Chicano/a Studies: 50 years in the making

LOS ANGELES — Fear-mongering, racist, inflammatory messaging is something the Latino community has heard many times before. This political year there is something different. There is a direct attack by the president and his entire administration upon the Latino community. The upcoming 2020 elections are one of the most important elections in our lifetime. This is not by any means an overstatement. A vote to reject the current president and his allies is a vote to save our community and our important Latino institutions. One such institution is the departments of Chicano/a Studies.

Mexican-American Studies

Out of the turbulent past of the late 1960s and early 70s, Chicano/a Studies Departments became informally institutionalized on California colleges and university campuses. The Department of Chicano/a Studies developed out of mass demonstrations and protests. It secured its place in history by the Chicano/student walkouts, and the organizing by community activists. Chicano/a Studies was a radical call for institutional educational change. It was not a call for simple reform.

In the streets, workplaces, and in their homes, students and the community demanded representation in college and universities, relevant curriculum, and minority hiring of faculty. One of the first Mexican American Studies departments was established in 1968 on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. Mexican American Studies would later become Chicano/a Studies, and other Chicano/a Studies departments followed elsewhere.

Chicano/a students, for the first time in their lives, could take courses that reflected their history and identity. In the early years, a few high schools offered Chicano/a history classes, and some college campuses would offer BA degrees in Mexican American Studies. This was a huge advancement for the Chicano/a community. At the same time, African-American students constructed their own departments, and other ethnic studies or concentrations would soon be established in many colleges and universities. However, Chicano/a Studies as an academic department has never been fully understood nor appreciated in its 50-year history.

Throughout its first five decades, Chicano/a Studies has constantly been under attack. Some of the same arguments used today in an effort to eliminate Chicano/a Studies are the same arguments used back in the early years to attack this academic department.

The great fear is that the intent of Chicano/a Studies is to politicize students and make them resent white people. Another argument is that Chicano/a Studies offers “non-academic” topics, such as Chicano and Chicana history and topics in Chicano literature and culture. Others have claimed that sufficient intellectual resources are non-existent. The simplistic argument put forth by college and university administrations is that Chicano/a Studies simply isn’t needed. Of course, there is always the age-old fallback position that administrations use in denying further development of Chicano/a Studies: There simply is no funding. Needless to say, it has been a struggle and a test of wills for Chicano/a Studies to survive.

Fulfilling the missionary growth of Chicano/a Studies

I had the opportunity to discuss Chicano/a Studies with a Los Angeles elected official who has taught Chicano/a Studies at California State University, Northridge. He has a BA in Mexican American Studies, a Ph.D. in political science, and a law degree. He spoke on the record but felt it better not to use his name because of his elected position. He spoke on the need for the “missionary growth” of Chicano/a Studies. The following paragraphs express his thoughts.

The need for growth in Chicano/a Studies is a necessary step in the development of all aspects of our movement. Without Chicano/Studies we are dead politically. It will be a slow death because Chicano activism will come to a halt. It is imperative at this point in time to spread the word about expanding Chicano/a Studies.

Chicano/a Studies provides a different way of viewing our participation in society. It is the study of our people. Mexican American Studies, or Chicano/a Studies, creates another way of opening up discussions on the long-term implications of Mexican American/U.S. relationships. It was an early institution established to help develop political thought, analysis, and thinking. It has been one of the few institutions with a purpose and long history to help develop the Chicano/a community.

The relevancy of Chicano/a Studies comes from the fact that many successful professors, teachers, lawyers. doctors, elected officials, community activists, Ph.D. candidates, research centers, and other institutions are profoundly influenced by and directly related to its legitimacy as an academic field worthy of study.

Chicano/a Studies faculty and administration, unfortunately, have not, for various reasons, pushed for growth in the discipline. They have not fully advocated for its growth. What do I mean by this? One example is curriculum development. Curriculum development is a public trust granted to higher education. To not understand Chicano/a Studies is not to understand if Mexican Americans matter in the Southwest and throughout America. Without the further development of Chicano/a Studies, the energy is dead in analyzing the arts, politics, history, literature, and religion. A large expansion of Chicano/a Studies is necessary as protection for the community. It is what I call a “National Security Agency” for the community.

There have been small steps. One positive expansion is California’s new graduation requirement. The Los Angeles Unified School District just recently passed a resolution expanding ethnic studies in the classroom and requiring all high school students to take at least one ethnic study course for graduation requirements. This is a starting point, not an ending. It is an example of what I call the need for the missionary growth of Chicano/a Studies.

In this era of academic freedom, the continuing process of struggle for Chicano/a Studies has in many cases established respected academic programs throughout the country. Some of these programs offer BA degrees, Masters Degree, and Ph.D. degrees. In many institutions, a minor in Chicano/a Studies is an accepted course study for those majoring in other fields. Professors in Chicano/a Studies are required to have the same level of academic degrees. There still are shortcomings, but respect alone does not translate into expanding Chicano/a Studies.

I can honestly say that the growth potential is real, and spreading the word must continue. Chicano/a Studies was and is a necessary step in the evolution of the community. This is why in the early years of Chicano/a Studies there was a constant mission to proselytize. The development of Chicano/a Studies was the best place to start our own long-term advocacy.

Self-motivation, perseverance, resiliency, and social justice

Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, said of Chicano/a Studies, “It opens up their minds to see their history, see themselves, see their culture.”

Dolores Huerta at the Montclair Film Festival 2017 / Montclair Film (Creative Commons)

In 1969 I was a young high school student living in Fresno, a farming community in the Central Valley of California. My mother, a single parent, raised three boys and two girls. I was the first in my family to attend a four-year institution. In 1970 I was accepted as a student at California State University, Los Angeles. My major was Mexican American Studies.

For the first time in my young adult life, I was exposed to the true U.S.-Mexican history, cultural studies, Latin American studies, literature from well known Mexican-American and other Latin American writers and philosophers. For the first time ever, I heard and learned about the great Mesoamerican civilizations of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs, as well as the Incas and other indigenous societies.

I begin to understand the true nature of the Mexican-American people in the United States. There was so much new history, culture, and political discourse to digest. This was information I never received in all my years of elementary, junior high, and high school. The new information flooded into my consciousness. It was a glorious opening up of the mind.

According to Rodolfo F. Acuña, author of the classic Chicano/a history book, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, in a Latina Lista interview, “The purpose of Chicano Studies was to liberate students through literacy.”

This was so true. As a Chicano/a Studies student, I was introduced to literature with different world views—authors such as Paulo Freire, Antonio Gramsci, Gabriel García Márquez, Frantz Fanon, and others. I was exposed to Latina writers and Marxist literature, material that opened up my consciousness to a new awakening of working-class perspectives and analysis.

I received my BA in Mexican American Studies from CSULA. I became a longtime union organizer and union representative. Later I was accepted into the Harvard Trade Union Program (HTUP) and went on to receive my Master’s degree from UMass-Amherst. I, like so many other Chicano/a Studies participants, have been successful because of Chicano/a Studies, not in spite of it.

Another successful example is Teresa Reyes, a graduate of CSULA Chicano/a Studies. She went on to get her teaching credentials. She became a bilingual and special education teacher. Teresa has taught over 30 years within the LAUSD. Like so many of her peers, she grew up in a working-class neighborhood and found that courses in Chicano/a Studies transformed her understanding of politics, culture, and activism. It was Chicano/a Studies that inspired many students to take up the teaching profession. Following are her recollections:

In 1972, while I was a student at Sacred Heart High School in Lincoln Heights, an extracurricular class was offered: Ethnic Studies. Sister Rose introduced us to the history of Chicanos, African Americans, and Japanese Americans in the United States. She planted the seed for me to seek out my self-identity and to continue to learn more about Mexican and Chicano history in the United States. Upon enrolling at CSULA, I decided to major in Chicano/a Studies with an option for a bilingual multiple subject credential.

The Chicano/a Studies classes assisted in my formulation of self-identity, establishing my progressive social and political philosophies, and knowledge of my Mexican cultural history. In addition to academic classes, Mexican Folklórico dance classes were offered, and I eventually became a member of the CSULA Folklórico group.

In my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to attend a Chicano Studies Summer Program in Mexico City. The program gave me the chance to relearn my primary language, Spanish, which was stripped from me as a child, due to the ignorance of the parochial school system. Most importantly, I came to realize in Mexico that I was not accepted as being truly Mexican and that in the United States I was not accepted as being American. Upon my return from Mexico and over time, I was bicultural, bilingual, and Chicana.

At CSULA in the 70s, there was an overlapping of three programs, EOP (Educational Opportunity Program), EPIC (Educational Participation in the Communities), and Chicano/a Studies, which provided me with additional education outside the classroom. This is not to say there were not political and social struggles within the programs. However, through these struggles, we learned self-motivation, perseverance, resiliency, and social justice.

Upon graduation with a BA in Chicano/a Studies and a multiple subject teaching credential with an emphasis in Spanish, I taught bilingual education with LAUSD. Within the school curriculum, I was able to incorporate my knowledge of pre-Columbian history to teach elementary school-age students. In addition, I was able to teach my students Mexican Folklórico dance and share my knowledge of it with my colleagues as well.

The Chicano/a Studies Program provided me with a political, social, and cultural education which I continue to impart to my own children, extended family members, and now my grandchildren.

But unfortunately today, Chicano/a Studies is under attack. As young college students, we participated in many marches, demonstrations, and campus protests to keep Chicano/a Studies alive. Fifty years later, we are still participating in the fight to keep Chicano/a Studies alive.

Are Chicano/a Studies Departments relevant?

I had a discussion with Dr. Frank García Berumen, historian/author of the Native American and Mexican-American experience, affiliated with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He provided a detailed perspective on 50 years of Chicano/a Studies:

  • First of all, Chicano/a Studies was and are important because it gave Mexican-American people (who are predominantly Indigenous and/or mestizo) the formal recognition that we were not immigrants or foreigners. It was also a recognition that we were in Aztlán (“a place in the north” in Nahuatl) in our native land. In 1492, when Europeans invaded the Americas, Mexico had some 80% (80 million) of the estimated 100 million Indigenous people of the continent. Mexico today still has the largest number of Indigenous and/or mestizo people in the Americas.
  • Second, Chicano/a Studies departments were to become the repositories of the Mexican communities—their history, culture, and place to develop new leaders. When Chicano/a Studies was founded, the large and significant Central American presence was decades into the future—in the 1970s and 80s, when revolutions, war, weather, economics, and violence compelled many people to move to the United States.
  • Third, the scholars and writers developed by Chicano/a Studies departments would now be able to write our own history. We no longer had to depend on John Steinbeck (who called us “wine-soaked paisanos”), white liberals, or Hollywood movies.
  • Fourth, over the course of fifty years, Chicano/a Studies has evolved, in order to incorporate Central Americans and other Latin American communities, feminist perspectives, as well as LGBTQ issues.
  • Fifth, over the last half-century, new terms emerged, like “Hispanic” (created by the U. S. Census) and “Latino” (which invented the mosaic of the former Spanish colonies). However, these terms completely diluted the Indigenous origins of Mexican and Central American people. More recently, the term “Latinx” has been developed by a new generation.

Finally, evolution has been at times a conflictive development. Chicano/a Studies has become a battleground of ideology, history, and self-identity between different generations. In the process, some departments have also been co-opted by some colleges and universities into implementing policies contrary to the spirit of non-discrimination. In Southern California, for example, several Chicano/a Studies departments have practiced a persistent pattern of age discrimination in hiring practices, contrary to state and federal laws. Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.

In conclusion, Chicano/a Studies have come a long way. Its history is bittersweet. It has survived a multitude of body blows by its critics and opponents. It may not be what it used to be, but it is still here. There is still hope.

Ismael Parra, a Chicano/a community activist and Chicano/a Studies participant, summarized the journey of 50 years of Chicano/a Studies this way: “Chicano/a Studies was a victory at the academic intellectual level which provided an opportunity for us to study ourselves and write about ourselves as part of the U.S. experience, and it provided an alternative to the racist white Anglo culture which at the academic level was often demeaning of all non-white culture.”

The story of Chicano/a Studies is not over. It is a people’s story to be reckoned with. It is a story of fighting against oppression, finding recognition, accepting a new reality of truth, and structuring an institution to provide guidance for future generations.


David Trujillo
David Trujillo

David Trujillo is a member of the National Writers Union, a playwright, writer, and community activist. David Trujillo es miembro de la Unión Nacional de Escritores, dramaturgo, escritor y activista comunitario.