Why History Makes Us Important
History has been important to me for as long as I can remember. As a child I loved hearing my relatives tell stories about the past. However, it was not until I was older that I realized that the stories meant something; they were key to understanding the present; and why we are what we are. As my awareness increased, I became serious about the past — so serious that it often got me into trouble.
Shortly after Occupied America was published in1972, I attended a historians’ conference. In a session I was asked why I wrote with so much emotion. I replied that I was not a prostitute; I did not make love without emotion. How can a person write about lynching and injustices and not get emotional? For me it was like a personal relationship, which should mean something.
The past is about sacrifices that people who were at one time you. They made it possible for you to have a better life. In a very real sense their sacrifices were not just for individuals but for society.
Slowly I was drawn into the world of stories. One of the stories I remember best was Enrique “Hank” López’s “Back to Bachimba” – published in the Winter of 1967 in Horizon, appearing three years later in a longer version in American Heritage Magazine. López was troubled that his father was the only private in Pancho Villa’s army when everyone else’s’ relatives were non-commission officers or officers.
“No doubt my chagrin was accentuated by the fact that Pancho Villa’s exploits were a constant topic of conversation in our household. My entire childhood seems to be shadowed by his presence. At our dinner table, almost every night, we would listen to endlessly repeated accounts of this battle, that stratagem, or some great act of Robin Hood kindness by el centauro del norte….”
Hank continued in the 1970 version:
“Aside from being the only private in Pancho Villa’s army, my father had another distinction—he was probably the only man ever to be dragged into an army at the end of a harness. But, as any fair-minded person will concede, he was not trying to avoid military service; he was simply resisting an outrageous expropriation of his personal property.”
In reading about the Mexican Revolution, I began to appreciate that not everyone supported the Revolution. When I was doing research in Camargo, Chihuahua, I was surprised to find that many families there still harbored resentment toward Villa for executing several dozen women in 1916 when they challenged his shooting their loved ones. Elena Poniatowska memorialized the executions in her book Las Soldaderas (Cinco Puntos Press 2006).
The lesson I learned from the Camargo experience was to never romanticize Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolution or even the proletariat.
A movie that taught me about history was director Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). It was about the time I was preparing to apply to my doctorate program; it was also the year that I first read C Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956). In combination with my community work with the Latin American Civic Association, these works formed my historical consciousness.
The Leopard is the story of the decaying Sicilian aristocracy, but it is much more, it is the story of Sicily.
In the book Guiseppe Di Lampedusa wrote that when the Prince looked out at what he considered “the real Sicily” and he saw the landscape around Donnafugata, its “aridly undulating to the horizon in hillock after hillock, comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.”
The description reminded me of parts of northern Mexico where the harshness of the land has formed the norteños’ character. This sketch helped me to understand the differences between the behavior of Villa’s troops when they entered Mexico City and contrast it to that of Zapata’s troops.
My approach to history was forged not only by friends like Hank López, the movies, and activism, but it was also formed by the classroom – both as a teacher and student. In 1964, I enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Southern California. It was a matter of convenience; I had to work full time as well as continue to be involved in LACA and the Mexican American Political Association where the discussions fleshed out what I was learning about Chicana/o history.
Little things made a difference. I did not want to go into the field of Latin American Studies because I had by this time taught U.S. History for over eight years and had acquired a Master of Arts in history. But Manuel Servín who was starting the USC Latin American Studies program convinced me that I was better off working under him than under some of the people in the history department. Manuel thought my politics would get me into trouble. Servín was the first Chicano professor that I had ever met and I felt comfortable with him.
Well, Manuel only had limited influence so I was not able to get full credit for my U.S. History courses. It forced me to take an additional 40 units.
In retrospect, it contributed greatly to my development as a historian. Reading Spanish and Brazilian literature gave me more depth. I had always been a fan of Charles Dickens who had given me a greater understanding the transformation that were taking place in the 19th century. The same was true of Spanish and Latin American literary works, ranging from Lazarillo de Tormes to Los de Abajo to the great José Martí.
Much as Dickens influenced me I was awed by Carolina Maria de Jesus’ Quarto de Despejo (Child of the Dark) (1960). It was about her life in a favela (slum) in São Paulo, Brazil. It impressed me much more than Oscar Lewis’ The Children of Sánchez which was also impressive work; the difference was the presence of the Brazilian author.
The point that I am trying to make is that history is ubiquitous; it is not learned in the library but it involves living. I do not minimize the influence of education. I learned a great deal from listening to Ramón Sender and Arturo Serrano Plaja – who were both involved in the Spanish Civil War, although they belonged to different anti-Franco factions and refused to speak to each other.
Life teaches you that the good are not always right and the bad are not all wrong. Institutions such as the Catholic Church also have opposite poles. By and large it has not been the champion of the poor; however, there are instances where its contribution to justice has been vital.
The process of distinguishing good and bad is learned from life experiences. I am reaching the point where I am planning my last hurrah. My theme song is la golondrina, which seems appropriate. History like life is generational (evolutionary).
This is not to say that theory should be disregarded or minimized. But, if you don’t take care, the meta language can seduce and obscure rather than add to your understanding. By far, living is the greatest history teacher. Like Auntie Mame said “Yes! Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!, so “Live! Live!” History is made by the living not the dead.
Every time I come out with a new edition of Occupied America, I feel guilty. The cost of books has gone through the roof. For the edition I wanted to say thank you so I am posting online a 194 page Student/Teacher Manual—or, as I call it, the “Mini-book”—is over 194 pages. It is designed to accompany Occupied America, it also meant to guide the student through Chicana/o history as well as periodically to refresh their knowledge of the field. The manual also makes Occupied America and the field of Chicana/o history more online friendly for teachers and students. It makes heavy use of the internet. If the hyperlink is down, please email me to Rudy.Acuna@csun.edu. It is available free of charge at http://forchicanachicanostudies.wikispaces.com/Acu%C3%B1a%2C+Occupied+America+Student+Teacher+Guide http://forchicanachicanostudies.wikispaces.com/ — —click on to the link “Occupied America Manual”. It is also available on the link for Center for the Study of the Peoples of the Americas (CESPA; http://www.csun.edu/cespa/Acuna%20Manual%20Binder.pdf. It is not much but perhaps it will facilitate more Chicana/o history courses.
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.