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The Abandonment of the Barrio


Throughout the history of Mexican Americans, education has been considered the stairway to the middle-class. Education meant security and basics such as health insurance. This heaven meant better jobs and a small house or two for old age.

As with the European immigrant, the stairway was built in stages. Those with limited education could often get union jobs. After a generation or two in factories, Mexican Americans accumulated sufficient capital to keep their children in school, and a few sent them to college.

To build the stairway, workers and their families fought for compulsory education,  they petitioned school boards, and led walkouts protesting de jure and de facto school segregation.

Mutalistas,  el Congreso Mexicanista, Alianza Hispano-Americano, La Liga Protectora Latina, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), led campaigns for better schools. George I. Sánchez was a giant in advocating for this stairway.

However, it was not the 1960s that Chicano youth forced major breakthroughs. The Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) walkouts, the East LA School Walkouts, and small walkouts throughout the southwest and elsewhere had similar themes — better education, more college prep classes, more Mexican American teachers, and the teaching of Mexican American Studies.

As a result Mexican Americans went to college in greater numbers. In 1968 there were about 100 Latino PhDs – a decade later they were an identifiable mass. In the intervening years at Cal State Northridge the Latino student population exploded from about 50 in 1969 to some 11,000 today.

Despite the gains the Latino dropout rate remains at about 60 percent; most barrio schools still offer a limited number of college prep classes.  A larger portion of Latino students are being recruited and admitted from parochial, magnet and schools on the fringes of the barrio.  Few males are enrolling.  In some universities the ratio of Latino female/male is 65/35.

Like the nation’s roads, the Mexican American stairway to the middle-class heaven has fallen into disrepair. There are potholes everywhere. Outreach and special programs have become expendable and are under attack. The excuse is the budget.

Many Latino students could only afford college through financial assistance. However, early on financial aid was diluted by expanding the eligibility for assistance while shrinking funding.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the rising tuition. Without financial aid and loans, the bridge is beginning to tumble. At the California State Universities tuition will rise to $10,000 a year, which will put education out of the reach of students from barrio schools.

Putting this in perspective, I paid about $10 a year at Los Angeles State in the late 1950s; in 1969 fees amounted to about $50 a semester.

American corporations simply refuse to pay for the cost of social production. The baby boom generation that benefited from free education, the GI Bill, low interest housing, low gas and food prices, selfishly do not want to pay for the education of the young.

Mexico graduates more engineering students than the United States. Among sixteen 16 First World nations, the United State ranks number 13th in affordability.

At the beginning of the last century, Mexican workers were excluded from unions and relied on self-help organizations. This became more difficult as the nation became highly urbanized.

The Americans consider themselves a generous people, and certain Americans are. However, this generosity does not extend to the poor. A few will give to the homeless on Christmas and feel somewhat less guilty, as long as it does not interfere with their Christmas meal.  They give through organizations that qualify them for tax exemptions.

Historically Latinos have had a small middle-class. They are generous to family members. However, there is not a tradition of contributing to philanthropic organizations. Selected immigrant groups send money back to their communities, such as the Clubes Unidos Zacatecanos that remit billions of dollars annually to Zacatecas.

Latinos usually give through their churches. But, philanthropy is seen as foreign to most Latinos, especially Mexican Americans. They are concentrated in the working class. At the turn of this century, 25.8 percent of Mexican-born immigrants lived in poverty, over double the rate for natives.

According to one report, “[c]urrently, 53 percent of Latino households make charitable contributions to charities as opposed to 72 percent of all U.S. households.” It could be argued that comparisons are not fair. Poverty plays a role, as does the tax code where the middle-class get write offs. The reason Mexicans give for not contributing more is that they are not asked.

Let’s face it; we all owe our careers to the stairway. Without that stairway we would not have a middle-class to broker our gains in population into political and economic power. National Latino and Hispanic organizations cater to the middle class.

Keeping the stairway somewhat operable will be the greatest challenge for Latinos. Let us not be naïve and believe that everything will return to as it was in 1970 or 80. Tuition will continue to spiral. In California, fifty percent of the professors’ salaries and operational costs are derived from student tuition.

Surely administrators are blame for the inflation with university presidents earning in excess of $300,000 annually with perks. The bureaucracies in the university makes navigating them near impossible, and professor salaries at the top are near $100,000 annually and more.

I will not argue that professor salaries are not justified, just that they are part of the problem.  I ask myself, would most teacher unions oppose plans to begin alternative institutions that did not include teacher contracts?

After long deliberation I have come to the conclusion that whether teacher unions or others like it or not, we have to find our own solutions. The maintenance of the stairway should be our first priority.

Presently Latino education is not very high on the priority list of progressives in this country. Perhaps they have seen too many movies on the Alamo.

I am under attack for a statement that I made in the early 1990s when educational access was again being limited. I said that we would not allow ourselves to be pushed into the intellectual ovens of ignorance and lack of opportunity. Education is a basic right, and we who are active with youth know the consequences of not being able to read.

The stairway represents the only hope for many.

In the near future we will be making a call for Latinos and others to come to a meeting to explore the possibility of starting a non-profit university that would keep the costs under $1,000 a year.

It is criminal how many for profit schools have sprung up in the past decade. Full-time students at for-profit schools paid an average of $30,900 annually in the 2007-2008 academic year. This was almost double the $15,600 average paid at public universities. The average cost of attending a private nonprofit college was $26,600.

If the government can allow such outlandish costs to be handed down to students then it can sanction real non-profit universities. The truth be told, universities and colleges have become as predatory as the loan sharks and Wall Street.

We will outline a plan which we will telecast throughout the nation in an effort to get retired teachers and professors to put together a non-profit institution. This is imperative because public education today is being privatized. Even at the California State Universities which were once called the “people’s college” there are for profit entities where students can get an alternative education – at a cost.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution. 


RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

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