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Ozomatli, the multi-genre and multi-racial Los Angeles band that has served as U.S. State Department Cultural Ambassadors, performs a benefit in Tucson for Save Ethnic Studies on Feb. 18.

The performance at Rialto Theatre will raise money to cover legal costs for the Acosta plaintiffs who are challenging Arizona House Bill 2281 in federal court, the 2010 Arizona state law meant to dismantle the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program.

“When you have students who are particularly gravitating to learning about their own history, it’s an enriching experience for the whole area, for the state and the country,” says Ozomatli singer-guitarist Raul Pacheco. “All of these rich stories and all of these rich histories will make a stronger community. People who are against Mexican American Studies have a perspective we just don’t agree with.”

The TUSD Board voted last month to suspend the district’s MAS program, to prevent the loss of $15 million in state funds after Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal declared the classes illegal. The subsequent storage of seven of the program’s textbooks was widely criticized as book banning, though the district insists the books are available in school libraries.

Ozomatli’s support of the program will generate badly needed money for the ongoing civil rights lawsuit, says MAS director Sean Arce.

“Collectively as teachers in this community, we’re very honored and appreciative that they would come out and support us,” he says. “Ozomatli has always been a very community-oriented music group and they’ve always had that message of social justice so it’s right in alignment with Mexican American Studies.”

Pacheco says the group has been closely following the Save Ethnic Studies fight and the constitutional issues surrounding both HB 2281 and SB 1070, the hard-line state immigration law that was suspended by a federal judge shortly after it was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

“We’ve been on the side of what we feel is a positive and more humane immigration policy in Arizona, so we know many different groups that are doing wonderful work,” says Pacheco, adding that a band member has actually sat in as an observer of a MAS class.

“With so much of the political discourse that goes on, we respect everybody who has goals like ours. We support a fair legal system, a fair educational system and fair immigration policy,” he says. “We’re in a position now that we’re doing our best to raise awareness of these issues. It was a no-brainer for us to go back and support this.

“Our message in general has been as young people, you have to be fearless in pursing your goals and desires and it takes work and discipline. We encourage the positive work in those directions. We identify with young people.”

Arce compares Ozomatli’s support of Save Ethnic Studies to the outside musicians, artists and activists who organized in the South during the civil rights movement. But beyond that, it’s a band with a tremendous following in Tucson.

“Particularly the students who are serving as the plaintiffs now, many of them are mariachi musicians, many of them have gone to Ozomatli concerts before in Tucson. Their parents, their teachers are big time followers of Ozomatli so they’ve grown up with Ozomatli and understand what they’re all about,” Arce says. “We’re hearing hundreds and hundreds of students want to attend this concert with their families. It should be a great community event.”

Published Feb. 1, 2012 in Zócalo.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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