Mexican American Studies: a Pedagogy Not Sociology

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

We have allowed the uninformed and ignorant to define what Mexican American Studies is. Every time I discuss the subject I feel as frustrated as a scientist trying to explain science to a creationist. No matter how well you know the field those who do not want to believe will distort your words to fit their preconceptions and belief system.

As I have explained, MAS or Chicana/o Studies is not sociology. MAS has courses in sociology that examine the MAS corpus of knowledge but MAS does not belong to the field of sociology.  If it were just sociology, it could be reduced to one or two courses on race.

MAS is a strategy that incorporates multi-disciplines. The truth be told, if the academy had cared about Latinos, which are the second largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, it would have hired specialists to explore the role of Mexican Americans and other Latinos in the United States.

If this had happened Latino courses would be integrated organically within departments. But consequent to the racism in higher education this field of study has been ignored. Even today, most academic departments do not offer a single MAS or Latino course or employ a single Latino faculty member.

Incredible but most schools of education have not developed courses on how to teach or counsel Latino students. This is criminal since I would not expect, no matter how good she is, an optometrist to perform open heart surgery.

How to teach Mexican American students was the motive for establishing CHS.

The record of its accomplishments speaks to its importance:

In 1968 only about fifty Mexican Americans nationally had doctorates; today there are thousands. Truth be told, MAS developed despite the academy.

The dramatic surge in the study of Mexicans in the United States and Mexico surged because of Chicana.o studies.

Before December 31, 1970, not a single dissertation had been written under the category “Chicano.” By 2010 870 dissertations were recorded under this heading. Under “Mexican American” 82 dissertations had been written before 1971, and 2,824 after that date. For “Latinos” the record shows 6 before 1971 and 2,887 after.

Mexican scholarship also benefitted from Chicana/o studies. I found 660 in the Proquest data bank before 1971; after 9,078. The number of books and journal articles on Chicano and Latinos also exploded.

It is improbable that this would have happened without Chicana/o student militancy.

Despite this impressive growth, there is still confusion as to why MAS was developed and why it is necessary. Repeating myself, MAS was an outgrowth of the education reform movement that wanted to stem the horrendous dropout rate among Mexican American children.

Reformers advocated a course of study designed to train more teachers on how to teach Latino children as well as encouraging research on their contributions to the United States. The best available research concludes that a student who has a poor self-image has difficulty learning. The dominate research also shows that Mexican Americans have a negative self-image due in part to the American education system.

Today this research has been almost totally erased; however, the hypothesis has not been disproved.

MAS took these studies into account and designed courses on how to motivate students to acquire skills for success in school and life.

An additional component, which has been as of late ignored, is these courses prepare educators to teach Mexican American children. It teaches methods and the content courses on how to teach Mexican Americans as well as all students to appreciate the importance of Latinos to our society.

How others look at students is very important to the students’ educational success.

With time the pedagogical function of Chicana/o studies has been obfuscated and today most professors want to forget it. Even at California State University Northridge, the largest Chicana/o Studies departments in the country, most professors know their discipline but few know the department’s course of study or its pedagogical mission.

There has been a failure to communicate this message although the curriculum has defined the department’s growth.

The Tucson Unified School District’s MAS program has yielded important lessons. Its primary strength is that it molded a team of teachers committed to how to teach all students and found the key on how to motivate high risk Latino youth.

While the course of study remains important, the hub around which the Tucson program revolves is its team of teachers.

TUSD’s MAS program began in 1997 in response to a court mandate. The recently fired Sean Arce was one of the co-founders of the program and he molded the group into a team. While the teachers specialize in different disciplines, they have almost daily interaction with each other and discuss how to more effectively teach students. Lessons in the Mexican historical and cultural experience are then applied to the American experience.

As of 2010, MAS co-sponsored twelve “Annual Institutes for Transformative Education Conferences” in which prominent educators made presentations for four days to MAS and other teachers. Sean and his team kept the mission to teach focused and they built upon this new knowledge.

I attended two conferences at which I met educators such as Pedro Noguera of New York University, Sherry Marx of Utah State University, Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas Austin and David Stovall of the University of Illinois at Chicago – College of Education. It was instructive to learn about different theories and pedagogies that are currently being used.

I spoke to various MAS teachers that included white Americans.  Their enthusiasm was contagious.

It was all the more impressive because it was on the advent of HB 2281 that was proposing the elimination of the program making claims that were simply mendacious. Since then the program and the teachers have gone through a living hell.

They have been libeled as un-American, subversive and the livelihood of their families attacked. Without any funds and limited national exposure, the team, the students and the community have fought back.

Struggle destroys lesser beings, but it also helps create legends. The best in the Mexican American community surfaced in this struggle in the persona of Sean Arce. He did not take a deal, he did not sell out, and he fought back, jeopardizing his home and family.

But much more than Sean is at stake. Some have say, “Well if we win in court at least we will still have the program.” My response is that then it won’t be MAS but just another program to teach Mexicans and others to learn how to dance the jarabe tapatio.

Removing a person like Sean is like taking the heart out of the program. It is reducing the program to the Tin Woodman of the “Wizard of Oz” who asked: “Do you suppose Oz could give me a heart?”

If wishes could come true I would send Superintendent John Pedicone and his gaggle of thugs to the Oz; like the Strawman, the Oz could give them brain: “It must be inconvenient to be made of flesh, for you must sleep, and eat and drink. However, you have brains, and it is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly.”

Apparently the Arizona cabal has neither brains nor a heart.

What Tucson had will be very difficult to replicate. The Pedicones and the Huppenthals will be condemned by history, but this means little because we cannot travel back to the future.

The whole affair leaves me feeling how I felt the first time I read the Chicano poet, Abelardo who wrote:

“Stupid America, remember that chicanito

flunking math and English

he is the Picasso

of your western states but he will die

with one thousand masterpieces

hanging only from his mind.”

Tucson has lost its heart, we are left with the Tin Woodman who has no heart, and there is no rainbow in the horizon.

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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