Forty years ago, I found myself on local TV, discussing Arizona history on behalf of the Tucson Unified School District as a student. I've never stopped investigating our state's unique history. In 1991, I did a "walkabout" in the Sonoran Desert, trying to understand our indigenous, Mexican, immigrant and pioneer cultures.

In the spring of 2011, I received a telephone call from TUSD students that reminded me of my childhood in Tucson.

"Our history matters," they told me, "and we're willing to do whatever it takes to defend it."

They were part of a student group called UNIDOS, organized by youth to support the now dismantled Mexican American Studies program. Over the next 18 months, I met with the students, attended their meetings, observed them at school board meetings, and chronicled some of their protests for national news outlets.

Unlike many critics, I sat down and interviewed scores of students in the MAS program. I listened to their stories, and learned about the impact of the MAS program on their lives. I met their parents. I read their work. I observed book circles, theater groups, and a community house and garden. I visited them at their jobs and at the university. I witnessed the amazing work of MAS graduates like Selina Rodriguez Barajas, who directs a thriving youth center in Santa Monica, Calif.

As a cultural historian, I saw how Arizona history informed and inspired their lives, bolstered their involvement in the community, and furthered their development as scholars.

Now on a 32-city book tour, I bring the stories of the UNIDOS and MAS students with me across the nation. I speak about the extraordinary role of these TUSD students and MAS graduates as the standard-bearers of Tucson's historic past - and its future.

Like many, I was stunned when TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone referred to the students as "pawns."

I call them American heroes.

I consider them part of a continuum in Arizona history that defines us in Tucson. They are the inheritors of Estevan Ochoa's legacy - the Mexican immigrant and one-time mayor who single-handedly launched an enduring public education system in Tucson, when a floundering school board failed. They carry on the vision of the union copper miners, who galvanized Arizona's resolve for statehood in 1912, and who placed Gov. George Hunt into office - only to be abandoned. Their stories are rooted into the landmark work of Tucson author Mario Suarez, whose introduced his "Chicano" sketches to the literary world in the 1940s. They represent Arizona native César Chávez's "si se puede" movement for fairness, which transformed our state during my youth in the 1970s.

I believe UNIDOS and former MAS teachers and students will one day return to TUSD as the leaders of what is best about my hometown - our history, our diversity, and our commitment to our children's education.

A MAS student once asked me: "If you believe our Arizona history matters, what are you doing to defend it?"

Until we all answer that question - as we await a federal court ruling on the constitutionality of the state's crackdown on MAS, and TUSD's disgraceful desegregation order is fully carried out by the special master - I will continue to tour the country on behalf of UNIDOS and Tucson's students.

Jeff Biggers is the author of newly released "State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream."