I have been teaching as a graduate student and as a professor in Chicana/o Studies for over ten years. During these ten years, I have always wondered what it might have been like if I had been fortunate enough to experience a Chicana/o Studies class as an undergraduate at West Texas A&M University. It never occurred to me that it might have been possible to learn about Chicana/o culture, mi cultura, as a student in the public school system. Had it been possible, who knows what might have changed – maybe I would not have gone through a fairly lengthy period of self-hatred. Could there be anything worse than being a Mexican? Maybe I would not have put so much distance between myself and mi familia. Is there anything worse than being associated with Mexicans? Perhaps, an early exposure to a Chicana/o Studies curriculum would have changed all of this. Perhaps, I would have learned to embrace my mexicanidad earlier; and as a result the road to self-esteem, cultural pride and familial acceptance would have been much shorter. These are questions I have always pondered. They are questions I ponder every time I step in front of a classroom. Does it really matter? Can a class, a single class, really change not only what a student knows, but how that student sees herself in the world – how that student walks in the world? Is that possible? Precious Knowledge (2010) finally answers this question for me. And the answer is: “¡pues sí!” With Precious Knowledge, filmmakers Eren McGinnis and Ari Palos document the powerful impact an ethnic studies education can have on students.
In April 2011, the filmmakers came to Brown University and screened Precious Knowledge as part of our Semana Chicana event series. Their screening and the Q&A that followed was, for me, the highlight of Semana Chicana. This film focuses on the students and teachers of the ethnic studies debate in the Tucson Unified School District. Without doubt, it is these individuals who are the film’s focus. And while, the film does pay a considerable amount of attention to the critics of ethnic studies in Tucson, i.e. Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, it never loses sight of the students and the faculty. From the first shot to the closing credits, Precious Knowledge stays hopeful. Throughout the documentary, we are allowed into the homes and neighborhoods of the students. The classroom becomes familiar to the viewer. We recognize the posters (that’s Emiliano Zapata, que no?) – the books (I’ve read So Far From God) – the language (that teacher sounds like mi tio). We can see ourselves in these classrooms and yes, even today in 2011, that is a rare thing. This is the space we return to over and over again in the film and it is this space that becomes comfortable, welcoming. “En Lak Ech/You are the other me.” “If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself.” These phrases, which permeate the film, are themselves permeated by respect. We respect ourselves. We respect others. That the students abide by these principles is evident. The film makes this self-respect visible. Specifically, the shots, both wide-angle and close-up, illustrate this. For example, one of the documentary’s main subjects, Crystal Terriquez is filmed from a distance amidst the stark Sonorense landscape. The next shot is a close-up of her face. For me, these shots demonstrate her determination, her strength and her right to protect su tierra against the violence of racism and ethnocentrism. Precious Knowledge accomplishes filming emotion by filming what is physical – the landscape, the voices, the faces.
As this new academic year begins, I eagerly anticipate showing this film in my Ethnic Studies courses. I know it will provoke valuable discussions from which both I and the students will benefit. I know students will walk away from this documentary knowing something they did not know before – something not only about the struggle in Tucson, but also about themselves. Perhaps these students at Brown University will take a lesson from the students at TUSD and commit themselves not only to their academic studies, but also to their communities at home and in Providence.
As I said elsewhere in this essay, Precious Knowledge answers many questions for me. It also poses questions. What will we do for future generations? What are we willing to sacrifice? Will we fight for the education of our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our sisters and brothers, our cousins? As the credits appear on the screen, as the rose petals fall onto the names of all those who contributed to the film’s undertaking, we must know there is no end. We continue.
Dr. Patricia M. Perea
Assistant Director/Visiting Faculty
Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America