ANALYSIS : UCLA Strikers Kept Alive Cesar Chavez's Flame


Galvanized by a dramatic 14-day hunger strike, an unusual campus-community alliance succeeded last month in strengthening Chicano studies at UCLA. But beyond the importance of the Chicano studies center that will be established, participants said, the struggle won the respect for Chicanos that had become a life-and-death goal for the hunger strikers.

The student and faculty hunger strikers said they had found inspiration in the example of Cesar Chavez, the farm worker leader who had recently died. In addition, the strikers gave credit to the support they had received from a wide spectrum of the Latino community--from family members, students, labor leaders, elected officials and the public.

"As our bodies got weaker, thousands of people walked for us . . . thousands of voices spoke for us . . . thousands of arms held us up," said assistant professor Jorge Mancillas, one of the hunger strikers.

Marcos Aguilar, a student striker, agreed: "Students alone have limitations to their power. . . . . But when students work with community people, the university can't reckon with the power that is released."

Aguilar, 23, said the campus dispute had turned into "an issue of respect (for Chicanos) and today we have that respect."

Under the settlement, the Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies will have a core faculty and other powers of a traditional academic department.

UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young insisted that he had not caved in to the students' demands. He contended that the settlement gave little more than the administration would have been willing to provide without the fast.

Originated in 1960s

The concept of Chicano studies was developed during the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. Cal State Northridge opened the first Chicano studies department in 1969. Although the focus of Chicano studies curricula is on Mexican-Americans, other Latino groups are also covered.

At UCLA, Chicano studies has been one of several ethnic studies programs that draw on faculty from traditional departments to teach courses. Young had said that this arrangement provided a rich mix of expert instructors.

Activists, however, argued that this structure gave Chicano studies second-class status because the program had no permanent faculty and its budget was limited.

"Courses in Chicano studies must be organized, staffed and taught by a specific department," Mancillas said during the hunger strike. "Existing departments have shown very little interest in the subject. Those who volunteer to teach in the (existing Chicano studies) program find their efforts perceived as a sort of volunteerism or community service, not as part of their academic responsibilities. Their home departments see it as a time away from their 'real responsibilities.' "

Such an arrangement, the activists argued, was not acceptable for the largest public university in the nation's largest Mexican-American population center.

An open letter to Young, signed by dozens of prominent Latinos, stated the case for Chicano studies: "We believe that the study of the history, language, culture and demographics of Southern California's Latino population, the largest single ethnic group in this state, is not just for Latinos. It is an essential element in preparing emerging professionals who will eventually teach, practice law, medicine, do business with, or otherwise engage in professions interfacing" with Latinos.

The latest chapter in the campus controversy began April 28, when Young announced his refusal to establish a Chicano studies department. Young opted to keep Chicano studies as an interdisciplinary program. His decision, after three years of university studies and protests, came on the eve of Chavez's funeral. This timing was taken as lack of respect for a Chicano hero by many students and community activists.

Escalation of Dispute

From there, the dispute escalated:

* State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) threatened to have state funds earmarked for UCLA withheld. Later, the state Assembly passed a resolution urging UCLA to set up a Chicano studies department.

* Authorities arrested more than 90 protesters May 11, after a forced entry at the Faculty Center, where windows were broken and computers and artwork were damaged. The incident occurred after a peaceful demonstration in support of a Chicano studies department by Conscious Students of Color.

* The hunger strike began May 25, with the nine strikers vowing not to eat solid food until formation of a Chicano studies department was authorized. Striker Cindy Montanez said: "We tried a lot of demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins. We were pushed to do the hunger strike. Chancellor Young told us to forget it, that he had made up his mind."

* On June 3, a rally that drew about 800 heard Chavez's son, Fernando, laud the hunger strikers. He recalled that when he was at UCLA Law School 20 years before, there had been repeated calls for a Chicano studies department. Other speakers, including Torres, City Councilman Mike Hernandez and actor Edward James Olmos, all called for a Chicano studies department. County Supervisor Gloria Molina and other Latino leaders met with Young in private sessions.

* The negotiations intensified June 4. In one of the most unusual negotiating sessions in campus history, a team of UCLA deans and vice chancellors discussed the issue with all nine hunger strikers, other Chicano student leaders and Chicano faculty members. Also in the Murphy Hall conference room were Torres and fellow state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), and key members of the United Community and Labor Alliance, including Vivien Bonzo, Gilbert Cedillo and Juan Jose Gutierrez.

* Meetings and negotiating sessions continued until nearly midnight on June 5 and 6. Scott Waugh, UCLA's dean of social sciences, praised Prof. Leo Estrada for keeping the talks on track. Estrada, a UCLA demography expert, "was incredible" during the negotiations, Waugh said. On June 6, hundreds of community supporters marched 21 miles from Olvera Street to UCLA.

* The parties announced the settlement June 7, with Young and the hunger strikers holding separate news conferences. Young announced that four faculty members will be hired next year to teach at the new Chicano center, one of whom might be the center's director. Two additional faculty slots were approved for the following year. In addition, provisions were made for a community scholar and temporary instructors.

In response to another demand of the hunger strikers, Young pledged not to cut the funding for ethnic and women's studies for the next two years. UCLA also asked the city attorney not to prosecute 84 students who might have faced trespassing charges from the May 11 demonstration. Efforts were under way that would avoid prosecution for seven other protesters who faced more serious charges of vandalism by having them pay at least $30,000 in restitution.

Spiritual Strength

Recalling the 14 days of the fast, during which he lost 15 pounds, Aguilar said: "I went through pain, but the physical part was not important. Spiritual strength kept us going." Days later, Aguilar said that neither he nor any of the other strikers had suffered any lasting ill effects from the fast.

The hunger strikers said their efforts were aimed, in large part, for the next generation of Latinos, those who will attend UCLA and those who will go through the public school system.

At the celebratory news conference, Mancillas praised the Chicano students, saying they had orchestrated the entire campaign. Then he invoked the battle cry of Chavez's United Farm Workers union: "Si Se Puede! (It can be done!)."

"We did this to keep alive the flame that was ignited by Cesar Chavez," Mancillas said, "to continue his work for dignity and justice."

9 Who Participated in Hunger Strike * Marcos Aguilar, a senior who uses the Nahuatl name Huitzilixtlitiu. * Cindy Montanez, a 19-year-old freshman from San Fernando. * Norma Montanez, Cindy Montanez's 16-year-old sister, who attends San Fernando High School. She uses the name Ixtlapapayotl. * Balvina Collazo, a sophomore from Watsonville who uses the name Chitlichicoshayotl. * Maria M. Lara, a UCLA student from South-Central Los Angeles. * Joaquin Manuel Ochoa, a junior from Watsonville. * Jorge Mancillas, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine. * Arturo (Paztel) Mireles, who heads Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc in Los Angeles. * Juan Arturo Diaz Lopez, leader of Danza Azteca in Los Angeles. Faculty negotiators included Leo Estrada, Cynthia Telles, Juan Gomez-Quinones, Steve Loza and Gina Valdez.

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