Case Underlines Chicano Studies’ Struggle : Schools: CSUN teacher’s court victory renews debate on field’s future.

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Cal State Northridge professor Rodolfo Acuna’s recent legal victory in an age discrimination suit against the University of California not only vindicated a prominent figure in Chicano studies but also underscored a provocative debate about the evolving field and its future course.

Technically, the federal lawsuit’s central question was whether Acuna, a well-known historian and political activist, was rejected by UC Santa Barbara because of his age, which was 59 when he sought a tenured faculty position in the UC system’s only full-fledged Chicano studies department.

But scholars and Latino leaders widely agree that the case was as much about Chicano studies as it was about ageism, with the field’s continuing struggle for academic recognition often overshadowing Acuna’s quest for a prestigious post.


The trial “brought up the issue of what constitutes Chicano studies and what do we want it to be,” said Mauricio Mazon, a Chicano history professor at USC.

It also raised complicated questions, including how to balance political activism with conventional scholarship; whether the University of California’s predominantly white administration has stymied the growth of a discipline seen as especially important to the region’s growing Latino community; and whether the academic debate over Acuna’s work became politically charged and blown out of proportion.

Making the case all the more sensitive has been Acuna himself, with an aggressive style that many admire but others find too combative.

Acuna took on the UC system with the same crusading fervor that marked his role as one of the founding professors of Chicano studies some 30 years ago.

His most important book--an overview of Mexican American relations and immigration called “Occupied America”--was the first of its kind to be written by a Chicano when it was published in 1972 and remains a widely used textbook.

So when UC officials cast doubt on the quality of Acuna’s research, Acuna fought back, attempting to show that the system’s disparaging observations about his work were really symbols of its contempt for his entire field of study.


“This was truly the monkey Scopes trial of Chicano studies,” Acuna’s chief lawyer, Moises Vazquez, said in reference to the landmark 1925 prosecution of a Tennessee public school teacher for introducing to his class Charles Darwin’s then-revolutionary theory of evolution.

Acuna’s case, filed in 1991 and decided in his favor Oct. 30, was born of dissent among the very UC Santa Barbara colleagues Acuna had hoped to mentor. It came to illuminate a broader debate among Chicano scholars around the country.

Half the voting faculty of UCSB’s tiny Chicano studies department did not support Acuna’s appointment when he applied in the fall of 1990. Their reasons ranged from simply not wanting another historian in the small department to being unimpressed with Acuna’s interviews and presentation.

“Of the five people in the department now, only one [remains who] voted for him,” said Denise Segura, a UC Santa Barbara sociologist and former member of its Chicano studies department. “If Prof. Acuna really cares about Chicano studies, does he care what they think?”

Segura abstained from the departmental vote on whether to hire Acuna, was a witness for UC during the trial, and said in an interview she has been harassed by Acuna supporters for her public dissent--a claim Acuna adamantly denies.

Posters calling her a “sellout” were hung near her office after she testified, Segura said, adding that she was warned by Acuna loyalists, and in turn by her own friends, not to discuss the case with news reporters.


“It’s like Chicano McCarthyism,” said Segura.

Legal motions arguing whether Acuna, now 63, should join the staff at UC Santa Barbara are under review by U.S. District Judge Audry B. Collins, who is expected to rule on the issue next month. Collins had dismissed Acuna’s earlier claims of racial, ethnic and political discrimination, leaving only the issue of age bias to be decided by a jury.

Both sides had agreed before the trial began in mid-October that Acuna would receive $326,800 in lost pay for the UC post if he won. UC officials said that agreement included a waiver of Acuna’s right to the actual job, and that to demand the job at this point is reneging on that agreement.

But Acuna, who interprets the pretrial agreement differently, says he is entitled to the job and looks forward to starting the nation’s first doctoral program in Chicano studies at UCSB.

His court victory, Acuna said, obligates him to press for the position. “If I took the money and ran, there would be an awful lot of people who would rightfully consider me to have sold out.”

The scenic Santa Barbara campus holds a special place within the small but growing field of Chicano studies because it is the only one of UC’s nine universities--and among a handful in the country--with a Chicano studies department, an outgrowth of student and community protests in the 1960s.

Most universities, including the University of California’s Berkeley, San Diego and Los Angeles campuses, have interdisciplinary Chicano studies programs that are combined with other ethnic studies. Continuing anger over the lack of full-fledged departments runs so deep among Chicano students that it has inspired hunger strikes at several UC campuses, including UCLA, during the last three years.


The relatively young field has perhaps a couple hundred scholars worldwide, scattered in a diaspora under history, psychology, sociology and literature. By refusing to create and fund distinct Chicano studies departments, advocates argue, the University of California is stunting the field’s growth and leaving the discipline particularly vulnerable to budget cuts.

But even with its department status, the Chicano studies program at UC Santa Barbara has remained small and weak, and most of its faculty members hold joint appointments in other departments.

When Acuna applied for the post, according to court testimony, the department had been considering a graduate program for several years. Since then, three of eight faculty members have left for other universities.

Acuna supporters had hoped a celebrity scholar like him--with his national reputation and administrative experience--could have given a lift to the fledgling Chicano studies department. They view his rejection as a measure of the university’s lack of commitment to Chicano studies and fear of a strong Chicano voice.

“The dynamic of the institution has been to keep the department powerless,” said Yolanda Broyles-Gonzales, one of UC Santa Barbara’s remaining Chicano studies professors and the department’s former chairwoman who pushed for Acuna’s appointment.

“A strong professor is not necessarily what the institution wants in a department that has been historically weak,” she said.


Although the case stirred controversy, it also cemented Acuna’s standing as a popular instructor who has inspired hundreds of students, Latino and non-Latino alike. Dozens filled the courtroom each day of the trial.

After growing up in Boyle Heights, serving as a GI and gaining more than a decade of teaching experience, Acuna was 36 years old when he became the first chairman of Cal State Northridge’s new Chicano studies department in 1969.

Testifying during his trial, he spoke with obvious pride of how he helped build the department into the largest of its kind in the nation, with 22 faculty members and 3,500 students taking courses each semester, including 100 majors. The bevy of honors listed on his 41-page resume includes the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Assn. for Chicano Studies, bestowed at its annual meeting in Los Angeles in 1989.

Acuna is a formidable political activist with community ties in the San Fernando Valley and East Los Angeles, as well as among area labor unions. He likes to tell the story of how he was jailed, along with singer Jackson Browne, after a protest of the 1989 murders in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests. Scholars should not be “confined to the libraries,” Acuna said, but have a moral mandate to “get out there and become model citizens for our kids.”

“At UC Santa Barbara,” he continued, “I want to send a message. I want to work with local labor and community groups, go to children at elementary schools and tell them, ‘ Si, se puede ,’ it can be done.”

But his evaluators at UC Santa Barbara concluded that his activism is more a weakness than a strength.

The campus’ Committee on Academic Personnel, or CAP, found him to be “an admirable fighter for what he perceives as right and justice for the Chicano community. . . . But we do not judge his fiery brand of advocacy appropriate for a professorship in the University of California.


“CAP has doubts as to whether his teaching is unbiased,” the report continued. “Indeed it has every reason from the record to suppose that it would be strongly politically proactive. As for his research, CAP finds it too meager for a full professorship.”

The reviewers also found that, “Acuna, at age 59, has never trained doctoral students,” and that “younger scholars would think him obsolete”--observations that became key pieces of evidence in his claim that age was a factor in his rejection.

One particularly galling statement in the reviewers’ report, Acuna supporters said, was that Acuna “lacks the kind of reflective, theoretically sophisticated mind that every department needs in its older members to serve as model.”

“This is especially true,” the report continued, “in a field as yet so inchoate and lacking in firm intellectual identity as Chicano studies.”

A white job applicant working in a more mainstream field would never have drawn such “outrageous” and patronizing comments, said Vazquez and others.

Still others say Acuna’s rejection reflected nothing more than the roiling debate over whether Chicano studies should be rooted in political activism or a cooler scholarship that eschews openly taking sides.


Since the publication of “Occupied America,” new generations of scholars have begun looking beyond the economic and social injustices suffered by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. Studies now focus on such topics as sexism and homophobia in the Chicano political movement, as well as Chicano gangs, crime and health.

“Acuna’s critical focus has been the labor exploitation of Mexican workers. Clearly, that experience has been a central part of Chicano experience, but we are more than just that,” said Tomas Almaguer, an associate professor of sociology and American culture at the University of Michigan.

Some even consider the term Chicano obsolete as more and more of the nation’s Latino emigres are no longer Mexican, but Central and South American, with different experiences crying out for scholarly scrutiny.

“The field of Chicano studies is passe,” said one Chicano scholar who asked not to be named. “The Chicanos are assimilated Mexican Americans and the field is out of touch with reality.”

Such debates are the lifeblood of academics. But in Acuna’s case, they became highly politicized.

“There’s a very real question in the academic community about the quality of his work, and it got turned into a political football,” said Raymund Parades, a UCLA vice chancellor and Chicano literature expert who clashed with Acuna during the 1993 Chicano hunger strike there.


“Some consider him a pioneer and others don’t,” Parades said.

Raised during the trial, those issues are bound to be explored again as Judge Collins decides whether Acuna should be appointed to the position he wants at UC Santa Barbara.

Whatever the outcome, on one point Acuna’s UC reviewers seemed prophetic: “To turn down this nomination,” they wrote, “. . . will have wide political repercussions in the Chicano community.”