Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rodolfo Acuna on the history of Chicano studies



The University of Denver has serious programs to recruit Chicanas and Chicanos but is less developed in Chicano studies (located in the Southwest, this could be a natural and important focus of the University). That creating such programs has always been a struggle was made clear recently in a talk about the early 1970s at Cal State Northridge by Rodolfo Acuna. Suppressed or forgotten histories, ones submerged in amnesias (about ethnic cleansing toward Native Americans or the central role of black Patriots in the Revolutionary War and afterwards) or seeking to be returned to "amnesia" as in the vicious attack on Chicano studies in high schools in Tucson, always have difficulty making themselves heard, as Rodolfo underlines.

***

"Speech:
Going to the Edge
And
Over the Cliff

By
Rodolfo F. Acuña

Prepared for April 14, 2014

I guess I am the ghost of Chicana/o studies past of this panel, so I will take the liberty of a a ghost and not recount forty-five years of war stories; instead I will concentrate on how and why Chicana/o Studies at CSUN [Cal State University Northridge] has survived. The answer revolves around students, who are the heart of the department. One must always remember that the academy rejects new innovations and races much the same as our bodies reject heart or other transplants. Without the students’ radical presence the transplant would have never survived.

Our story begins with first wave of students who deserve most of the credit, beginning with the takeover of the administration building by the Black Student Union [November 4, 1968] through the entrance of our first class of about 275 Latino students in the fall of 1969. Without them the transplant would have failed.

The late sixties were different times. Mexican Americans were a small regional minority who were not known by academicians who had a difficult time distinguishing between a taco and a burrito. Most colleges and universities were intent on building Harvards of the West – which meant avoiding intellectual incest and hiring faculty members from other regions -- preferably from Ivy League schools. The problem was that these professors although they knew about the African-American movement knew very little about Mexicans who many considered foreigners. In contrast to today, the Mexican American numbers were not visible. This lack of historical context was a barrier that we had to overcome because outside a handful of white faculty there was little internal support for lo mexicano.

The presence of a strong militant black population was invaluable to passing most of our curricular proposals, and pushing for the effective outreach of Mexican American students. I relied on this momentum to increase during the fall 69. However, the BSU had suffered as a result of November 4 [see here] - and most of its militant leadership was standing trial for kidnaping and related charges [the San Fernando Valley 19]. I learned from Bill Burwell that black students would not be taking part in campus politics, and unlike Archie Chapman and the more militant BSU sector, would deal independently with the administration. Although I did not agree with this decision, it was as don Corleone would say a smart move.

However, without student militancy Chicano Studies was dead in the water. The momentum was not there; in the fall of 1969 we numbered less than 275 students most of whom were first time college students. Fortunately some leadership entered from the community colleges. So I decided that we had to roll the dice and hope our numbers came up. In brief consultation with some faculty and students it was decided that MEChA would fill the void left by the BSU. We would act in concert with the SDS but promote our issues and make our decisions in the context of our priorities. We would not negotiate with the administration, and we would break impasses by packing their meetings. The department almost always had students and community leaders on negotiating teams. Often the irrational was our greatest ally.

That fall there were several conflicts with the student senate and the dean of students. It paid off because the administration feared another November 4. Each victory added to our presence. This and outside militancy further established our credentials among the left sector of the faculty. We also built alliances with the American Federation of Teachers who needed our votes in committees. The administration was put on notice that we would go to the edge of the cliff, and if need be go over the cliff. My own feeling was that we had nothing to lose – remaining insignificant and weak was no way to live. I was 35 and could always sell used cars.

In the meantime, I discouraged any type of relationship with administrators. You can’t eat with them and then shit on their plate. The one time this was breached was when I suddenly and unexpectedly left for Mexico for five months. The vice-president took advantage of the inexperience of the chair and had him sign away our rights to establish an education program. When I came back I found the department in disarray and in conjunction with Jorge Garcia and Gerald Reséndez, we put it back on track.

The students had acquired a militant reputation, and after the burning of the Chicana/o House were at the front of the protest line. They were united but many had become disheartened by our loss of momentum in the spring of 1971. There were also too many drugs, which was facilitated by the structure of the dorms. MEChA, however, soon regained its edge. Meanwhile, the leadership had noticeably shifted to the Chicanas. The retention was higher among women than for males, most coming better prepared for college. They were a stabilizing force; they began programs like the day care center that helped socialize incoming Chicanas.

There are so many events that merit telling but 30 minutes ain’t much time. Without a doubt, the project that institutionalized Chicana/o Studies was a Ford Foundation Grant of $347,000. Prior to this I had resisted taking grants; I was wary of them because of my experiences with the War on Poverty. In fact we had torpedoed efforts to bring in outside (soft) money by other departments. They were Trojan Horses that lessened our control, and the need for the institution to negotiate with us. Grants bring in soft money that only makes the university rich.

We, however, decided to break this boycott of outside funds. Ford asked us to come up with a program, we did not solicit it, so we dictated the terms. We could go to the edge and over the cliff. Our goal was to produce jobs for our graduates that would motivate them to take CHS classes and establish the viability of the area of study. Next we exploited the status of CSUN as a teacher training institution.

In order to maximize the impact of the grant, we designed it to benefit the student. It was based on student stipends not frills for the university. One hundred and fifty students would be granted stipends of $1000 a year for two years, divided into three overlapping cycles.[At that time, this covered most of tuition; the inflation of campus price, student debt-slavery, and attempt to destroy public universities has all occurred since]. This number would be supplemented by another 150 students receiving financial aid. They would be grouped in a special program and all would be Ford Fellows. CSUN got 10 percent in administrative costs (it usually gets 40 percent), which wa refunded to OCT (Operation Chicano Teacher). The instructors, classrooms, and supplies were paid by the university.

The program generated student enrollment, and CHS in turn got a larger budget and faculty positions paid out of hard money. There was no release time, and indeed some of us taught an extra class to get students under the wire before the Ryan Act kicked in. It forced other departments to deal with us in committees and at the bargaining table. We got one extension of $150,000, and in toto graduated over 250 Chicana/o teachers – impacting the diversity of the teaching pool in Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley.

Things were also changing university-wide. A sudden decline in white enrollment made our students more attractive to other departments who now tolerated our students because they needed them to survive. The narrative of white faulty changed, and they popularized a counter-narrative that said that they did not hire Latinos because of CHS.

Meanwhile, nothing is free. Before the last extension I was contacted by Ralph Bohrson, a representative of the Ford Foundation, who wanted me to go to New Mexico where Ford was in a fight with Reis López Tijerina. They wanted me to go on a speaking tour to counter Reis’ influence – I refused and I later learned through Abel Amaya [Abel was one of my first students at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver] that this field agent and his allies led the opposition to a renewal of Operation Chicano Teacher because, according to Amaya, “it did not fall within its paradigm.” Other offers of funding also came from a representative of LEA:Local Enforcement Agency which after some debate we rejected.

In a nutshell, in order to plant a new area of study as foreign as Chicana/o Studies, you have to be prepared to go to the edge of the mountain and if need be over the cliff. You are playing for keeps.

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