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Academic turf war at East Los Angeles: move to include course on Central Americans in Chicano Studies Department meets resistance – East Lost Angeles College

Monterey Park, Calif.

East Los Angeles College (ELAC) is the
site of a controversy that many people have seen coming for a long
time. It revolves around what appears to be an academic battle over

The Chicano Studies department here has proposed a class called
“Central Americans: The New Chicanos.” However, the Social Science
department has challenged the right of the Chicano Studies department
to propose such a class.

Sybil Venegas, chair of the Chicano Studies department, does not
see it as a territorial dispute. However, she does acknowledge there is
a growing conflict between her department and that of Consuelo Rey, the
chair of the Social Science department.

“What we have done is provocative,” says Venegas, who adds, “We
don’t think the administration has a problem with what we’re doing.”

For her part, Rey, a former Chicano studies professor, says she is not anti-Chicano studies.

“I am co committed to the discipline,” says Rey. “The question of
who should be teaching a Central American class and which department
the class should be taught from is real and relates to legal and
contract issues. It’s a duplication of what we offer. It’s a
bread-and-butter issue.”

The Chicano, Studies department denies any duplication. Venegas
says the rationale for creating the class within the Chicano Studies
department is based on wanting to meet the changing demographics of Los

According to Venegas, two facts motivated the Chicano Studies
department at ELAC to propose the class. First, more Central Americans
reside in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the United States —
particularly Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans. It’s estimated
that as many as a million Central Americans reside in Southern
California, but there is no formal study of them on a campus in the

A Question of Identity

Many of the Central American students at ELAC were either raised or
born in the United States, says Venegas, who views the plight of these
students as similar to that of Chicanos.

“They may or may not identify with their home countries. They’re
the children of immigrants, similar to Mexican Americans,” the Chicano
studies chair says.

But Rey says that to position the class within the Chicano Studies
department subsumes Central Americans. Central Americans, she states
emphatically, are not Chicanos.

“They need to be studied separately. Central Americans maintain their own sense of identity,” Rey maintains.

For the past twenty years the history of Central Americans has been
taught at ELAC as part of a class called, “The History of the
Americas;” which is in the Social Sciences department. According to
Rey, the reason it is not proper to study Central Americans in Chicano
studies is because the discipline of Chicano studies, by law, falls
under Mexican American studies. Classes on Chicanos can be taught in
this discipline, but not ones that deal with Central Americans, she

Venegas is not claiming that Central Americans are Chicanos.
However, within the United States social construct, the two groups
share a similar experience, she says. And because Chicano studies is
highly popular nationwide, many Central Americans take the courses and
then ask for courses that examine their experiences.

According to Venegas, the proposed class initially contained some
history. However, the revised course focuses more on the study of
Central Americans living in the United States.

Additionally, Venegas says that restricting Chicano studies to the
study of Mexican Americans is a flawed argument and belies reality. She
says that Chicano Studies already teaches courses on Latinos. As an
example, she notes that fifteen minutes before the ELAC curriculum
committee turned down the request for the controversial class, it
approved a “Latin American Dance Cultures” course.

Venegas believes the Chicano Studies department should be allowed
to determine its own scope. External efforts to limit that scope are,
in her opinion, a violation of academic freedom.

“We’re expanding the paradigm of Chicano Studies. There are no
borders to Chicano Studies. To limit it is to not understand that the
discipline is multi-disciplinary; otherwise, we couldn’t teach art,
history, culture, or literature classes,” Venegas says.

According to Rey, ELAC has created a Latin American studies
discipline in conjunction with the University of California at Los
Angeles, the University of Southern California, and California State
University at Los Angeles. That’s where the study of Central Americans
belongs, she says

Rey acknowledges that Latin American studies major does not
currently offer a course on Central Americans in the United States, but
says it may do so in the future.

“The position of our department is that (the Central American class] should remain within the Social Science department.”

A Question of Legality

To meet the needs of the changing students in southern California,
Venegas says Chicano Studies is ready to change its name to the
Chicano/Latino Studies department.

“The vice president approved the name change,” Venegas says. But as
a result of a grievance filed by Rey, the name change is now on hold.

Rey has no problem with the revised concept of the class or even
expanding the concept of Chicano studies. It’s just that the Chicano
Studies department has gone about making the change illegally, she says.

“There’s a process. Currently, the state of California has not
recognized a Latino studies discipline,” Rey says. “Neither has the
administration approved a second content area under Mexican American

A separate discipline of Latino studies would study the history of
Latinos in the United States. While Rey agrees the discipline should be
created, she isn’t sure that there’s a sentiment for that in the state
right now.

George Weistrich, chair of the Curriculum Committee, which voted
7-1 against the class, says, “The administration is studying the issue.”

While not commenting on the dispute with Rey, ELAC Chicano Studies
professor Felipe Lopez has proposed a session at this year’s National
Association for Chicano Studies conference to examine the issue of
studying Central Americans within the paradigm of Chicano studies.

“At the moment, no one is teaching such a course in Los Angeles,”
Lopez says, adding that presently, twelve Chicano studies classes are
taught at ELAC.

The problem, as he sees it, is that as the demographics of Los
Angeles — and the country, for that matter — change, the discipline
of Latin American studies and the discipline of Chicano studies must
expand and meet the needs of the new students. Chicano studies is
responding to that need, he says.

A Question of Politics

At the root of the ELAC dispute, according to Lopez, is the fact
that ethnic studies is still viewed as a second-rate discipline.

Migdalia de Jesus Torres, chair of Puerto Rican/Latino studies at
City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal justice,
says that the California dispute resembles one that previously occurred
on the East Coast.

“It’s not a question of academics,” she says, “but rather of turf
and politics. We’ve always been a Puerto Rican Studies department, but
we’ve taught courses on other Latinos, particularly Caribbeans, from
the very beginning. Our histories are intertwined. You can’t [teach]
one without the other. There are cultural intersections that take
place. To explain that, you have to create courses.”

Years ago, the Puerto Rican studies faculty at John Jay was told
that it couldn’t teach the literature of Cuba or Puerto Rico because
this role belonged in the foreign literature department. As it turned
out, the works being taught in the literature department were from
Spain, not the Caribbean.

“`Then why are you fighting us?’ we asked,” recalls de Jesus
Torres. “Then it was a question of credentials … street gangs call it

“Traditionally, Latin American studies are dominated by White
professors,” continues de Jesus Torres. “And they have a very narrow
scope, a colonial scope, of how Latin American studies courses should
be taught…. Perhaps the Latin Americanists feel threatened.

“As populations change, as different cultures come into contact with each other, the courses have to be developed,” she adds.

De Jesus Torres says cross-listing the New Chicanos course may be a
solution to the ELAC conflict. She agrees with Lopez’s assessment that
the root of these turf battles is that ethnic studies departments are
still viewed as “nondepartments” — even after existing for more than
twenty-five years.

A Question of Reality

Carlos Cordova, director of the Central American component within
La Raza Studies at San Francisco State University, says he commends
Chicano Studies at ELAC for attempting to create such a class.

“There are many Central Americans and other Latinos who were part
of the Chicano movement, who feel part of Chicano studies,” he says.
“Being Chicano is not a racial or ethnic designation. Being Chicano is
cultural and political. It’s a state of mind. Central Americans being
the new Chicanos fits in with the times.”

Cordova, who is Salvadoran, created the Central American unit
within La Raza Studies eight years ago. Today the unit has 150 majors.
He says that the battle ELAC is having is reminiscent of nationwide
battles fifteen years ago, when La Raza and Chicano studies were told
that they could teach about Latinos in the United States, but not about
Latin America.

“Now, it’s no longer a debate,” Cordova says. “Now, we have to
teach about Latin America. We can’t teach about Chicanos or Latinos in
a vacuum.

“La Raza studies has three components: Chicano studies, Central
American studies, and Caribbean studies. In studying the Central
American sequence, one must take Chicano studies courses. We have to
examine both of our realities. It would be weak if we didn’t teach
Chicano studies.”

Cordova believes that teaching a course on Central Americans also
promotes harmony among the groups. Currently, the formal instruction of
Central American studies does not exist in Southern California —
particularly in East Los Angeles, where Central Americans are moving.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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