a struggling college student who knows nothing about education. His qualifications are his brands — he is a Mexican American and a Democrat. His ambitions are being exploited by Pedicone and Stegeman. But again, “how is he better qualified to evaluate the effectiveness of La Raza Studies program?

As I have said in previous articles Mexican American Studies is a pedagogical tool to improve students’ self-image and improve skills. Arizona has one of the worse performance records in the nation in relation to Latino students. It is not that educators such as Pedicone want to implement education programs that stem the dropout problem and make it possible for them to succeed, they just want us to be captives of our illusions.

rodolfo acuna

It is not a matter of being better than or worse than, it is a matter of asking “better than what?” My elbows will never look white no matter how much I scrub them.

Rodolfo F. Acuña

Rodolfo Francisco Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge.