Mexican Americans have not lived in a vacuum; they have left footprints in terms of history, literature, and interactions with the legal and educational systems. Rodolfo F. Acuña
Chicano Studies was created in 1969.
Although, as detailed below, Mexican American-Chicano/a Studies (hereinafter MAS) has many unique features, it is not a novelty. It has existed for 50 years. Scores of colleges and universities throughout the country offer courses—and Majors and Minors and graduate degrees—in the discipline. Still, there is much ignorance regarding MAS. A case in point: a recent comment made in reference to a bill pending in the California legislature that would require students in the California State University system to take one three-unit ethnic studies course. The commenter worried that Latino/a students who take MAS courses would “…hold back on taking other studies such as Science, higher math, the arts, which gives more advantage in getting better jobs.”
It’s ludicrous to believe that taking MAS courses will prevent a person from getting a good job, or that college students can choose not to take courses in science, math, the arts, etc. All colleges and universities require degree-seeking students to take a blend of courses in English, mathematics, sciences, Humanities, etc.
I know a thing or two…
In 1968, I played a leadership role in the creation of the University of Arizona Mexican American Studies program.
I do not purport to be an expert on MAS. For a full, and outstanding, discussion on the founding and evolution of Chicano/a Studies, the reader is referred to “The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches of Academe,” by Chicano/a Studies pioneer Rodolfo F. Acuña. But by virtue of my 50-year history with MAS, I know a thing or two about the topic. In brief:
In 1968, as a University of Arizona (UA) student and Chair of the Mexican American Liberation Committee (which evolved into MEChA), I played a leadership role in the campaign that established the UA Mexican American Studies program (now a department). I served on the faculty-student-community committee that fashioned the MAS curriculum, which was implemented in 1970.
I helped organize the 1969 high-school walkouts in Tucson, AZ. The students demanded that Mexican American history classes be included in the curriculum. Although the school district did not establish MAS courses, many teachers were inspired to include aspects of Mexican American history/culture in their classes.
In 1998, the Tucson Unified School District established an MAS department and convened a committee of local educators and community activists to formulate an MAS curriculum. I served on this committee and on the department’s Advisory Board.
I taught core curriculum MAS courses at the UA for 17 years and was a member and Chair of the Mexican American Studies and Research Center Faculty Advisory Board.
MAS is not “special”—it’s the real thing…
The history of Southwestern cannot be told without extensive discussion of the contributions of the Mexican community.
MAS is not “special,” something outside the norm. The opposite is true. Mexican American-Chicano/a history is American history. The history of Southwestern and other states cannot be told without extensive discussion of the substantial and substantive contributions of the Mexican community to the building of those states. These contributions were made in the face of the atrocities visited upon our community, such as the lynching of Mexicans, the “No dogs or Mexicans allowed” signs in businesses, etc.
Likewise, U.S. military history cannot be told without ample discussion of the immense contributions of Mexican Americans. Carole Christian documents the extensive participation of Mexican Americans in World War I. (Source 1) Up to 750,000 Mexican Americans served in the military during World War II. In “Among the Valiant,” Raúl Morín reports a significant portion of these soldiers weren’t drafted—they enlisted. (Source 2) University of Texas professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez says outright, “…you can’t tell the story of America during World War II if you don’t tell the story about (Mexican-Americans).” (Source 3)
Mexican American women also played a crucial role in winning WW II. In “Rosita the Riveter,” Ricardo Santillán describes how Mexican American women worked in the factories, manufacturing war materiel, during WW II. (Source 4) Christine Marín describes how organizations of Mexican American women sold war bonds, collected and sold scrap metal, and picked cotton, donating the proceeds to the WW II war effort. (Source 5)
Mexican Americans/Latinos have earned more Congressional Medals of Honor in proportion to their numbers than any other ethnic group in the U.S. In 2014 President Obama belatedly conferred the Medal of Honor to 24 WW II, Korea, and Viet Nam veterans. Of these, 17 are Latino.
“…you can’t tell the story of America during World War II if you don’t tell the story about (Mexican-Americans).”
And that’s only a hint of our community’s history, a history that if not for MAS would be ignored or distorted. In 1968 Octavio I. Romano-V published an essay, “The Anthropology and Sociology of the Mexican-Americans: The Distortion of Mexican-American History,” that tore into the social scientists who “explained” the Mexican American community as a people driven by superstition, fatalism, laziness and lack of ambition, and envy, as passive creatures who merely absorb history rather than generate it. These stereotypes were not harmless. They formed the basis of educational, social, political and economic policies related to our community.
Giving the lie to the notion that Mexican Americans are passive and don’t generate history, Romano gave many examples of Mexican Americans having organized strikes and other actions to improve their condition. (Source 6) As noted by eminent historian and MAS pioneer Rodolfo F. Acuña in the opening quote, Mexican Americans have left footprints in the nation’s history. (Source 7) And those footprints are huge.
Intrinsic in Romano’s essay was the suggestion that in order for our community to be truthfully and realistically portrayed, we needed to write about ourselves and insist that our history be taught accurately.
The Chicano Generation rose to the challenge. We wrote poetry, short stories, songs, plays, essays and the like, telling our story from our perspective. A corps of Chicana and Chicano scholars emerged who set out to accurately portray our community’s important role in the country’s development. Led by student groups (UMAS, MASC, MASO, MALC, etc., which became MEChA), we wrote curricula and installed MAS, a truth telling enterprise, in colleges and universities. We took our history into our own hands.
MAS—good for the soul, for the spirit, for life…
The Chicano Generation told our story from our perspective.
Critics often describe MAS as a “feel good” program. Actually, they’re right but not in the way they mean it. MAS pioneer Rodolfo F. Acuña asserts that, “We [people involved in the founding of MAS] never considered pride to be negative; it is everyone’s right to feel like someone.” (Source 7) Indeed, MAS classes instill a deep sense of pride in Mexican American students. But the feel-good aspect of MAS courses is a by-product. These courses are academically sound and rigorous and are based on theory and empirical research. And on a practical level, they boost student achievement.
It is well documented that college students who feel good about themselves and who feel comfortable on campus, etc., do well in terms of grades, staying in school, and graduating. Natalie Escobar reports that, “Research has shown that taking just one Latino or Chicano studies course can ‘significantly’ improve Chicano students’ self-image, improve first-generation Latino students’ sense of feeling community on campus, or increase their academic engagement.”(Source 8)
University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera led a team of researchers commissioned by a federal court Special Master to assess the relationship between taking MAS classes and student academic performance in the Tucson Unified School District. [It was this MAS program that was infamously deemed to be “illegal” by the state of Arizona.] Cabrera’s team found that “…a consistent, positive, and significant relationship exists between taking MAS classes and student achievement.” Specifically, Cabrera’s team found that MAS students who had failed the math, or reading, or writing portions of the state assessment test passed the failed test after taking an MAS course and graduated at a higher rate than counterparts who did not take an MAS course. (Source 9) The effects were even greater for students who took two or more MAS classes. (Source 10)
“Considerable research evidence shows that … ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students”
Christine E. Sleeter, in a study commissioned by the National Education Association, analyzed published studies and reviews of research that examined the effect of ethnic studies with respect to student achievement. She found that “Considerable research evidence shows that … ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students” and they also stimulate “higher levels of thinking.” (Source 11)
I could go on, but the foregoing makes my point: MAS conveys a true, organic depiction of a dynamic community who has contributed greatly to this country and helps students achieve academically.
I end as I started: MAS is not a novelty, but it does have some unique features. Student and community militancy (via the Chicano Movement of the 1960s-1970s) created MAS. Students and community members helped fashion the original MAS curricula. MAS comes with an Instructional Manual: El Plan de Santa Bárbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education, written by a group of students, faculty, and community members in 1969. El Plan emphasizes that MAS should be a bridge between educational institutions and barrio communities. MAS is rich in content, drawing from history, political science, literature and language, anthropology, art and music, etc. Indeed, we generate history and culture. We write and report history and culture. And, via MAS, we teach history and culture. c/s
Special Thanks to the following (in alphabetical order) for their assistance: Rodolfo F. Acuña, Nolan Cabrera, Ignacio García, Christine Marín, Mónica Vega.
Copyright 2020 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: Salomonrb@msn.com. Photo of Sal Baldenegro courtesy of the author. Photos of Chicano protest and students copyright by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos in the public domain.
Source 1 Carole E. Christian, Joining the American Mainstream: Texas’s Mexican Americans during World War I, The Southwestern Historical Quarterly Vol. 92, No. 4, April, 1989.
Source 2 Raúl Morín, Among the Valiant: Mexican-Americans in WW II and the Korean War Borden Publishing Co., 1963.
Source 3 Megan Blackburn, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez: In Her Own Words, FirstHand History, March 19, 2011.
Source 4 Ricardo Santillán, Rosita the Riveter: Midwest Mexican American Women During World War II, 1941-1945, Perspectives in Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona, Vol. 2, 1989.
Source 5 Christine Marín, Mexican Americans on the Horne Front: Community Organizations in Ariz. During World War II, Perspectives in Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona, Vol. 4, 1993.
Source 6 Octavio I. Romano-V, The Anthropology and Sociology of the Mexican Americans: The Distortion of Mexican American History, El Grito: A Journal of Contemporary Mexican-American Thought, Vol. 2, Fall 1968.
Source 7 Rodolfo F. Acuña, Forty Years of Chicana/o Studies: When the Myth becomes a Legend, Personal Communication, May 2020.
Source 8 Natalie Escobar, How 50 Years of Latino Studies Shaped History Education, The Atlantic, September 7, 2018.
Source 9 N. L. Cabrera, J.F. Milem, R. W. Marx, An empirical analysis of the effects of Mexican American Studies participation on student achievement within Tucson Unified School District. Tucson, AZ: Report to Special Master Dr. Willis D. Hawley on the Tucson Unified School District Desegregation Case, 2012.
Source 10 Nolan L Cabrera, Jeffrey F Milem, Ozan Jaquette and Ronald W Marx, Missing the (student achievement) forest for all the (political) trees: Empiricism and the Mexican American Studies controversy in Tucson, American Educational Research Journal, 2014.
Source 11 C. E. Sleeter, The academic and social value of ethnic studies: A research review, Washington, DC: National Education Association, 2011.