Guest essay by Rodolfo F. Acuña
Borrowing the words of the legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig I am the luckiest man in the world. At eighty I will begin another semester at the end of the month. Again I will have the opportunity to teach working class students.
A basic lesson that I teach my students is that they have to have a reason for everything they do. Their struggle cannot be based on hating gringos or hating the system. They always have to ask why?
To use an overworked maxim, “everything happens for a reason.”
I have been motivated to struggle by injustice and stupidity that trigger a moral outrage. But I also have to have a reason for that anger. For example, the burning of the Mayan and Nahuatl codices and the destruction of Native American religions always infuriates me.
I am not be flippant when I say that Europe did not invent science and mathematics but benefitted from the Greeks who in turn acquired sources of their knowledge from the East through India, the Middle East and Africa.
Everyone knows the story of Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and his “discovery” that the earth revolved around the sun. His now historic book was suppressed by the Church.
How much further would we be today if Copernicus had known Archimedes’ work on the universe? (Or for that matter the Mesoamerican astronomers?) He would not have had to delay publication of his work and then be forced to recant his findings. No doubt this lack of knowledge retarded the progress of western science.
It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels between what happened to Copernicus and the destruction of the codices and other indigenous knowledge.
Recently I got into trouble for criticizing the movie “For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada,” the so-called story of los cristeros in Mexico. Some accused me of hating Catholics and basing my arguments on my biases. However, that is just not so.
I am against the cristero movie, not because I dislike Andy García’s politics, but because the movie is based on bad history.
The fight over the separation of Church and state dates back to ancient times. It includes Copernicus. The Protestant Revolt succeeded because of secular dissatisfaction with Church’s monopoly of economic, social and political resources.
The struggle between the church and state in what later became the cristero movement has its origins in Colonial times and was partly caused by the Church’s monopoly of Indian lands and labor. It broke out during the 18th Century as the Bourbon monarch’s sought to control the religious orders. It erupted again after Mexican Independence with wars between the federalists and the centralists, i.e., liberals versus the Church Party.
Liberals won and the Mexican Constitution of 1857 was adopted. This touched off ten years of civil wars that saw the Rise of Benito Juarez and Liberal control of Mexico to the Mexican Revolution. It ended with the adoption of the Constitution of 1917 which once more reaffirmed the principle of the separation of church and state. As in previous revolts the friction was over whether the Catholic Church was to receive special rights, i.e., the maintenance of ecclesiastical courts and to remain the state religion. Finally at issue was the freedom to practice other religions.
I urge students to base their decisions on reason. That is why we study what is happening in Arizona and have made trips there. We invited Asian American students along on these trips because we want them to also take ownership.
I support the struggle to save the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies department based on reason. This judgment is not based on nationalism or a whim but because it is pedagogically sound. My decision is based on the same principles that guided my reasons in condemning the destruction of the codices and defending the principle of “freedom of religion.”
The Tucson struggle also has to be put into the context of our history to achieve literacy and the failure of the schools. We cannot be free; we cannot live in a democratic society, without literacy that is the cornerstone of reason.
The struggle of the 1960s and 1970s produced the Chicana/o middle class and marked advances in education. Before these events inferior schools were taken for granted as was the proposition that Mexican schools did not deserve the same quality of support as white schools. We struggled to correct this inequality and corrected many of the de facto and de jure injustices.
An important victory for Mexican Americans was the change in the mindset of students. They believed that they could and should pursue a higher education. They had the right to be taught by teachers who believed in them. Consequently a sí se puede mentality developed and many grew to expect a quality education.
I am one of the few educators who has seen these changes first hand. I have taught classes from K-12 and at the university level. The results although lagging behind the rest of society are nevertheless like day and night.
About twenty years ago I successfully sued the University of California at Santa Barbara. One of my greatest fears was that I would have to leave California State University Northridge, a working class university.
At UCSB I loved the Congreso students but the campus itself reminded me of a country club. It was overwhelmingly white and everyone appeared as if they had just finished a set of tennis or were going to a match.
In contrast, the first Chicano students we recruited at CSUN (then San Fernando State College) were really rough around the edges. Very few of them would have been candidates for a sorority or fraternity rush.
They were not prepared to make it in colleges; in the fall of 1968 only fifty were attending which changed with the student takeovers of the spring semester.
In the fall of 1969, close to 300 Chicana/o students entered SFVSC. Dr. Warren Furumoto who mentored United Mexican American Studies (UMAS) students summed it up in the documentary “Unrest” on the founding of Chicano Studies at San Fernando State. He said that the Chicano students differed from white radicals and even black students. Their parents had not attended institutions of higher education and they did not have the vocabulary to understand liberal or much less radical concepts. Attending college got them out of the barrio and in many cases they got a stipend.
I remember one student who is now a judge complaining that he had lost over fifty pounds in the first semester. We sent him to the Health Center that concluded that it was because of a change in diet. Now he only ate the proteins at the cafeteria; he had all the starches he wanted at home.
Many had not planned to stay in school but after a semester most were hooked. It was another life and words took on meaning. Once you get an education it is hard to go back; you have seen how the other half lives.
I saw this same transformation in students who I spoke to in Tucson. They wanted an education but even more they wanted to know the meaning of words, they wanted to be somebody, to be respected.
This is all changing – not only in Tucson – but throughout the country. The better prepared students, those that have parents with some college will continue to come to school. The dreamers have no choice but to succeed.
The Latino population is too large to completely ignore. So the institutions will recruit them because it looks good on paper.
However, those in the lower two thirds of barrio schools will be squeezed out. Unlike the students in 1969 they do not know that si se puede. Then tuition was $50 a semester. It is now approaching $10,000 an academic year.
Increasingly students will look acceptable enough to be recruited into Greek societies. They will no longer say East LAy. They will know the meaning of the words, but democracy will have suffered as everyone will look like they just played a set of tennis.
[Rodolfo Francisco Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, which approaches the history of the Southwestern United States that includes Mexican Americans. It has been reprinted six times since its 1972 debut (the seventh edition was published in January 2010). He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Herald-Express, La Opinión, and numerous other newspapers. His work emphasizes the struggle of the Mexican American people. Acuña is also an activist and he has supported the numerous causes of the Chicano Movement.]