The Role of the Middle Class, Revisited

For the last couple of weeks, I have been revisiting pieces that I’d written in the past. They express concerns that formed my own consciousness and they are the bulk of the over 200 articles that will compose my new book: “My Journey Out of Purgatory.”

I had intended to rewrite the following selection, “The Making of the Political Pocho,” but never got around to it.

The term pocho is well known among Chicanos or Mexican Americans. It has been used for generations by Mexicans to describe Mexicans living in the United States.

Pocho can be a pejorative term that varies according to who is using it. It differs from a Mexican who has forgotten his culture, to one that speaks Spanish less fluently than a native Mexican.

Pocho literally means a fruit that has become rotten or discolored or has never ripened. I use the term in the latter sense.

Nationality has very little meaning for me. It is a construct and loyalty greatly depends on the ability of the state to bring about justice, which is iffy both here and in Mexico. Many of those using the term represent classes that brought about an uneven political and social landscape that forced the uprooting of millions of Mexicans.

Our grasp of a language depends on our vocabulary, which is learned; it is acquired through exposure to written culture. Vocabulary is enriched through reading and intellectual discourse.

The gist of the piece is that Chicanas/os and Latinos remain political pochos because once they are out of college most do not remain politically active. Their principle concern is how to make a living and support a family.

They are influenced by the vocabulary around them. They use words such as Hispanic that are gauche among current activists. Graduates of 70s are more moderate on social issues.

The piece itself was not only directed at the new Chicana/o middle-class but at the politicos who they spawned. It is a vicious circle: the masses of poor, the middle-class and the Latino politicos.

The piece criticizes Chicano politicians for not taking stands on the horrific police brutality taking place at the Ramparts Division. The atrocities involved were mostly against Salvadorans. I essentially accused the politicos of paying more attention to Mexican American voters, forgetting that it was the large numbers of Latinos, which included immigrants and non-voters that constructed their districts.

I faulted the Latino middle-class for not pressuring Latino politicos to defend the barrios. Was it a lack of political consciousness? A lack of a political vocabulary? What happened to the Sixties?

“The Making of the Political Pocho,” June 2000

A byproduct of affirmative action programs such as Educational Opportunities Program and the creation of Chicano studies in the 1960s was the dramatic expansion of a Chicano middle-class.

EOP grew the base of Mexican American students in colleges throughout the United States. California State University at Northridge had only about 100 Mexican American students in 1969. This number has jumped to about 9,000 Latino students by the 1990s.

Theoretically, the new Chicano Studies programs were supposed to politicize students and help bond them to the community. Indeed, thousands of Chicano students graduated from such programs in the past 30 years, dramatically widening the Chicano/Latino middle class in the Los Angeles area. While at the university, many of the graduates were student activists, participating in Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlan (MECHA).

We hoped at the time that exposure to Chicano Studies would politically educate professionals who would work in the community, offering leadership and help nurture a political culture. Unfortunately, it is not that simple, human nature does not work that way.

As in the case of students throughout the world, most former student activists settled back, formed families, and reaped the harvest of the entitlements of being middle-class. It cannot, however, be concluded that the Chicano/Latino middle-class does not care about educational and social issues affecting the barrio. It is just that they become less aware of injustices because they are often separated from the barrio spatially.

The opportunity for political discourse diminishes over time. Chicano professionals become increasingly dependent on what they read in the papers or hear on the news about politics. A lack of exposure to ideas outside the popular paradigm as well as social issues thwart their political development, and, consequently, they remain what I like to call “political pochos.”

I use the analogy of a pocho because when many of us entered the public schools we spoke fluent Spanish.  It was in fact often our only language.

Unable to learn advanced forms of Spanish in school, our development in the language stalled at a primary school level and never advanced enough to enable us to read Spanish-language literature. For most of us, English became our primary language. Only in high school were we allowed to take Spanish classes, where we parroted, “¿HOLA PACO, QUE TAL? ¿COMO ESTAS?”

Many former Chicano activists, due to a lack of political maintenance, have become political pochos. They learned the basics of Chicano studies, its language, but have not advanced beyond a grasp of basic cultural forms. They identify with Chicano culture but not the more complex political dimensions of culture.

Over time, they begin to think about the barrio as a justification for their entitlements. Notions such as the transformation of the barrio become foreign to their political vocabulary.

This lack of a political development was painfully evident during the Ramparts Police scandal in Los Angeles, which in many ways represented the most blatant violation of civil rights in the City of the Angel’s history. Yet, the silence of Chicano/Latino elected officials and our community’s middle-class leaders was deafening. It was as if we had no political leaders.

Perhaps it is not fair to draw comparisons, but we can recall the reactions of African American politicos and leaders during the Rodney King upheaval; of New York Puerto Rican elected officials over the situation on Vieques, including the arrests of Puerto Rican Members of Congress involved in acts of civil disobedience.

Is it too much to expect the same level of commitment from Chicano elected officials? After all they are the beneficiaries of the dramatic growth of not only a Mexican but Central American population.

Is it too much to expect some sense of outrage from the Chicano middle class? After all they are the recipient of the sacrifices and the common historical memories of the 1960s. It seems as if they do not understand the significance of civil rights or how it protects them.

Indeed, the protection of civil rights has been a centerpiece of the struggle of Jewish Americans, African Americans and Mexican American organizations, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum. Why then the silence? And, what is the political price?

To put it more succinctly, what is the duty of the Chicano middle class to the barrios in matters concerning civil rights? Have we grown too complacent? Have we come to believe that equality and justice can be gotten solely through the election of Mexican American elected officials?

Or, even more cynically: Is our contribution to the barrio measured by our individual success? Don’t we have a duty to others once we make it?

The lack of response by the Chicano middle-class has consequences. It delivers the message to the public at large and to all elected officials that we simply don’t care.

Much the same criticism can be leveled at the Latina/o middle-class today. Even the graduates that made sacrifices to get Latinos into the universities and to form Chicana/o Studies are not reaching back to assist the present generation of Mexican American and Latino students.

For as rough as previous generations had it, our education was relatively inexpensive. I fear that some of us are becoming like the baby boomers that want their senior citizen discounts but fail to give back. Getting money for scholarships is like extracting teeth.

Police brutality has graduated to higher levels. I expected more former Chicanas/os to be outraged by the shameful violations of civil rights in Arizona. Calling a spade a spade, Joe Arpaio, Russell Pearce and Tom Horne are Nazis by another name. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, the Koch brothers and their gaggle of friends are subversives. They have an agenda to subvert the U.S. Constitution – it is called nullification.

Nullification is a constitutional theory that gives a state the right to declare null and void any law passed by the United States Congress – it led to the Civil War.

Today the rights of Mexican Americans and immigrants are being blatantly violated by state and local officials in Arizona. Where are the voices of middle-class Latinos? Where is the fight back?

Just last week they fired Sean Arce, the coordinator of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies Program. They did not renew the contracts of the majority of the teachers in the program. To make things worse Attorney General Horne is raising money from private donors to fund a civil suit against Arce and Jose Gonzalez. Horne has got a former white MAS employee to sue them and charge defamation.

Imagine what would happen to whistleblowers in California, if the state raised private funds to bring lawsuits against whistleblowers.  The purpose of suing the whistleblower is to harass and intimidate.

Imagine the chilling effect that it would have on a person who complained about sexual harassment if the employer could then raise funds to file a civil lawsuit for the express of bankrupting the whistleblower.

When I first entered into teaching, the principal told us at our opening faculty meeting, “If a Jewish or white parent complains, do something right away. If a “negro” parent complains, you can take your time. If a Mexican parent complains, don’t worry.”

Well, we should be worried.

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.