Five students, a professor and a parent began a hunger strike last week to pressure UCLA administrators to create a Chicano Studies Department. Others are beginning two-day fasts. Rallies called to support the new department have included Latino politicians, striking janitors, gang members and community activists.
All this underscores that community support for a Chicano Studies Department at UCLA is broad. It is misleading to portray the issue as simply academic and as one reputedly involving the petulant demands of new Latino elite. For Latinos in Los Angeles, the Chicano studies issue represents an opportunity to challenge the sincerity of the rhetoric about rebuilding and democratizing the city in the wake of last spring's unrest.
Latinos off campus share the frustration of Latino students at UCLA who were told by the chancellor that their culture and history do not merit departmental status. They can identify with the students' powerlessness to influence administration decision-making, because it mirrors their own position in a city where they make up 40% of the population but lack control over most of the resources they produce. Latinos in Los Angeles and at UCLA also understand what it means to be politically ignored. Despite the many problems confronting Latinos in Los Angeles, the only issue addressed in the mayoral race is whether undocumented people charged with crimes should be deported.
So it shouldn't be surprising that a group of people are willing to starve themselves to draw attention to their lack of control.
Nowhere is Latino powerlessness more apparent than on the Westside, where Latinos manicure the lawns of houses they can only dream of owning and where the city's largest public university educates the elite who will govern them.
Within UCLA--and academia in general--Latinos have had few weapons to ensure that the study of the Latino community is not left to the whims of individual professors who may be, at best, uninterested or, at worst, ignorant. It is fitting, then, that the challenge to ivory-tower norms is unfolding at UCLA. The chancellor's decision not to establish a Chicano Studies Department was another collective slap in the face of the Latino community, because it comes at a time when Latinos are increasingly recognizing that their history, contributions and large numbers do not translate into power and self-determination.
Latinos feel trapped by the contradictions of a city that readily accepts their cheap labor but not their academic endeavors. But as more and more of them become taxpayers, they will demand more control of the public institutions they help to fund. The UC system, long a symbol of access to quality education for middle-income white Californians, will be increasingly held accountable by taxpayers browner and poorer than those who previously supported it. In return, it only seems logical that they should expect the state's public universities to research and teach what is relevant to them, and in turn, to all Californians.