IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE?
I have noticed that more than a few academicians have joined the sport of criticizing some of the icons of the Chicana/o Movement. It concerns me because the criticism is coming from people who often have an axe to grind or simply don’t know what they are talking about.
I have tried to be objective, and in no way do I want to stifle critical analyses of historical figures within the Chicana/o historical experience. I realize that I have my biases; I am protective of the legacy of the late sixties. But, it goes beyond hero worship.
What concerns me is that the type of criticism that I hear often gives people a false sense of power – the power of being in the know.
I also realize that I take criticism personal and accept it from those who have shown some level of sacrifice and commitment. It is hard for me to accept criticism from administrators or white professors who have done nothing to advance the betterment of minority or poor students. The same goes for Chicanas/os who have not worked to correct the imperfections within the Mexican American community.
Criticism is always personal. Admittedly, my criticism of the present generation of Chicana/o scholars is personal. I criticize them for what I consider their lack of mentorship of MEChA and Chicana/o students. I criticize them for not building Chicana/o studies.
Many Chicanas/os sacrificed their scholarly ambitions to establish Chicana/o studies – which was not accepted in 1969. They did it because they wanted to create a pedagogy that would motivate students from inferior schools to learn. The intention was never to build a field of study so Chicanas/os scholars could have employment opportunities.
I am also concerned about the quality of criticism that is coming from the Chicana/o academic community as well as self-identified progressives. It is frankly inchoate and does not rise above the level of middle school gossip.
It is often frustrating. I have spent hours defending a deceased colleague because, according to some, he was offensive because he called students mi hijita (my daughter) and mi hijito. It is proof that he was a sexist pig. It does not matter that the particular professor spent hours talking to students, and giving them a sense of worth when most other professors had split for their homes.
Recently there has been criticism of the late César Chávez. Although César was not perfect, some of the criticism goes beyond that leveled at let’s say Martin Luther King by the African American community. Most – not all of the latest criticism of César reminds me of investigative journalist Ralph de Toledano’s biography entitled Little Cesar that was funded by John Birchers in 1971 and has had a long shelf life.
The main criticisms of Cesar is that he was autocratic and purged leftist out of the union — which he probably did. However, I had long conversations with the late Sam Kushner who wrote Long Road to Delano. Kushner was a communist and wrote for the People’s World. He was close to César and spoke highly of him. Kushner complained that many leftist went into the farmworker’s union to party build. In his words, it was up to César to lay down the rules.
My fear is that many of the critics do not know the nuances of organizing and that their criticisms have the same negative impact as the biography Little César. In terms of the movement, it is important to have symbols and role models. Young people get confused and often believe the worse. Because of the nature of the criticism, the icons and not the system become the enemy.
The other criticism is that César hated undocumented workers, which is ridiculous. César was a trade unionist, and as a trade unionist accepted the ridiculous premise that farmworkers could not be organized until the flow from Mexico was stopped. Few activists at the time emphasized that it was American policy that created migration.
Anyone who has read my pieces knows that I have the highest regard for Ernesto Galarza. He is one of the few intellectuals who I met, and this includes people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. However, Galarza was not perfect; many of his early writings and utterances include the word “wetback.” During the infamous Di Giorgio Strike of the late 1940s, he tried to stop the braceros from coming in and like most Chicanas/os was silent during “Operation Wetback” (1953-55). The Pan American Union that employed Galarza in 1940 was full of CIA operatives. However, based on what I know about Galarza he remained progressive and his contributions are singular.
However, sure as hell does not exist, someone will dig this up. I have already been told that Galarza was half German (his father). Does it really matter? Should it?
This icon bashing is destructive, and we should be aware of it and the harm it does to movements. In many cases it is like telling a kid that the person he or she loves is not his/her father. What is the purpose?
We live in a time when people join groups that confirm their beliefs. The outcome is they live in bubbles not knowing what is happening outside their space helmets. They rarely transform society and correct its imperfections.
I criticize my own department because I care about it and want to improve it. I am always asked why I keep on working, teaching two classes per semester? Why not let go and let the younger generation take over?
I sincerely would like to let go as they say. But as long as my colleagues want to parachute in and out of the department, teaching two days a week and not going to MEChA functions then my feeling is that I would only be hurting the students — who after all is why we should be in Chicana/o studies.
I dread going to NACCS (National Association for Chicana/Chicano Studies) in San Antonio. Every year there are fewer students and more Chicanas/os with sinecures. They have their minds made up, and carry an air of certainty that comes with having a Dr. before their name. I have to listen to the most outlandish assumptions, which are based on one or two oral testimonies of people who they have adopted because through them they become experts.
When I listen to the latest beliefs: César hated Mexicans; Galarza was a German; what went wrong was that the national leaders were cultural nationalists; I silently give the insiders the sign of the cross as we do to people who have expired.
I propose that we have a general discussion about the damaging consequences of our bubbles, and why as long as we are a community of chismes the Chicana/o academic community will continue to have no influence on society. We will remain powerless and the students disaffected.
We should all watch Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). It is about George Bailey (James Stewart), who considers himself a failure. His bumbling uncle loses the bank money, and George faces financial ruin and arrest. George contemplates suicide when an angel named Clarence stops him and gives him a crash course on the people he has touched, and what their lives would have been like if George had never been born. George then realizes that, despite all his flaws, he has had a wonderful life.
When I look at the lives of César, Galarza and my deceased friend, I ask whether their lives made a difference. What would life have been like without them? Then I look at the people casting the stones, would life have been any different if they had never been born? We should all apply this test to ourselves and those we criticize.
Rodolfo F. Acuña
Dr. Rodolfo Francisco Acuña is a historian, educator and social activist. In 1969, he co-founded the Chicana/o Studies Department at San Fernando Valley State College (later called California State University at Northridge). This was arguably the first department of Chicana/o Studies in the nation. Dr. Acuña served as its first chair. Because of his pioneering role in developing Chicano Studies as a respected academic discipline he is often referred to as “the father of Chicano Studies. To contact Dr. Acuña: firstname.lastname@example.org