Saturday, March 29, 2008


Prepared for the conference of the National Association for Chicano and Chicano Studies, Austin, Texas, March 19-22, 2008.

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus of English, Texas State University System–Sul Ross; Founding Director of the Chicano Studies Program, University of Texas at El Paso, 1970.

Forty-five years ago when I began university teaching after some years as a high school teacher of French, there was no Chicano Stud¬ies. That is, no Chicano Studies as an organized field of study. To be sure, there were Mexican American scholars working on various aspects of Mexican Amer¬ican life and its cultural productions, scholars like Aurelio Espinosa, Juan Rael, Arturo Campa, Fray Angelico Chaves, George I. Sanchez, Americo Paredes, and others. Important as this scholarship was, it emerged amorphously, reflecting independ¬ent intellectual interests rather than a scholarship reflecting a field of study. This is not to say that some of these scholars may not have considered their work as part of a field of study conceptualized as Mexican American Studies. Despite its lack of an under-pinning, it was a field of Mexican American Studies, its constituent parts subsumed as American folklore.
This situation created a critical barrier to the public discussion and dissemination of information about the presence of Mexican Americans in the Unit¬ed States and their contributions to American society. Until 1960 and the emergence of the Chi¬cano Movement, Mexican Americans were charac¬terized by mainstream American schol¬ars–principally anthropologists and social work¬ers–in terms of the queer, the curious, and the quaint. That is, regarded as a “tribe,” Mexican Amer¬icans were categorized as just another item in the flora and fauna of Americana in precisely the same way American Indians were categorized.
The Chicano Movement–that wave of concientizaci¬on that came to bloom among Mexican Americans in the 60's transforming them into Chica¬nos– help¬ed to change American perceptions about Mexican Americans. While Mexican Americans knew much about Anglo Americans, Anglo Ameri¬cans knew little about Mexican Americans. From 1848 to 1912–the period of transition for the con¬quest generation of Mexicans who became Ameri¬cans per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Febru¬ary 2, 1848–Mexican Americans were regarded poor¬ly by the American public. So poorly, in fact, that the territories of New Mexico and Arizona were delayed statehood until their popula¬tions were pre¬dominantly Anglo American.
In Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana described the Mexican Americans as “an idle, thriftless people” who could make nothing for them¬selves (1959: 9). And in 1852, Colonel Monroe re¬ported to Washington that “the New Mexicans are thoroughly debased and totally incapable of self-gov¬ernment, and there is no latent quality about them that can ever make them respectable. They have more Indian blood than Spanish, and in some respects are below the Pueblo Indians, for they are not as honest or as industrious” (Congressional Globe, 32nd Congress, 2nd Session, January 10, 1853, Appendix, p. 104).
Four years later, W.W.H. Davis, United States Attorney for the Territory of New Mexico, wrote a propos his experiences with Mexican Americans that “they possess the cunning and deceit of the Indian, the politeness and the spirit of revenge of the Span¬iard, and the imaginative temperament and fiery im¬pulses of the moor.” He described them as smart and quick but lacking the “stability and character and soundness of intellect that give such vast superiority to the Anglo-Saxon race over every other people.”

In 1874, General William Tecumseh Sherman quipped before a committee of the House of Repre¬sentatives that Mexico be prevailed upon to take back the territory of New Mexico (Arnold L. Rodri¬guez, “New Mexico in Transition,” New Mexico His¬torical Review, XXIV, July 1949, 186). And in 1902, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana objected to statehood for the New Mexico Territory on the grounds that “the majority of people in New Mexico could speak only [Spanish]. . . . Illiteracy was high, and the arid conditions of the southwest imposed serious limitations on agriculture” (Robert W. Lar¬son, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood 1846-1912, 1968: 215).
Even after 64 years as Americans, Mexican Amer¬icans were considered foreigners in their own country. Little thought was given to the fact that Mex¬ican Americans were not immigrants to the Unit¬ed States, that they were a “territorial minority” cum Americans as a booty of war, that the border had crossed them. By the 20th century, mainstream Amer¬icans had forgotten that as a consequence of the U.S.–Mexi¬co War of 1846-1848 Mexico was dismembered, giving up more than half of its terri¬tory to the United States: a territory now constituting the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Califor¬nia, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, as well as parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma, a territory larger than France, Spain, and Italy combined.
During the period of Americanization from 1912 to 1960, Mexican Americans fared little better de¬spite their efforts to become Americans. During this period, from 1913 to 1930, more than a million and a half Mexicans made their way north from Mexico to the United States, owing to the destabilization of Mexico during its civil war from 1913 to 1921. This influx of Mexicans to the United States plus the pop¬ulation of Mexicans who were part of the conquest generation came to constitute the primary population of Mexican Americans that has given rise to their present demographics in 21st century America.
We have no definitive count as to the numbers of Mexicans who came with the dismembered terri¬tory. Figures range from a low of 75,000 to 300,000. The dismembered territory was certainly not void of popula¬tion, considering the cities that were part of the annexed territory–San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe and the San Luis Valley of Colorado, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, and Pueblo, Colorado, not counting the hundreds of smaller communities dot¬ting the landscape.
The third factor in the demographic growth of Mexican Americans was the 20 year immigration compact between the United States and Mexico that brought thousands of Mexican “braceros” (laborers) into the country between 1942 and 1962. This demo¬graphic troika of Mexican Americans (conquest gen¬eration, civil war refugees, and braceros) now num¬bers some 30 million, its growth due principally¬ to fertility abetted certainly by a small but steady an¬nual ingress of immigrants since 1962.
These 30 million Mexican Americans are 66% of the American Hispanic population. That is, two out of three American Hispanics are Mexican Amer¬icans. These are not undocumented workers; they are Ameri-can citizens. But in the current wave of nati¬vist hysteria, American Hispanics including Mexican Americans are regarded as aliens whose expedient deportation is desirable in the national interest. As American citizens, Mexican Americans have been thrown into the mix with undocumented Hispanic workers not only from Mexico but throughout Latin America, under the rubric of “illegal immigrants.” This is “Why Chicano Studies?” Americans need to understand that Mexican Americans are not a new population. That they have been part of the Ameri¬can enterprise for 160 years. And this is why after almost 40 years I am still convinced about the need for Chicano Studies.

When I joined the English Department at New Mexico State University almost half a century ago, I was the only Mexican American in the department and totally clueless about Mexican American Studies, though I had stud¬ied Spanish literature, Mexican literature, and Latin American literature as well as English literature and American literature. My parents taught me about Mexico. I knew that a branch of mother’s family had settled in San Antonio, Texas, in 1731. But about Mexican Americans in general, I knew nothing ex¬cept that we had relatives in Chicago and Pitts¬burgh (whom we visited often), as well as in Texas.
In my comparative studies classes at the Univer¬sity of Pittsburgh between 1948 and 1952, I learned nothing about Mexican Americans except what I learned from the long-time Mexican American com-mu¬nities there. But none of that information spurr¬ed my curiosity to learn about the history of Mexican Americans in the United States. The apo¬dictic value system of the Unit¬ed States held me firm¬ly in its grip, reinforcing the mantra that I was an American. Later, I would ask: If I’m an American, were my an¬cestors English since our teachers and textbooks em¬phasized that a special relationship existed between the Unit¬ed States and England as the mother country. In a country of E Pluribus Unum (One out of many), the Unit¬ed States has many moth¬er countries. The Unit¬ed States is the world. Had Italians in the United States been subjected to the same kind of indoctri¬nation? Germans in the Unit¬ed States?

In 1970 I was recruited to be founding director of the Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso, first such program in the state. By this time, I had become conscien¬tized as a Chi-cano. From 1967 on, I had become identified as a Quinto Sol Writer, that is, among the first wave of Chicano writers of the Chicano Renaissance which had its beginning in 1966 with the creation of Quinto Sol Publica¬tions headed by Octavio Romano. By 1970, I had written extensively about Mexican Amer¬icans and their plight in the United States. In the Fall of 1969 I had taught the first course in Chi¬cano literature in the country. By 1970, I was finish¬ing up Back¬grounds of Mexican American Litera¬ture, first literary history in the field (University of New Mexico, 1971).
In 1969, California had organized the first Chi¬cano Studies Program in the country. In the following two years many more Chicano Studies Programs were inaugurated throughout the Hispanic Southwest. But all was not serene in Aztlan–the name Chicanos chose to identify the Hispanic South¬west, that territory dismembered from Mexico as a consequence of the U.S. War with Mexico (1846-1848) and annexed¬ by the United States per the Trea¬ty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed on February 2, 1848.
The Handbook for the organization of Chicano Studies was developed in California as El Plan de Santa Barbara (The Plan of Santa Barbara). This was the blueprint we used in developing the Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1970. Our guiding principal per the Plan de Santa Barbara was: a Chicano Studies Program not control-led by Chicanos is not a Chicano Studies Pro¬gram.
Not surprisingly, Chicano students, faculty, and community leaders pressed hard for Chicano control of the Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso, despite institutional and system resistance. That resistance was so obstructive, that only a student takeover of the administration build¬ing with the president as hostage in December of 1971 precipitated the necessary impetus for the institution-aliza¬tion of Chicano Studies.
Reluctantly, the intransigence of the university turned to half-hearted support for Chicano Studies. Our aim was to embed Chicano Studies courses in as many departments as we could. Our recruitment ef¬forts were effective, bringing to the UT El Paso cam¬pus Chicano luminaries like Rodolfo de la Garza in Political Science, Donald Castro in English, Hector Serrano in Theater, and Tomas Arciniega in Educa¬tion. We increased the number of Chicano faculty substantially, but still nowhere near a percentage reflecting our numbers in the American population or our numbers in El Paso–a community more than 75 percent mejicano at the time.

ore than half the students at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1970 were mejica¬nos, but Mexican American visibility on campus was restricted to the maintenance workers, janitors, and gardeners. Our objectives for Chicano Studies were twofold: not only would Chicano Stud¬ies help us to enlighten both Chicanos and non-Chi¬canos about who we were, but Chicano Studies would enable us to promote our visibility beyond mainte¬nance workers, janitors, and gardeners. More¬over, Chicano Studies would provide the missing pieces of American history anent Mexican Ameri¬cans. Chicano Studies would show Americans the rich heritage of Mexican Americans and the splen¬dor of their indigenous past. This was one way to bring Chicanos into the consciousness of the Ameri¬can mainstream, though Chicano Studies was not explicit-tly a mainstream venue. Chicano Studies was the alternative to the mainstream. That was Octavio Romano’s argument in the editorial of the first issue of El Grito in 1967. Since the American mainstream rejected Chicanos, Chicanos would establish their own institutions and outlets for their cultural produc¬tions. Chicano achievement was not predicated on the approval of the mainstream. While Chicanos want¬ed to be in the mainstream they would not be brown copies of whites in the mainstream.
Now, almost forty years later, looking back on the progress and evolution of Chicano Studies I won¬der how much mainstreaming has taken place. And whether mainstreaming has been the ignis fatuus it has always been for Chicanos. In a recent edition of The American Tradition in Literature published by McGraw Hill, the 2500 page anthology did not in¬clude one American Hispanic writer (that is, an His¬panic writer who is of the United States and not from Hispanic America). Not till page 2299 do we see an Hispanic writer: Isabel Allende, the Chilean writer who now lives and writes in the United States. Not one Chicano writer appears in the McGraw Hill an¬thology which purports to be the American tradition in literature. This situation would be like including Chinua Achebe in the anthology as representative of African American writers.
Five decades later Chicanos are still invisible to the American mainstream, although a number of Chi¬cano writers have made their way into that main¬stream. Despite Chicano nationalism, there is a wave of Chicanos who desperately seek approval of the white mainstream which progressively validates Chi¬canos who most reflect its values. In the background, however, silent running, are those die-hard Chicano venues like Arte Publico Press and The Bilingual Review Press which continue to nurture the aspira¬tions of Chicano writers still marginalized by main¬stream presses.
In 1968 the absence of minority writers in an¬thologies of American literature, especially those antholo¬gies used in colleges and universities, was so exacerbated that the minority caucuses of the Na¬tional Council of Teachers of English banded to¬gether as the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English, issuing a blistering re¬port entitled Searching for America which detailed just how bad the situation was. Along with Carlota Car-denas Dwyer and Jose Carrasco, I was a found¬ing member of that Task Force. The NCTE Report included the piece on “Chicanos and American Liter¬ature” by Jose Carrasco and me, later reprinted in The Wiley Reader.
In 1970 I sent a piece on “Chicano Poetry: Roots and Writers” to Richard Ohman then editor of Col¬lege English. He returned the manuscript with a note saying he didn’t think the article would be of much interest to the readers of College English, besides he was already considering a piece on Chicano litera¬ture for an upcoming issue of College English. The piece turned out to be an essay on Chicano literature by a non-Chicano. The following year I presented “Chica-no Poetry: Roots and Writers” at the First Na¬tional Symposium on Chicano Literature organized by Ed Simmen at Pan Amer¬ican University in Edin¬berg, Texas, and published as part of the proceedings along with the presentations of Tomas Rivera and Jose Reyna. In 1972 the piece was reprinted in South¬western Amer¬ican Literature. In the meantime, I finished my work on Backgrounds of Mexican Amer¬ican Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971), first study in the field.
By 1971 the Modern Language Association had sanctioned a Chicano Caucus, as had the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. It appeared that the Chicano voice was gaining in volume. It also appeared that conceptions of Chica¬nos were changing. Helping that change along was establishment of La Luz magazine in Denver in 1972, the first Hispanic public affairs magazine in English, organized by Dan Valdes as Publisher and me as Associate Publisher. Over the ten years of my tenure with La Luz we published dozens of pieces by Chicanos in various genres. In 1973 Washington Square Press brought out my anthology of We Are Chicanos which included many of the early lumina¬ries of the Chicano Renaissance.

hile there was headway in making the Chi¬cano presence in American society more visible, Chicano venues began to shrink as that visibility gave more prominence to Chicanos who became more attractive to mainstream purvey¬ors. By the 1990's Chicano venues for literary pro¬duction had dwindled to a handful from what had been hundreds of ephemeral “garage presses” intent on promoting the jinetes of Chicano literature. By the 1990's there had not been a dramatic integration of Chicano perspectives into the academic disci¬plines. The dozens of Chicano Studies programs (in¬cluding those that were departments) dwindled as well to a few, although today there are two doctoral programs in Chicano Studies. Nevertheless, since the 1990's there has been a retreat from using Chicano Studies as a disciplinary anchor for promulgating the story of Chicanos in America.
Chicano Studies has become a subset of His¬panic Studies and Latino Studies, seemingly more palatable terms than Chicano Stud¬ies much the way the term Latin American became a more palatable term than Mexican American when the League of United Latin Amer¬ican Citizens (LULAC) was orga¬nized in Corpus Chris¬ti, Texas, in 1929. The term Chicano has been lost in the lexicon of Hispanicity and Latinismo. More attention seems to be paid now to mem¬bers of Hispanic groups in the United States with minimal population numbers compared to the 30 million Mex¬ican Americans currently in the U.S. population (not count¬ing the purported num¬bers of undocu¬mented Mexicans in the country). Of the 45 million American Hispanics counted in the Census, two-thirds of them (66 percent) are Mexican Ameri¬cans.
The subalternization of Chicanos in Hispanic Studies emphasizes the point: Why Chicano Stud¬ies? Why? Because Chicano Studies is being cut off a medio grito, aborting its premise and promise. This does not mean, of course, that the study of Chicanos cannot go on without academic programs of Chicano Studies. But rooted in an academic setting of respect and encouragement, Chicano Studies provides the ground and lens from and through which to illumi¬nate the historical processes that have brought Chi¬canos to this point in American history. These are the same heuristic considerations that undergird other disciplines.
However, suspicions about the ideological agen¬da of Chicano Studies have wormed their way into the debate over Chicano Studies, raising questions about objectivity, questions Chicanos raised in the 660'6 and 70's about the institutional disciplines that did not include the presence of Chicanos in their pur¬view. This does not diminish the value of contin¬uing the constructing a Chicano narrative; it just in¬terposes inhibitions to that construction.
The Chicano Studies programs at the University of Texas at El Paso and at California State Univer¬sity at North¬ridge have endured because of their aca¬demic rigor and the passion of their faculty. This is not to say that other Chicano Studies programs lack rigor and a passionate faculty. Whether a Chicano Studies program should be disciplinary or interdisci¬plinary remains a question of academic inquiry. My concern is: without Chicano Studies in the academy, who will

advocate for Chicanos therein? In the cur¬rent public debate over immigration we see the grow¬ing hostility towards Chicanos who are per¬ceived as part of the undocumented hordes of Mexi¬cans invading the United States as Lou Dobbs and CNN characterize the situation.
The immigration debate avers the proposition that Americans, by and large, know little about Chi¬canos other than what they learn about them through public media. Everywhere today, Chicanos are being assailed by nativists and jingoists who see them as progeny of “black” Spaniards and savage Indians. Chicano Studies becomes, therefore, the instrument through which Americans can come to see Chicanos in their own right rather than through the normative view of mainstream Americans.
For the past 39 years I’ve taught Chicano litera¬ture to undergraduates, Master’s students, and docto¬ral candidates. Most of these students have been Chicanos. The students we also want to reach are are non-Chicanos. But they have not signed up for Chic¬ano Studies courses in numbers to suggest that we are reaching them with our story. This is also why we need to keep and strengthen Chicano Studies.
Last semester (Fall 2007) I taught on-line the introductory graduate course to Chicano Studies which is part of our Interdisciplinary Master’s Pro¬gram. All the graduate students were Chicanos. This indicates the work the Chicano Faculty Caucus has to do in promoting to all our students, especially non Chicanos, the Chicano courses in our embryonic Chicano Studies Program.
Como una hija querida, tenemos que defender Chicano Studies porque si no, perderemos nuestro futuro. That’s too important a future to lose, too ex¬acting a price to pay. This is the exact moment of history for Chicanos to rise to the occasion. Inaction begets failure. Now, more than ever we must band together in common cause. Chicano Studies deserves no less.

Copyright © 2008 by the author. All rights reserved.

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