Schoolteacher Ray Siquieros and a group of his pupils protested “disrespectful” tortilla tossing by graduates at the University of Arizona (UA) commencement ceremony in Tucson May 11.

Siquieros, a UA alumnus who teaches Mexican-American studies at Sunnyside School District’s Alternative Education Program, said the tortilla throwing demeans Mexican American culture and is an affront to the area’s homeless and hungry. “Tortillas are a staple of my culture,” he said.

Siquieros and his teenage pupils carried banners and food donation boxes around the graduation hall urging students to donate tortillas to a food bank instead of throwing them around the hall. Their signs read “I love tortillas” and “Comida es cultura [food is culture].” Siquieros said his students “are learning to stand up for what they believe in in a nonviolent way.”

After seeing tortillas thrown into the air, one of his pupils, Phillip Gonzalez, 14, said, “I felt bad. There’s a lot of people who would like to eat these.”

Tortilla throwing at UA graduations started several years ago, but gained national attention this year largely because of Siquieros’ efforts, starting last December, when he and his family experienced it at his wife’s graduation from UA. “What you are doing is disrespecting my culture,” he told students at that time. Siquieros wrote to UA President Peter Likins, the UA Alumni Association and other groups. Likins received some 300 postcards protesting the tortilla throwing.

“We had an impact at the May graduation,” Siquieros told the World. “People still threw tortillas, but not as much as before. The fact that we were able to mount enough pressure to get … Likins to come out and make a statement against tortilla tossing speaks to our moral power.”

Before the event, Likins had urged students not to throw tortillas, calling it an “offensive” practice. At the ceremony, he asked the graduates to respect the millions of hungry people in the world by refraining from tortilla throwing.

But Siquieros also noted racist comments he and his pupils received from some students in response to their protest. “White racism at the UA towards Chicano culture and people is the real ‘tradition’ that needs to change,” he said.

Siquieros noted that nearly all the workers who cleaned up after the graduation were Mexican immigrant workers. “I talked to about 20 of them in Spanish. … They all agreed that throwing tortillas was disrespectful and a sorry excuse to have fun.”

Siquieros said that he and his students and two sons, Humberto and Reies, 10 and 8 respectively, stayed to clean up. “We picked up hundreds of tortillas and helped out our Mexican brothers and sisters who are overworked and underpaid.”

He said he is “starting a new tradition” of staying after the ceremonies to collect thrown tortillas to give to the food bank. But, he said, “this in no way excuses the throwing and wasting of tortillas.”

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.