Neto's Tucson: Playwrights aim to shine light on Tucson's Mexican-American Studies fight

2014-01-26T00:00:00Z 2014-01-26T21:27:03Z Neto's Tucson: Playwrights aim to shine light on Tucson's Mexican-American Studies fightErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Much has been written about the demise of Mexican-American Studies in Tucson. News reports, locally and nationally, documented the state-sponsored campaign to eliminate the once-successful education program in the Tucson Unified School District.

Now comes the theatrical version.

Playwright Milta Ortiz and her husband, theater director Marc David Pinate, are collaborating on a docudrama play with Tucson’s Borderlands Theater. Their residency is funded by the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit professional theaters.

The play will be based on interviews with some of the educators, students, activists and politicians involved in the program that was banned by Arizona in 2010; the ban was upheld by a federal judge in 2013. The work will also incorporate news reports and public documents, said the California couple now living in Tucson for the duration of the project.

Borderlands is expected to premiere the play in 2015.

While the headlines over the MAS program centered on Attorney General Tom Horne and Superintendent of Public Education John Huppenthal, both Republicans, the TUSD Governing Board and the program’s supporters, much of the political fight will serve as the background for the play, said Ortiz and Pinate.

The forefront will focus on the struggle by MAS teachers, administrators, students and community to save the program and the eventual split among MAS supporters, Pinate said.

The idea is not to hang the dirty laundry but to help examine, through various eyes, how Tucson responded to the state political assault on the program and what followed.

“The play is the opportunity for people to look at themselves without being themselves,” said Ortiz.

In the darkness of a theater, said Pinate, the play allows people to see themselves from a distance, hear other voices and see the larger picture. “It’s a lot like group therapy,” he added.

In the wake of the state’s declaration that MAS violated state law, the movement, which created a high school academic program threading Mexican-American perspective through literature and history, the first of its kind in the country, fractionalized. Two of the program’s key administrators, Augustine Romero and Sean Arce, split over differences. Romero accepted a new position in TUSD, while the school board dismissed Arce after MAS was axed and a replacement program was instituted.

In addition, there was a gender split. Female supporters of MAS accused their male counterparts of suppressing the women’s roles in the effort to maintain and save MAS. There were also accusations of sexual harassment.

But the play is more than about the fallout. It is about Arizona’s slap at educational freedom and Chicano self-empowerment. The play is about resiliency, about fighting the impossible fight and the chaos that comes with the struggle, Ortiz said.

The idea of writing a docudrama play came to the pair last year while they were completing their master of fine arts degrees in Chicago, she at Northwestern University and he at DePaul University.

Arizona had become “brown zero,” given the state’s ham-fisted laws on illegal immigration, the ban on bilingual education and the state’s denial of driver’s licenses to Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who have received a temporary federal reprieve from deportation and work permits.

The two playwrights come to the state armed with talent, accomplishments and determination.

Ortiz, who was born in El Salvador and who grew up in San Francisco, has written several plays that have earned her recognition. Pinate, who was born in Chandler, has worked with several theater groups in California, taught at the university and high school levels, and in 1999 won the National Slam Poetry Championship.

Their work will undergo several readings. Material will be added and deleted, as Ortiz and Pinate shape their final work. In the end, their goal is help Tucson to better understand the divisive issue by presenting the various sides of the MAS story and their words on the same stage.

Let the healing process begin.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be contacted at netopjr@azstarnet.com or at 573-4187.

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

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