Dr. Rodolfo Francisco 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.”

Rodolfo Acuña was born to the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights on May 18, 1932. His mother was Alicia Elias, originally from Sonora, Mexico and his father was Francisco originally from Jalisco, Mexico. Acuña attended Loyola High School and graduated in 1951. He earned his B.A. degree in social sciences (1957), a General Education Credential (1958) and Master’s Degree in history (1962) from Los Angeles State College (now called California State University at Los Angeles). He received his doctorate in Latin American Studies in 1968 from the University of Southern California. Married and with children Acuña pursued his education at night, working 50/60 hours a week and carrying 16/18 units.

While earning his doctorate degree, Acuña was actively engaged in the emerging Chicano civil rights movement. In 1961 he was involved in the Latin American Civic Association, a grass-roots organization of Mexican American parents, students and educators concerned with improving educational opportunities for Mexican American youth and founding headstart programs. Through the years, he was involved to reforming education for Mexican American students.

In 1968, Dr. Acuna was recruited to start a Chicano Studies curriculum at the college level, creating the first Chicana/o Studies department at what is today the University of California at Northridge. Previously he had taught Mexican American studies classes at Mt. St. Mary’s and Dominguez Hills State College. He had previous to that published two elementary school books and a high school/community college text on Mexican Americans History.

Dr. Acuña is perhaps best known for his landmark history of Mexican Americans in the United States, Occupied America, A History of Chicanos, first published in 1972 and currently in its 7th edition. This exhaustive chronicling of Chicano history has become the standard text in Chicano Studies classes throughout the United States.

Dr. Acuña with students

In addition to carrying on a full teaching load for more than forty years at California State University at Northridge, Dr. Acuña is a prolific author. Besides Occupied America, his more notable books include, The Story of the Mexican American (1969), Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1975 (1984), Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles (1996), Sometimes There is No Other Side: Essays on Truth and Objectivity (1998), U.S. Latino Issues (2004), Voices of the U.S. Latino Experience (2008). His current work is The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches of Academe, will be published in 2011 by Rutgers University Press

In addition to his books, Dr. Acuña has authored chapters in dozens of anthologies and scholarly texts, and has written hundreds of book reviews, scholarly articles and opinion editorials in numerous academic journals, newspapers and magazines.

In 1989, Dr. Acuña was one of the founders of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, “a multiracial anti-corporate ‘think tank/act tank’ and national school for organizers, committed to building democratic international social movements.”

In 1990, Dr. Acuña applied for a senior professorship in the Chicano Studies Department of the University of California at Santa Barbara, but was denied the position by a faculty review committee–this despite the fact that his application had been solicited from the department and that he was the only person recommended for the position.

Dr. Acuña sued the University in 1992 for racial, political and age discrimination in federal court. The political cause of action was dropped because it missed the statue of limitation by one week and the race discrimination cause of action was dismissed by the federal trial judge after three years. It was on appeal and among other things judicial bias was claimed. The judge a agreed to hear the age discrimination case. On October 30, 1995 a jury determined that Acuna had been discriminated against because of his age and awarded him $326,000. Dr. Acuna used the funds to create a non-profit foundation, the FOR Chicana Chicano Studies Foundation, which initially awarded grants to victims of discrimination in higher education but now also awards educational scholarships.

Dr. Acuña with Congressman Raul Grijalva (AZ)

Dr. Acuña’s list of awards and recognitions is impressive. He has received Ford and Rockefeller Foundation research grants, the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Association of Chicano Studies, the 2006 National Hispanic Hero Award from the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, the 2007 Labor Strategy Center Award, the 2008 Lifetime Achievement award from the National Hispanic Institute and the 2009 Lifetime Achievement award from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). Black Issues in Higher Education recognized Dr. Acuña as one of the “100 Most Influential Educators in the 20th Century,” and the LA Weekly featured him as one of the 100 Los Angeles shakers and movers.

He has also been honored for his writings. Three of his books were each recognized with the Gustavus Myers award for Outstanding Book on Race Relations in North America; he has also received the CHOICE award from the American Library Association. His community activism has been recognized by the Emil Freed Award for Community Service from the Southern California Social Science Library, the Founder’s Award from the Liberty Hill Foundation, the Historian of the Lions Award from the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and the Activist/Scholar Award from the Community Coalition of South Central Los Angeles.

Throughout his career as historian and educator, Dr. Acuna has maintained a public presence as a scholar/activist, speaking out on issues such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the plight of undocumented Latino workers in the United States. and the censorship of ethnic studies in the public schools of Arizona. Most recently, Dr. Acuña has been involved in defending the banning of books and Mexican American studies from the Arizona public schools.