The Jornada del Muerto basin — known in English as the Journey of the Dead Man — sits east of the Rio Grande River between Las Cruces and Socorro, New Mexico. Indigenous and Mexican people knew that to survive traveling through the region you had to stay close to the river, a source for water and life.
When Spanish colonizers arrived they traveled farther from the river, saw the desolation, found the bones of a man on the route, and decided to call the land the Jornada del Muerto.
Corina Ontiveros was in seventh grade the first time she remembers hearing stories about the Jornada del Muerto — taught from the perspective of her own Mexican community’s narrative.
Years later in Arizona, now a longtime educator herself, Corina reflects on the impression Mr. Bullard made on Latino students as a New Mexican history teacher. He quickly became her favorite middle-school teacher.
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“It was like the kind of thing that I learned with Mr. Bullard – I got the facts of what I knew inherently,” she says. “My people — the people of the region — had made contributions and had been here forever.”
Mr. Bullard showed her that there was more “to this story of the Americas,” she says.
Corina grew up in Southern New Mexico and Las Cruces. She attended New Mexico State University. After graduating, she worked in Hatch, New Mexico, Phoenix and Nogales, moving to Tucson in 1998.
She has served as a principal, teacher and a mentor.
It’s July, a few days before the new school year. In a tucked-away hall near the conference center’s elevators, Corina sits in a chic armchair at a Tucson event for new teachers. Amidst the soft ringing of the elevator bell, she can still hear the distant conversations of people who had come to the second day of ceremonies and celebrations for first-year teachers.
Corina thinks about what it means to be an advocate for Latinos in the space of education in Arizona.
She looks out a window, gazing away before speaking.
“I think to be a Latino advocate in public education is to make sure, at the minimum, that our students understand that Latinos have made long-term and lasting contributions to this country, this continent and this space since time immemorial,” she says, dressed in her #RedforEd shirt.
Corina sits up straight from her more relaxed posture, and leans in as if to share a secret.
“We bring histories that are part of our very identity, our very genetic selves, and maybe things that we don’t even recognize in ourselves, but they’re there. They’re part of that long history, and it’s a contribution,” she says. “Long before these lands became part of the United States, people existed. They were our people. So we are of this place and of this time in this land.”
Children of color in border states often grow up hearing racist or xenophobic rhetoric that education and medical experts say can harm their mental health, as well as dim their self-confidence and potential for success.
“Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families,” according to a 2019 journal article by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“These health inequities are not the result of individual behavior choices or genetic predisposition but are caused by economic, political, and social conditions, including racism,” the article states. “The impact of racism has been linked to birth disparities and mental health problems in children and adolescents.”
Corina says teachers have a chance to help heal hate with knowledge that brings students of diverse backgrounds together, brings communities together.
“This whole narrative about going back to where you came from for us is wrong,” she says. “We need to make sure that we understand it and then we educate others because ignorance needs to be addressed.”
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The importance of cultural history for students
Five years ago Corina and her husband Raúl E. Aguirre started a non-profit called the Southwest Leadership Initiative and within it, the Ivy League Project of Southern Arizona.
It is a program designed to help high school students not only prepare for college but also introduce them to the college application process, help with scholarship searches and travel to top tier Ivy League colleges and universities.
Corina and Raúl have three daughters. Two went to Brown University and Drexel University. Their youngest is just about to attend Tucson High School.
Along with the Ivy League program, Corina is focused on changes that will help students see their own culture’s contributions to history as more than side notes.
She works for the Department of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction within Tucson Unified School District. She’s a mentor, working with teachers and students participating in the cultural classes.
Course offerings include learning literature and social studies from an African American and Mexican American perspective. The department offers these studies at all TUSD middle schools and high schools. Any student can take the courses, regardless of ethnicity or race.
“The impact of this educational approach is measurable through increased student engagement, achievement, improved graduation rates, lower absenteeism, and matriculation to college,” according to the district.
Republican rhetoric against cultural history courses
Courses that share the histories of people of color in America as they relate to the histories of all people in the United States are under fire in communities across the country. Republicans like Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis are leading the charge to frame such education as critical-race theory, a concept that examines racial disparities as systemic and having influenced public policy in the U.S.
In 2022, DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which limited classroom discussion of historical and systemic racism. Earlier this year, American Oversight, a left-leaning government accountability organization, sued the Florida Department of Education to shed light on the DeSantis administration’s efforts to “whitewash history and to ensure that education conforms to right-wing ideology.”
Arizona’s top education official, Superintendent Tom Horne has a history in Tucson for successfully lobbying a GOP-led state Legislature to approve a 2010 law to restrict ethnic studies education courses.
The legislation stood for seven years, until a lawsuit brought by Latino students and their parents resulted in a federal judge ruling that both the “enactment and enforcement” of the ban “were motivated by racial animus,” violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. 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.”
Horne was reelected in 2022 after serving as state superintendent of public instruction from 2003-2011. During his campaign, Horne wrote a blog called “Fifteen-Year War Against Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory.” He claimed that “Tucson divided students by race. Just like in the old south.”
‘That was our family history’
Corina knows it is important to understand where you come from and looks to her New Mexican history as a good example.
“I recognized that was our family history but there weren’t any stories about our contributions and I just always knew something was off,” Corina says of the lack of history lessons in many Arizona and U.S. high schools about Latino people in America.
Corina took Mexican-American history and Chicano studies courses in college.
“Through the evolution of just identity, my own quest for all of that, it led me back to public education,” she says. “To be able to be part of the change that students could have that we didn’t have.”
When Corina reflects on her more than 15 years as an educator, she thinks of every student, parent and teacher, everyone who helped her understand what it means to work “in service of” others.
“I found my home in this Tucson Unified School District,” she says.
Corina says it’s rewarding to know that Tucson students of color have opportunities to learn in one of the few districts in Arizona to offer classes with lessons about the diverse melting pot of contributions and perspectives in the state and U.S.
“Students can take Mexican American history or African American literature and the credit is that of any other literature or history class for graduation from an accredited high school in the state,” she says.
The classes are an opportunity for students to further connect with their history in the context of past and current events, she says, which is especially important considering about 80% of students in TUSD are people of color and 64.5% are Latinos.
“We can talk about these things in a meaningful way and again put it into a historical context and be able to begin to help kids go through that history, the factual history – what was happening when and why it still impacts us now,” Corina says.
Latinos in educational environments
Corina believes that the classes build confidence and critical thinking skills. She’s seen many of these students grow up to become leaders in their communities.
Part of her vision for equity is to see an increase of Latinos in educational spaces, especially in public education. She worries that a lack of investment in education has made it difficult for people to sustain their lives on the salary a public school teacher makes in Arizona.
The average teacher salary in Arizona is $56,755, ranking the state 32nd in the nation, according to a 2023 National Education Association study. In Tucson, the median annual salary for secondary school teachers was $48,480 in 2022, according to a University of Arizona study.
“Low wages, among other factors, lead the most qualified teachers to seek better opportunities, often located in wealthy suburbs,” according to the UA study. “The resultant teacher sorting leaves low-income urban districts with the least qualified and experienced educators. Children of families who lack geographic mobility are consequently affected the most.”
Teachers with opportunities for advancement are more likely to remain at the schools they were trained in, “resulting in better learning outcomes for students, and return on investment for districts,” the study states.
Still, Corina wants good teachers to feel they can afford to keep teaching.
“If we are educators and we get into the systems,” Corina says, “And our only way to make our lives better is to become an assistant principal and higher, to step away from teaching because that’s where the money is, then we’re propagating the same system.”
It’s not just teachers who are undervalued in Arizona. For years, the state has maintained its bottom-of-the-barrel status when it comes to investing in educating children. The amount Arizona spends per student is $10,186, ranking the state 49th in the country.
Corina asks her fellow educators: “How do we change it?”
She knows she doesn’t have all the answers. But she believes better living wages and better health care, as well as better resources for teachers and students, are part of the solutions for improving education systems in Arizona for Latinos and children from all backgrounds.
She talks about Gov. Katie Hobbs having created a task force for improving teacher retention. The group is conducting surveys to better understand issues affecting retention, including pay and benefits.
Corina knows it will take more than one task force to speed long overdue progress for education in Arizona. She wants Latino educators to recognize the power and importance of their role and their history, and share that as a strength with their students and communities.
When times are tough navigating inequities in Arizona’s education systems, she’s remained driven by remembering her roots.
“No matter who we are, whatever line of work we do, where we are in this world,” she says. “Our stories are valuable and they have an important place in the long arc of history.”
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.
Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson Visuals: Michael McKisson