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The House is Burning

Is the Dream Ending?

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

A lot more thought has to be paid to the question, “why Chicana/o Studies?”  CHS are not the whim; they are not a fad. They are part of the historical reasons for the struggle of the Mexican American community to obtain equal protection.  If we forget these reasons, CHS will be minimized — reduced to whims and fads, obfuscating why institutions of higher learning continue to exclude Latinos.

The failure to ask “why” perpetuates the myth that higher education is dedicated to a search for the Truth and open equally to all Americans. The truth be told, Chicana/o Studies is only tolerated because it is politically expedient. CHS are tolerated in many institutions because they placate Mexican American students.

It follows a pattern: the administration concedes students one Chicana/o studies class in history – and call it Chicana/o Studies. If the academy feels generous, it gives the students an office, which they share with a faculty member. Often instructors are not specialists in Chicana/o Studies, and they are often not Mexican American – any name that ends in a vowel suffices.

Campuses have not taken CHS seriously; the academe is intellectually lazy, and has not questioned why the disparate departments have failed to integrate this important fund of knowledge.

The justifications for CHS are clear. The nation’s Mexican population is approaching 40 million; the Latino population exceeds 56 million. You would think that most professionals would want know more about this group for professional reasons.

However, after 43 years – a period that has seen the Mexican American population grow from five million — from a regional minority to a national minority – the mindset of academe remains in the dark ages. To my knowledge very few academieians have bothered to examine their curriculum in light of these changes. Indeed, the numbers of programs in CHS have actually declined over the past 40 years.

At California State University Northridge although it has the largest CHS department in the nation with over 67 professors, offering 166 sections per semester, a campus wide curricular discussion has not taken place. The most that has happened is a review of General Education and a recertification of classes that ignore the changes in population.

In 1970 the Mexican/Latino student population in the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District was 22 percent; today it exceeds 75 percent. In the City of Los Angeles the Latino population has zoomed from about 15 percent to just over 50 percent. Still CSUN is stuck “Anything But Mexican” mindset.

The record speaks louder than words. Seventy-five percent of the CSUN academic departments have not hired a single Mexican American professor – let alone a specialist – and close to 100 percent of the departments do not offer a single course on the Mexican American/Latino experience.

Yet CSUN has made more progress than most institutions. It will tell you that it is a Hispanic Serving Institution, which it boldly lists it on all grant applications. But, does the administration and do our colleagues respect us?

I am not going to go into a discourse on race. Academe is a reflection of society, and the pace of change resembles the Republican Party. Just look at cameos of Republican Presidential Conventions, and look at the delegates who remain mostly white and old. Indeed, ideas of the GOP and the academy remain stuck in the pre-sixties era.

It is easy for Chicana/o professors and other Latinos to get lost in this quagmire. They go along with the agenda because they want a job or because they really don’t know history. Most CHS professors today were born in the 1980s – a scary proposition – they were brought up on Charlie Brown and Mr. Rogers – a few were rescued by Calvin and Hobbes.

It does not occur to them to ask, “why Chicana/o studies?”, and why is there so much resistance to it in academe?

Babies constantly ask why? However, the schools and other institutions suppress the notion of “why.” Even historians who are supposed to be skeptical generally go along with the program.

I did not come to CHS because I had an epiphany. I came to it because my life determined my choices. The first time I got married I was 19/20; my ex-wife was 16. With a child on the way, I shelved my ambitions, and I went to Los Angeles State College. It cost less than $10 a year. I changed my major to social studies because teaching was the quickest way to get a full time job. Having to work 40/60 hours a week and carry 16 units, I did not have too much time for sleep or study.

By the time I graduated, I was working forty hours a week as a janitor in the schools.  I earned my General Secondary Teaching Credential partially by student teaching and partially by teaching grades K-12 in a Yeshiva.

I was relieved when I got a job at San Fernando Junior High. The experience turned job into a vocation because of what I saw and what I heard from the other teachers. The principal referred to me as her “Mexican teacher,” and I thought if they look at me in this manner, what do they think of the Mexican students? I often heard them referred to as the little bastards.

I went on to teach in a high school, earn a MA and then a PhD, while also volunteering in an organization called the Latin American Civic Association. Dialogues with likeminded people expanded my world view as did my readings. 1963 was a very important year. I read C. Wright Mills but also read Ruben Salazar’s Los Angeles Times articles on the state of Mexican American education in LA.

I was personally moved by an essay written by a 13-year old Tucson student in a National Education Association study, The Invisible Minority (1966).

It started:

Me

To begin with, I am a Mexican. That sentence has a scent of bitterness as it is written. I feel if it weren’t for my nationality I would accomplish more. My being a Mexican has brought about my lack of initiative. No matter what I attempt to do, my dark skin always makes me feel that I will fail. Another thing that “gripes” me is that I am such a coward. I absolutely will not fight for something even if I know I’m right.  I do not have the vocabulary that it would take to express myself strongly enough…

In reading and listening to educators such as George I. Sánchez, my generation of Mexican American scholars became convinced that identity was essential to motivating Mexican American students who had become disaffected with the schools. Sánchez exposed many of us to bilingual/bicultural studies. In a 1959, Sánchez included a section in his bibliography called a “Course of Study.” Because of my background in education, it was not a quantum leap to later view CHS as pedagogy.

Sixty percent of Mexican Americans were dropping out of school, which we saw as a crisis. When students demanded Mexican American Studies, we supported them. The plan was to make students participants in history and culture. It was part of pedagogy to motivate them to acquire skills that were not being taught in the public schools.

This was the state of things when students demonstrated, walked out of high schools, and pressed institutions of higher learning to recruit Mexican American students and begin courses in the study of Mexican Americans. Chicano students were no doubt influenced by the Black Studies movement.

My first priority was not to reach the upper third of the student community who had the necessary skills to succeed. They just need the opportunity to get ahead or, for that matter, fail. It was the middle-lower thirds that needed motivation and skill development.

Today under the guise of fiscal savings the lower two-thirds are being denied access by rising tuition costs. The ploy is that these sectors are not being excluded because they can always go to community colleges. The American Dream is alive; forget that community colleges are severely overcrowded.

This will slowly erode one of the goals for CHS – that of mass education. This is a goal that progressive educators have had from the beginning. It included the crusade for compulsory school attendance and the formation of labor and ethnic schools.  Progressive educators from John Dewey to the present day reformers have espoused mass education as the lynchpin of a democratic society. It was part of the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education before it was scrapped.

As the commitment to mass education is abandoned, an underclass will grow in America, and class differences will proliferate within the Mexican American and Latino communities.  Ironically, society will claim that there is equal opportunity for Mexican Americans because it is open to the upper third of the community.

Along these lines, in the eighties I had a spirited exchange with Harvard historian Nathan Huggins. I asked him if he minority communities – Mexican Americans in particular– could afford an intellectual class. Huggins responded with a question, could we afford not to have one?

Just over twenty years later as the Chicana/o stairway to the middle-class heaven is being dismantled, I would still ask, can we afford an intellectual elite? My own view is that it is difficult to justify it when the house is burning.

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.