Neto's Tucson: Oyama, Mexican-American studies: lessons in resilience

2013-03-24T00:00:00Z Neto's Tucson: Oyama, Mexican-American studies: lessons in resilienceErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A class in Mexican-American studies was held in a Tucson Unified School District school Friday and there was not a damn thing the state could do about it.

The students, staff and parents at Davis Bilingual Elementary Magnet School held their annual César Chávez appreciation rally on the city's west side. The school's interracial mariachi group, Las Aguilitas, and Las Pumas from Roskruge Bilingual K-8 School led the group through Barrio Anita chanting, "Sí se puede."

The celebration culminated a weeklong series of lessons on the social justice and community service values practiced by the late Arizona-born farm labor and civil rights leader Chávez, who was born on March 31, 1927. Davis students' embrace of American history from a Mexican-American perspective was in full and glorious public display.

While the state of Arizona trampled on Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American Studies, demeaning it as illegal with the consent of a federal judge, the spirit of Mexican-Americans still burns.

"Sí se puede," Principal Carmen Campuzano said to the assembly. "Yes you can: in school, in high school, in the university, in politics," she said in Spanish, a language that all Davis students learn.

Mexican-American studies, in its various forms throughout Arizona's history, has learned to evolve and remain alive, despite powerful efforts to suppress and eliminate it. Our state is rife with examples of negating the pivotal roles that Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and other Latinos have played.

As students at Davis and other schools honored Chávez this week, they just may learn in the future about Henry "Hank" Oyama, whose courage, ethics and vision exemplifies our communal history.

Oyama died last week. He was 86 years old.

He was born in Tucson's downtown Mexican barrio and raised by his Japanese mother who grew up in Mexico. His father died before Oyama was born.

He spoke Spanish as a child. Years later he would often say he thought himself as Mexican until that fateful day in 1942.

The U.S. government took him, his brother and mother away to an internment camp because, like thousands of other Nippon-Americans, their allegiance was suspect.

That humiliating experience could have embittered Oyama. Instead, when the government freed him, Oyama enlisted in the Army and later served in the Air Force. He retired in 1985 as a Lt. Colonel.

That would have been a life story for most people. Not Oyama, however.

After graduating from the University of Arizona, he and his first wife, Mary Ann Jordan, challenged a racist state law which prohibited interracial marriage.

Before their legal challenge went to the State Supreme Court the state Legislature, which is nothing like today's body, did the right thing and dumped the law.

Within a few years, Oyama, who was teaching Spanish at Pueblo High School, joined with colleagues to create the first bilingual education program, which was later adopted by Arizona and other states.

State voters may have eliminated bilingual education in 2000 but it lives on. The Davis students are today's beneficiaries of Oyama's dedication.

"He's here with us today," Campuzano told her pupils.

We are also bearing the fruits of Chávez, who not only toiled for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers, but he also was an environmentalist who spoke out against the widespread use of pesticides.

These are the lessons of Mexican-American history that will live on and grow, regardless of the shortsighted actions in the state capital.

The roads may be taken away, but never the paths.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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