This story is part of a series of profiles supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps.
Jessica Bernal-Mejia’s mom was a teacher. Her dad was a counselor. Her tías were principals in Douglas. And her abuelita drove a school bus.
Education is in her blood.
So is fighting for equality in school rooms and in the lives of Arizona’s Chicano and Mexican families.
“My family was super social-justice oriented,” Jessica says. “I remember being on a picket line in elementary (school) because my parents were fighting for a pay raise.”
Her tío was part of the historic farmworker strikes against grape growers and her abuelo helped organize miners and smelters in Bisbee, Douglas and Morenci.
Jessica was born, raised and schooled in Tucson.
When she was a student at the University of Arizona, she stayed hours at the Adalberto and Ana Guerrero Student Center meeting other Chicana/o/x students. She spent time with Mexican American history books, learning about how generations of people like her own familia have shaped Arizona and America.
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She thinks of herself as an activist, advocate and educator.
First, and always, though, I am the daughter of Maria Moreno and Jose Mejia, she says.
Jessica began her career in the classroom as one of the last educators to teach a Mexican American Studies course, commonly known as MAS, before the Tucson Unified School District was pressured by Republican legislators to end the program in 2012.
The voluntary education program started after Latino and Black students filed a class-action school desegregation lawsuit in federal district court against TUSD in 1974. Families argued that Latino and Black students in the district were treated differently than White students and were unconstitutionally discriminated against on the basis of race and national origin.
Creating the program was among the many methods for addressing inequalities and remedying “existing effects of past discriminatory acts or policies,” according to a consent decree.
During his previous term as Arizona’s top education official, Superintendent Tom Horne successfully lobbied a GOP-led state Legislature to approve a 2010 law to restrict ethnic studies education courses, including ones that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.”
The legislation stood for seven years, until a lawsuit brought by Latino students and their parents and a federal judge ruled the ban was racist.
In 2017, a federal judge found that both the “enactment and enforcement” of the ban “were motivated by racial animus,” violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
“Students have a First Amendment right to receive information and ideas,” Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote in his decision. That right “applies in the context of school curriculum design.”
In the aftermath of the ban, Jessica helped create the department where she works now. Today, she mentors teachers across TUSD, helping them develop curriculum that centers the experiences of people of color, with a particular focus on Mexican American and African American perspectives.
She also became an organizer of the annual Collaborative Research in Action conference.
At the conference, students from across Arizona meet to showcase their research projects about social justice issues affecting their communities. In 2023, the conference featured about 60 presentations from more than 200 students with projects tackling topics like police brutality, immigration and gendered dress codes.
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She couldn’t take it, so she decided to teach it
When Jessica was a student at Tucson High School, she approached her counselor about taking a Mexican American studies course. The counselor told her it wouldn’t look good on her college application.
Instead, the counselor said she should take a European art class.
When she entered the University of Arizona, Jessica discovered that she could major in Mexican American studies.
“I was like, ‘I’m gonna be an MAS teacher.’ This counselor came at me (saying) I can’t take it,” she says with a laugh. “Well, guess what? I’m a teach it.”
“The whole reason for Mexican American studies was because our history wasn’t being taught in school,” she says. “We could feel that something was wrong, but we didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it. MAS helped you articulate that. You learned what oppression would look like, what liberation would feel like.”
Jessica graduated in 2011 with a double major in Mexican American Studies and history. She immediately began a master’s program to earn her teaching certification.
When she entered the classroom for the first time as a teacher in 2012, she walked into the height of the legislative controversy around Mexican American Studies courses in TUSD.
She taught a course for one semester before TUSD’s governing board eliminated the program after then-Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law banning ethnic studies classes. That law was later found unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.
“They boxed up our books,” Jessica says.
Then came the mandatory confiscations.
“We had to turn in lesson plans,” she says. “It was really, really sad.”
‘We want to make our world better’
The district followed the state’s orders. Even as TUSD was still under desegregation orders and needed to serve its Mexican American and African American students, she says.
Jessica worked to help kids who for generations have just wanted to learn and know more about the history of all people in the U.S. She wrote curriculum for TUSD’s Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction department.
“We were still under a lot of scrutiny,” she says. “I’d have like four suits roll in with their clipboards and they would take notes on my posters and the things I was teaching.”
Culturally-responsive teachers typically teach English or history. Jessica says Pueblo High School also includes a chemistry teacher who helps students understand issues around water rights in a desert state with Indigenous and borderland roots.
“Our young people and our teachers crave it,” she says. “We want to make our world better for ourselves and for our future.”
For many years, Jessica taught history and government classes inclusive of Mexican American and African American lives and contributions. When she left the classroom, she became mentor.
Jessica now works with teachers across all of TUSD’s 14 high schools and many of its middle schools.
She trains teachers on an education strategy called Youth Participatory Action Research. It’s a mouthful that simply means students are empowered to be leaders on issues affecting their own lives and communities.
Jessica helps teachers design their participatory research lessons so that they continue to meet state standards for curriculum. They learn how to follow those standards and address students’ questions about topics like gun control or gender-neutral bathrooms.
In 2017, she had a student, Madeline Jeans, who went to a graduation meeting for seniors at Pueblo. School staff told Madeline: You are not allowed to wear Native American regalia at graduation.
“She was like, ‘This is really unfair,’” Jessica remembers.
Together, they talked to the principal.
The principal sent them to the superintendent.
The superintendent sent them to TUSD’s governing board.
When Madeline graduated, she stood with the Tucson Native Youth Council and with Lourdes Pereira, another Pueblo student who graduated in 2019.
The student leaders successfully convinced the TUSD board to change its policy.
In 2021, Arizona passed a law saying that citizens of federally-recognized tribal nations could wear traditional regalia during graduation.
Jessica believes that the student-centered participatory method is about teaching students like Madeline who see themselves as part of a larger community that cares for each other.
“She could have been fine with just her graduating with her regalia, but she was like, ‘Well, what about everyone else?’” Jessica says.
“It’s more the idea of ‘us’ instead of ‘me,'” she says.
Jessica reminds herself of her students’ triumphs to learn and give back.
Arizona teachers today work to navigate the education system, she says, in a state with a history of racism and unconstitutional discrimination. She thinks about the space her students hold and create in a changing world.
“Education right now is a struggle,” Jessica says. “More than I think it’s been in a while.”
She says that she sees echoes of the ban on Mexican American studies in the conversations about education in Arizona and America today. Many Tucson students, she says, know their current state superintendent of public instruction helped draft a law that a federal judge later ruled to be discriminatory and motivated by racism.
Teachers of every generation learn from their own students.
Jessica is ready.
“I’m more of a ‘Let’s keep pushing boundaries until someone stops me,’” she says. “Because if we stay quiet, and we prepare and prepare and prepare, I feel like we’re doing an injustice to our students.”
Jessica has been teaching long enough to know no one knows all the answers.
She stands near a wall with a message. This is the student center where she spent days as a college student on her own learning journey to understand and recognize the contributions and history of Mexicans in Arizona and America.
Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Beatriz Limón, Irene McKisson Visuals: Reia Li Translation: Laura Gómez Rodriguez