Chicano Studies Matures at CSUN
Wearing dark glasses and rumpled jeans, professor Rudy Acuna strolls down the rows of his class at Cal State Northridge like a Mexican American Socrates, teasing his students, provoking them.
He knows how to rile them up and calm them down, how to pepper his lectures with colloquial Spanish to get chummy with them, then how to back off and force them to rethink everything they thought they knew.
All 26 students in his class are Latino, with maybe a few students of mixed race. The course is titled History of the Chicano but it has the feel of a United Farm Workers rally.
“Most Mexican American people felt ashamed of who they were,” Acuna said recently, referring to the time before the Chicano movement took off in the 1960s. “They used words like ‘Spanish American’ to describe themselves. And then, here comes Cesar Chavez, a little guy, 5-feet-6 and brown as all hell . . . .”
Considered the godfather of Chicano studies, the 65-year-old Acuna talks of social struggle to a generation seemingly more concerned with music videos than civil rights.
An overarching lesson woven into every class, every lecture and every dialogue in the Chicano Studies Department at CSUN is an emphasis on giving back to the Latino community. If the roster of department graduates is any indication, the efforts have paid off.
Founded in 1969 as one of the nation’s first university-level departments devoted exclusively to the study of Chicano history, literature and social sciences, the department has evolved into not only the largest ethnic studies department in the nation but an incubator for Latino political and community activism in Los Angeles and beyond.
“To my knowledge, Cal State Northridge is the largest Chicano studies department--the largest single department related to any single ethnic group anywhere in the country,” said Bob Wing, senior fellow at the Applied Research Center in Oakland, which examines race and social change.
Among those who took classes in the department are state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), former San Fernando Mayor Raul Godinez, current San Fernando City Councilman Richard Ramos, and Xavier Flores, head of both the local Mexican American Political Assn. (MAPA) and Pueblo y Salud, a social service organization in San Fernando.
Walk into almost any Latino-related nonprofit group in the San Fernando Valley and there are CSUN Chicano studies graduates on staff. One-quarter of all Latino elementary school teachers in the Valley are CSUN Chicano studies graduates, according to department estimates.
“It has produced and developed a number of students who have gone out and become leaders in their own right,” said Jose Calderon, an associate professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont.
The department has grown from just one professor--Acuna--to 19 full- and 25 part-time professors. Acuna estimates there are 150 to 200 Chicano studies majors and 4,000 students enrolled in classes each semester, though some students may be enrolled in more than one course at a time.
The Chicano Studies Department at CSUN has grown--along with the population and political power of Latinos in Southern California--at a time when Latinos have lost ground socially. State voters over the past five years have approved three propositions that have reduced Latinos’ access to government services.
Conservative political consultant Steve Frank, a former Valley activist who now works in Ventura County, denounces Chicano studies as “Jim Crowe-ism with an accent.”
“It is an effort not to mainstream Chicano students, to keep them segregated from the rest of society,” Frank said. “Acuna is using our university in the Valley as political headquarters for efforts that demean Latino students.”
There are about 15 Chicano studies departments in the nation. Most universities, such as UC Berkeley, have ethnic studies professors grouped into a single department. Other universities, such as UCLA or the University of Texas in Austin, have interdepartmental Chicano studies centers made up of professors tenured in other disciplines.
In 1993, students at UCLA staged a hunger strike to demand a Chicano studies department with its own faculty and curriculum. They lost that battle, leaving the university with the interdepartmental Cesar Chavez Center.
Just last week 30 students, including six hunger strikers, were arrested at UC Berkeley for protesting what they claim is a lack of funding for the ethnic studies department. The university has one professor of Chicano studies.
At CSUN, where there are many more Latinos, the department enjoys strong support.
But history professor Albert Camarillo, director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, says such departments have a responsibility to reach out to non-Latinos.
“You don’t want to just preach to the converted,” he said. “I think there needs to be a diversity of people who know about issues relating to Mexican-origin people.”
Pitzer’s Calderon says the whole point of Chicano studies programs is to raise awareness about an ethnic group that has long been overlooked.
“Historically we had been left out of universities, out of the curriculum and out of history books,” he said. “If you look at it from the outside it may look separatist, but now for the first time we’re having this viewpoint represented.”
Part of the draw to Northridge’s department is Acuna, perhaps the most famous Chicano studies professor in the nation.
“He had the whole crowd listening and motivated,” said student Hilda Ramirez, 22, remembering the first time she heard Acuna speak at a conference. “He talks about things that still need to be talked about, things you can’t just keep quiet about. That’s what motivates the students.”
The department has also been able to thrive because it has changed with the times, according to Wing of the Applied Research Center.
When feminist and lesbian studies came into vogue, the department hired faculty members who specialized in those subjects. In recent years, as the Central American population has soared in Los Angeles County, CSUN has hired a professor of Central American studies. One-fifth of Latino students enrolled in the Chicano Studies Department are not of Mexican origin.
Another attraction to the department, students said, is the faculty, which is well-steeped in community service.
Professor Eberto Ruiz heads a mariachi band and is considered the godfather of mariachi in the Valley, professor Juana Mora studies alcohol abuse among Latinos, professor Jose Hernandez is the mayor of San Fernando, and professor David Diaz, who teaches urban planning, worked for Los Angeles’ elected charter commission.
Professor Julian Nava, who during the Carter administration served as the first Mexican American ambassador to Mexico, says if professors are not politically active, they probably won’t stay with the department long.
“This is a criteria for hiring, promotion and retention,” he said.
Chicano studies majors have to take a course--Field Work in the Barrio--that requires them to work 80 to 100 hours for a school, health clinic or organization that benefits Latinos.
During their internship, students have to keep a journal and write a paper analyzing the organization’s effectiveness. Many students return to work for the agencies after they graduate.
Ramirez is doing her field work in Boyle Heights at the East Los Angeles Corp., a nonprofit group that does economic development and community organizing for largely Latino neighborhoods.
Ramirez, who considered herself a radical, said the experience has taught her to tone down the rhetoric and communicate with people in a way they understand.
Raquel Quezada, who graduated from CSUN in 1996 with a degree in Chicano studies, now works at Pueblo y Salud.
“Whatever issue was going on they would announce it, give us a history, tell us about the 1960s and how they struggled,” Quezada said. “They always talked about everything that was going on, like Proposition 187, Proposition 209, Proposition 227, and all the different things that affect Latinos.”
But Acuna says his goal is broader than fighting the latest proposition affecting Latinos and illegal immigrants.
“They [the students] have been victimized many times by society, but that doesn’t mean they should stop struggling,” he said. “I still want them to have idealism. I want them to wake up in the morning and see there are still windmills out there, to fight against inequality.”
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SOME FORMER STUDENTS OF THE CHICANO STUDIES DEPARTMENT AT CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE:
NAME: Richard Alarcon
YEAR GRADUATED: 1981
MAJOR: Chicano studies and political science
OCCUPATION: Democratic state senator representing the northeast Valley and part of the West Valley. He was the Valley’s first Latino councilman before running for state Senate.
QUOTE: “I remember I had a conversation with my father when I told him I was going to major in Chicano studies, and he said, ‘Why?’ I said I’m taking political science to enhance my career, and I’m taking Chicano studies for me. I learned about who I am. It gave me a sense of how I fit into the American puzzle . . . it inspired in me a sense of community responsibility.”
NAME: Laura Casas-Frier
YEAR GRADUATED: 1978
MAJOR: Political science, numerous classes in Chicano studies
OCCUPATION: Vice president of nonprofit Comision Femenil of the San Fernando Valley; chairman of Adelante Mujer Latina Conference, which hosts a career day for Latinas, and board member of Women Advancing the Valley through Education, Economics and Empowerment (WAVE).
QUOTE: “I credit [the Chicano Studies Department] with waking me up politically. Rudy Acuna pushed me, pushed me, pushed me, pushed me, and he does that with hundreds of kids. Walk into any political gathering, and when he walks in, it is like Cesar Chavez walked in. He says it how it is, but without the political niceties.”
NAME: Jose De Paz
YEAR GRADUATED: 1974
MAJOR: Chicano studies
OCCUPATION: Directs No Te Dejas, a nonprofit group that promotes education and organizing. He helped organize 150,000 people to march against Proposition 187 in 1994.
QUOTE: “Rudy trained us not just to get an education, but to lead, to provide social service, to organize wherever we find ourselves. For many of us who went there, organization became a way of life.”
NAME: Xavier Flores
YEAR GRADUATED: Six credits short of graduation
MAJOR: Social science with a Chicano studies emphasis
OCCUPATION: President of the local chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn. (MAPA) and executive director of Pueblo y Salud.
QUOTE: “For the longest time, although I was involved, I didn’t have a sense of who I was. My parents taught me Spanish. I grew up feeling good about myself, my Mexican heritage. But I did not know about the psychological impact of the Spanish conquest, and how that burdens all Mexicanos to this day, in very different ways. This is what really solidified, fomented my awareness of self. It helped me incredibly.”
NAME: Richard Ramos
YEAR GRADUATED: 1996.
MAJOR: Chicano studies.
OCCUPATION: San Fernando city councilman, teacher at Morningside Elementary School in San Fernando.
QUOTE: “It definitely influenced me. I always wanted to do something socially, and Chicano studies offered that. It’s mission statement says go back into the community you came from, and work not just with the youth, but the whole community.”
NAME: Raul Godinez
YEAR GRADUATED: 1987
OCCUPATION: Former mayor of San Fernando, civil engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.
QUOTE: “I think that [the Chicano Studies Department] had a big role in helping Latino students connect with their own history. It gave you a greater sense of who you are as a person, you were able to see the big picture.”
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