In this installment of the Saving Ethnic Studies series, scholar and activist Rodolfo F. Acuña talks about the denialism surrounding America’s Latino heritage and indigenous roots. Some food for thought as we watch school authorities in Tucson try to further erase this history from the margins of the educational establishment.
It has always been difficult to convince Anglo-Americans that they should know more about Latinos. It did not seem to matter to Anglos that their ignorance spawned stereotypes that damaged Mexican American children.
Even after World War II and the Korean Wars when Mexican American proportionately received more Medal of Honors than any other group, just convincing Anglos that Mexican Americans were entitled to veterans benefits was difficult. This rejection forced Mexican Americans to form the American GI Forum and other organizations to demand equal rights.
I remember that as late as the 1970s when Mexican Americans students began to enter graduate schools, counselors would refer them to the foreign student office.
Mexican Americans had to sue and convince judges that they were an identifiable minority who had been historical discriminated against and consequently entitled to equal protection. This right was not clarified until Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (1970).
It was a frustrating experience for those struggling for fairness and equality. We tried to explain the consequences of benign neglect of a group. Mexican Americans were disadvantaged because of poverty, unequal schools, racism, and a society that did not care – not because of their genes.
The problem was exacerbated during the War on Poverty in the 1960s when many some whites tried to play blacks against browns, trying to frame the Civil Rights Movement in Black-White terms. When this did not work, they brought up arguments such as “If we give it to Mexicans, how about Asians and Native Americans?”
The majority society could not overcome its tunnel vision. They could not get it that it was not solely a matter of color. It was about human rights; it was justice rather than “just us.”
Liberals could not understand that the best way to insure fairness and correct problems was to know about people. Not all Mexicans played a guitar and not all blacks tap danced. Not all Mexicans craved jalapeños and not all blacks liked watermelon.
Mexican American (AKA Chicano Studies) came about because of the failure of the educational establishment to deal with systemic problems such as high school drop outs. Chicana/o Studies proposed improving the education of Mexican Americans (who by 1970 were 22 percent of the LA Schools) by increasing knowledge about them.
It was not just about Mexican Americans knowing about themselves but about others knowing about them. Very really in 1969 many white people could drive to and from work without seeing a Mexican American. The only white people Mexicans saw in the barrios were teachers, cops and some merchants.
In the San Fernando Valley, neighborhoods were neatly separated. It was the land of the Valley girl and San Fernando/Pacoima was like foreign colony – a gated community within a gated community.
When the upheaval began at San Fernando Valley State in 1968, Mexican Americans were fortunate that there were enough faculty members on campus who knew what a black American was and knew enough history to realize that blacks were oppressed.
At SFVSC and on other campuses there was not overwhelming support for outreach to Mexican American high school students. This lack of support should not be confused with the black-white syndrome –seeing every issue in terms of black and white. It was more a matter of Mexicans being invisible – an issue that I addressed more fully in my book Anything But Mexican (Verso 1996).
When I arrived at Valley State in the spring of 1969 to set up a Mexican American Studies Department there was resistance. Some faculty members could understand that African Americans had a corpus of knowledge and a history of oppression. However, they did not have the same awareness about Mexicans in the United States. I would venture to say that most did not even have a Cliff Note level background on the Mexican American War, remembering only the movie versions of the Alamo.
I soon found that you could not equate their ignorance to ideology. Many were good liberals –against the Vietnam War and in support of civil rights for blacks. These people were color blind to the extreme. They failed to see a lack of equality in having an institution with 18,000 students with only fifty students Mexican Americas. They had a harder time with demands for a Mexican American Studies program.
While blacks were begrudgingly acknowledged as Americans, it was up to Mexicans to earn this right. It was not a matter of citizenship. At the time, most Mexican Americans were born in this country, and many of their fathers were veterans.
The ignorance was systemic. For example, when I was doing my teacher training at Los Angeles State College very few of my education professors were from the southwest; fewer had taught in Mexican American schools; but they were there to teach us how to teach Mexican students.
When I expressed my desire to go into higher education, I was advised to go to the East Coast because California universities were reluctant to hire PhDs from local universities. They wanted to avoid intellectual incest which is when where too many people in a group all think alike. They rationalized that intellectual incest would “exclude legitimate diverse viewpoints.”
Outside of academe, this principle has fallen apart with the growing popularity of fads such as home-schooling where it is taken to a ridiculous end.
Cal State Northridge has the largest Chicana/o Studies Department in the nation, offering 166 sections per semester, which is larger than some small colleges. Over 11,000 students are Latino; however, over 75 percent of the academic departments do not have a single person of Mexican descent. Why?
It is not because of color blindness but an adherence to it. Most conservative and liberal professors want to select people that look like them. They tend to repeat the ideas of their professors.
While I believe that the notion of intellectual incest in the first instance was wrong, it goes on all the time in life.
Take the Supreme Court. Most justices in this and the past century have come from three law schools, Harvard, Yale and Columbia. This term is no exception. Most of these justices are from upper middle-class families and worked for large firms representing corporate interests. Their friends are from the corporate world and some even receive honorariums to speak before the one percent. Is it being divisive to point this out as an example of intellectual incest?
Bill Clinton nominated my friend and former student Samuel Paz to the U.S. District Court. Sam did even make it out of committee. Many Republican and Democratic senators said he could not be fair and objective. Sam had been president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties chapter and he did not practice the right kind of law, representing the poor against police brutality. Sam also did not go to the right law school – the University of Southern California.
Can we accept the logic that Clarence Thomas and his gaggle can be fair?
This brings me back to Tucson, which as you all know has been on my mind. Right now the issues are being played out in the courts where the state courts punctuated by intellectual light weights are beholding to politicians beholding to the same special interests as those influencing the Supreme Court.
Red flags went up when United States District Judge, David C. Bury, held “This Court finds that discontinuance of the MASD courses during the remainder of the USP’s life expectancy will not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by intentionally segregating or discriminating against student’s based on race or ethnic group.” The issue with many of us was the enforcement of the law, which Arizona has avoided with impunity since Brown v. The Board of Education.
Bury acted on the recommendation of Special Master Willis Hawley who on paper has a good record in supporting progressive education. But most of his experience is with African Americans in Maryland and he has had little exposure to Latinos and even less with Arizona politics. The decision alarmed many of us since we have seen the decimation of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program and the retaliation against teachers through retaliatory, disparate, and discriminatory practices.
At this very moment the Tucson Unified School District is refusing to renew the contract of Sean Arce, the coordinator of its highly successful Mexican American Studies program – his crime, he defended the community.
Thus far, Hawley has chosen to consult with TUSD leadership rather than Mexican American educators who know the needs of the Mexican American students. At this point, it does not appear that Hawley or Judge Bury are considering fifty years of non-compliance as well as the manipulation of the appointment of school board members. Intellectual incest has a way of distorting reality.
It is a scary process not only for Mexican Americans but society in general. I don’t want to be a pessimist but consider, “Would you want to be judged or taught by someone home schooled by Rick Santorum?”