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An Arrested Development

The Identity Crisis of Mexican Americans

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

The debate as to what to name Chicana/o Studies will have future repercussions. The proposals are not new; they are not innovative; and they are symptomatic of the historical struggle of Mexican origin people in the United States to identify themselves.

The problem is that the group has grown so large and the stakes so high that the consequences will hurt everyone. Unfortunately, the level of the discourse lacks logic, and it prolongs a resolution to the identity crisis of Mexican Americans.

Admittedly, Latinos have a lot in common, but we also have a lot of differences, e.g., in social class, population size, where we live, and our history to name a few dissimilarities. These differences strew the landscape with landmines especially for those who already believe that all Latinas/os look alike. It makes it easier for them to lump us into one generic brand.

The constant name changes are wrongheaded and ahistorical. Identity takes a long time to form, e.g., it took Mexico over two hundred years to get over their regional differences and become Mexicans. If you would have asked my mother what she was, she would have answered, “Sonorense,” my father would have said “tapatio.”

Today, the children of immigrants usually identify with their parents’ country of origin. Some, depending on where they live, will say Hispanic or Latino, despite the fact that there is no such thing as a Hispanic or Latino nationality.

The result is an arrested development that carries over into the popular media where it is not uncommon to see an Argentinian playing a Mexican on the screen with an Argentinian accent.  To movie directors, all Latinos look and sound alike.

Chicana/o Studies is supposed to be staffed by intellectuals, and you would think that they would bring about a resolution. However, I have been disappointed by the inconsistencies in their epistemological stances. Instead, they follow the latest fad or what is convenient for them. The result is that they confuse students and the public, thus creating an identity crisis that arrests the development of the disparate Latino sub-groups.

Some self-described sages, a minority I hope, even want to change the names of the few Chicana/o Studies departments that have survived the wars in academe to Chicana/o-Latino or vice versa. The pretexts are: it is a progressive move; it promotes unity; and it is strategically the right move — it makes us Number 1.

Even on my own campus where Chicana/o Studies offers over 172 sections per semester, a minority of Chicana/faculty members want to change the department’s name. They believe this change will enable them to teach courses on Latin America and thus increase their individual prestige.

Having worked in academe for nearly fifty years, this is a naïve! In the past, we tried to establish an interdisciplinary program but we were torpedoed by the Spanish Department. In academe, you don’t just wish changes. They are the result of political confrontation and negotiation.

It is beyond me how some Chicana/o Studies faculty members can be so naïve. Do they think that the history, political science or Spanish departments will roll over and concede CHS the right to teach classes that they think belong to them? Do they think that these departments are so stupid that they will stand by and let us to take student enrollment away from them?

What is to be gained by creating a pseudo identity?

You would think that Chicana/o professors would have developed a sense of what a discipline is. Chicana/o studies were developed as pedagogy; their mission is to motivate and teach students’ skills. CHS were not created to give employment opportunities for Chicana/o professors or to create a safe haven for them to be tenured.

The reality is that most Latino programs are clustered east of Chicago whereas most programs west of the Windy City are called Chicana/o Studies. As of late, however, there has been a breakdown, and CHS programs out west have begun to change their names to a hybrid Latino-Chicana/o studies model.

Tellingly, although the Mexican origin population is rapidly spreading east of Chicago, there is no reciprocal trend to change the names of programs to include Chicana/o or Mexican American.

What is the message for Mexican Americans?

As a kid, many of my acquaintances preferred calling themselves Latin American. Unlike hot jalapeños Latino did not offend the sensitive taste buds of gringos.

What it boils down to is opportunism and an arrested development. These frequent changes have led to a collective identity crisis as well as short circuiting the community’s historical memory.

The best data on Mexican Americans and Latinos comes from the Pew Research Center. It informs us that 71 percent of all Latinos live in 100 counties. Half (52 percent) of these counties are in three states—California, Texas and Florida. Along with Arizona, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey and Illinois they house three-quarters of the nation’s Latino population.

Los Angeles County alone has 4.9 million Latinos or 9 percent of the Latino population nationally. In LA-Long Beach Mexican Americans make up 78 percent of the Latino population followed by Salvadorans who are 8 percent. In NY-Northeastern NJ Mexicans are only 12 percent, the rest are Latin Americans. Understandably, in NY-New Jersey there is no movement to change to Latino-Mexican American studies whereas in LA many programs have changed the name of Chicana/o Studies.

The Mexican share of the Latino population in California is 83 percent; Texas 88 percent; Illinois 80 percent; Arizona 91 percent; Colorado 78 percent; Georgia 61 percent; and in racially confused New Mexico, Mexicans are 63 percent of Latinos.

In metropolitan areas like Los Angeles Mexicans are 78 percent of Latinos; Houston 78 percent; Riverside 88 percent; Chicago 79 percent; Dallas 85 percent; Phoenix 91 percent; San Francisco 70 percent; San Antonio 90 percent. Eight of the ten largest Latino cities are overwhelmingly of Mexican origin.

For me, it does not take an advanced degree in mathematics to figure out what the name of the programs should be in the eight states. Still there are Chicana/o geniuses that want to change the name of the programs.

At California State Northridge the solution appeared simple in the 1990s. It made sense to support Central American students and create a Central American program. They make up 12/14 percent of LA’s Latino population, and changing the name to Chicana/o –Latino would not have solved anything.

What purpose would it have served if 98 percent of the courses and faculty remained Mexican? Central Americans wanted ownership of a new program catering specifically to their needs and their identity.

This schizophrenic behavior of the name changers has worsened the existing identity crisis; it has resulted in an erasure of history. You can bet that there will political fallout in the future.  Words and history have meanings.

For example, Steve Montenegro, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio did not just happen.

Arizona state representative Steve Montenegro is from a reactionary Salvadoran family. Since his election in 2008, he has supported the racist SB 1070. Montenegro, supported by the Tea Party, is not vetted by the Mexican community that comprises over 90 percent of Phoenix’s Latino population.

In Texas Cuban-American Senator Ted Cruz got enough Mexican American votes to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Both Montenegro and Cruz are anti-immigrant. They see immigration as a Mexican issue.

Cuban-American Marco Rubio also advertises that he is a “Hispanic”. He has been active on immigration, but he is pushing a reactionary bill and like his other musketeers is a Tea Party darling.

Ernesto Galarza used to say that a people without a historical memory are easier manipulated, and they lose the ability to defend their communities. The only power poor people have to check the universities and elected officials is the power of numbers.

History gives order and purpose to our lives” Identity whether it is working class or communal clarifies that purpose. Inchoate changes in identity are infantile and are not helping rather they are arresting our development.

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.