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An Ethnic Studies Evolution

An Ethnic Studies Evolution

A new generation of Mexican and Mexican-American students is turning
the tide of Chicana/o studies programs in unexpected new directions.

By Garry Boulard

As a student in the Chicana/o studies program at the University of Texas at El Paso, Jesse S. Arrieta decided that her classroom instruction about the culture and history of people of Mexican origin wasn’t enough.

“For me, what I was studying and reading never truly resonated until I went into the community,” says Arrieta, 27, who graduated from UTEP in 2002 before earning a master’s in American history from the University of California, Irvine. As part of her undergraduate honors thesis, Arrieta interviewed Mexican-American women who had been involved in labor organizing in the 1960s and beyond. She did nearly the same thing after moving on to graduate school in California. There, she talked to Mexican-American women who were active in the Bus Riders Union, a group dedicated to promoting public transportation for low-income people in the Los Angeles area. That project would ultimately become her master’s thesis.

Arrieta, now teaching U.S. history in UTEP’s Chicana/o studies program, says her goal was twofold in both cases. She wanted to “find a place for such stories within the larger context of Chicano studies,” while also doing what she could to “alter perceptions that these types of programs are mostly masculine in their focus.”

Her scholarship has centered on real people involved in real struggles, which has been one of the honored traditions of Chicana/o studies programs.

“The idea from the start was to be politically active,” says Dr. Felipe B. Gonzalez, a former student coordinator for the University of New Mexico’s Chicana/o studies program, and now chair of sociology at UNM. “But also there was a tremendous emphasis on being involved in the community, bringing something back to it or trying to understand it and using that to inform your scholarship.”

The programs have been emphasizing social issues since they first appeared on campuses in the 1960s and ’70s. But Arrieta’s decision to challenge the gender-based issues associated with some programs illustrates that the field remains open to change. It is a sign of academic fluidity that many educators believe is absolutely necessary if such programs expect to be relevant to a new generation of students, especially those who are emigrating from Mexico.

“We absolutely cannot remain static, particularly when so many things in this area are changing all around us,” says Dr. Louis G. Mendoza, chairman of the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. Its program, founded in 1972, is one of the oldest of its kind in the Midwest.

At no time has that change been more obvious or full of potential upheaval than with the immigration protests earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, the vast majority of them in their teens, took to the streets to protest proposed immigration reform measures.

The nationwide demonstrations have presented Chicana/o studies programs with a close look at the new and, some may say, bewildering constituency of the future.

“There is no doubt about it, the immigration movement and the young people that we associate with it have helped to raise the question of just what exactly our relationship should be, not only to them, but to other Latino groups in general,” says Mendoza. “They very clearly are a new part of the equation that not only symbolizes change, but also the challenge of making programs like ours relevant to a new generation of Chicanos and Latinos.”

The Question of Relevancy
That change is particularly pronounced in El Paso, where thousands of Mexican students, many crossing the border daily, study at UTEP. Their presence on campus has prompted additions to the curriculum that school officials hope are more responsive to their needs and academic interests.

“We have very much tried to make our program more conducive to the demands of the labor market that the students are going to be facing,” says Dr. Dennis J. Bixler-Márquez, the director of UTEP’s Chicana/o studies program and a professor of multicultural education. “That is really the thing that is going to matter once they graduate.”

Up to 50 students in any given semester are either majoring or minoring in Chicana/o studies at UTEP, and a growing percentage of them are Mexican citizens. The shift in the student demographics has led to a gradual change in the program’s orientation over the years, says Bixler-Márquez.

“We are beginning to branch out of the strictly liberal arts experience to other areas, such as the School of Business or the center that we have established for the study and promotion of Hispanic entrepreneurship, in order to give Chicano studies students a more well-rounded educational experience,” he says.

“We don’t want an exclusively Chicano studies emphasis. For example, we discourage students from taking a major and minor in Chicano studies because we want them instead to think about the skills that would serve them best in the labor market,” Bixler-Márquez continues. “Very often, a student who is majoring in Chicano studies might also have a minor in marketing or management, or they might combine their Chicano studies major with something like language or history or even criminal justice.”

It seems the benefits go both ways. UTEP’s program has shifted to reflect the skills and labor market needs of Mexican students, but those students have also been able to enhance the program.

“Many of those students have been living in or near the conditions that are being studied,” says Bixler-Márquez. “If we are studying criminal justice systems, they may have a first-hand knowledge of patterns, of how illegal activity has plagued their communities. In so doing, they bring in a fresh perspective that is extremely relevant to our classrooms because they are the ones who are in the trenches.”

The question of relevancy is one that governs the thinking of both supporters and critics of Chicana/o studies programs. In a September edition of the OC Weekly, writer Gustavo Arellano in his syndicated column, “Ask a Mexican,” charged that the programs “corrupt the brains of young Mexicans with antiquated concepts like victimization, objectification and grade inflation.”

Arellano received more than 30 messages and letters in response to his column, one of which came from Dr. Reynaldo F. Macias, the director of the César E. Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA.

“My sense of these programs is the opposite of your inaccurate characterizations, which, unfortunately, reinforce the distorted and politicized right wing and conservative views on Chicana/o studies, ethnic studies and women’s studies,” Macias wrote.

Arellano says his criticisms of the programs have more to do with the changing demographic face of America than anything else. Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the country and represent a wide range of cultures and histories. He says he wonders if Chicana/o studies programs can truly address and reflect that diversity.

“Just the Mexican community in the United States alone is too big and too disparate to really engender a sense of Chicano solidarity among everyone,” says Arellano, who takes issue with the term “Chicano” itself. “Those young students who have been a part of the immigration movement for the most part do not consider themselves to be Chicano; they consider themselves to be Mexican. I am 27 years old and I have never thought of myself as being Chicano, even when I went to school. I always said I was Mexican or Mexican-American.”

He points out that he is not opposed to Chicana/o studies in general, but that he is critical of many courses offered in such programs.

“It is really a losing battle for Chicano studies because so many Mexican immigrants have come to this country and have had children grow up who think they are Mexican. And there is nothing in their minds that could tell them that they are Chicano,” he says.

Mendoza, at the University of Minnesota, says such criticisms have their merit. He too wonders how Chicana/o studies programs can respond to the needs of other Latino students, who come from places like Puerto Rico and Ecuador.

“The legacy here is still in Chicano studies,” he says, “but as a discipline it is also something that has to continue to evolve. For us, that has meant a broader pan-Latino approach. We have created, for example, a gateway course to our major that is focused on all Latinos in the United States.”

But the danger in such an approach, Mendoza says, is balancing breadth and depth. “How do you handle the history of so many
different groups under one umbrella?” How do you take a pan-Latino approach in your Chicano studies program without sacrificing depth?”

Dr. Chela Sandoval, chair of the Chicana/o studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has asked the same questions. She has concluded that the best Chicana/o studies program is the one that is open to change.

“The department and university have responded to the immigration movement, for example, by emphasizing immigration studies, and that was not going on 13 years ago, when I first came to work here,” she says. “We have even hired three new professors who focus on different aspects of immigration.”

UCSB’s program is one of the largest in the country, with more than 400 students taking at least one course each quarter. The program places a heavy emphasis on history, which includes a study of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico.

Sandoval says that while Chicana/o studies programs should “always be responsive to the community,” they should also not forget their educational mission.

“Our students come in with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm. The world is opening up for them in entirely new and different ways, and they want to understand relationships between their own cultural experiences and the global, national and international political processes,” she says. “Ultimately, our department must be able to help them in their intellectual explorations. That has to remain our most important emphasis.”

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