If you wanted a college degree in the 1800s, there was a good chance that you would have been required to demonstrate proficiency in Latin and Greek. Americans didn’t use the languages all that much, but an earlier generation of colleges in the 1700s were created to train clergy – and if you’re going into that line of work, classical languages are helpful. Students and reformers complained about obsolete requirements. However, the end of the bible language requirements did not happen easily or quickly. Latin and Greek were associated with rigor and scholarship. They were considered signs of erudition. Colleges employed faculty and relationships with alumni dedicated to the languages. Over time, thanks to retirements and new faculty hires and many meetings and reports, colleges replaced the requirements with more relevant curricula. It has been an ongoing pattern colleges have followed ever since.
Many things in higher education – especially what we teach and why – change slowly. When academia endorses a line of inquiry, cultural capital and all manner of investment (in people, in education, in facilities) are attached to the decision. Making a commitment to a discipline or an area of study is serious and expensive. It does not happen quickly. Nor does it happen without controversy or conflict.
Keep this perspective when considering Rodolfo F. Acuna’s The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches of Academe. It may sound like an arcane topic for a book, perhaps of interest to a handful of faculty and administrators. Don’t be put off – it offers considerably more than an esoteric analysis of program change. Acuna raises vitally important questions that touch on identity, politics, the role of education, and power – within the confines of higher education and outside in society.
Rodolfo Acuna is one of the founding fathers of Chicano/a Studies. When he was born in California in 1932, there was virtually no scholarship about the history and lives of those who lived in the US and claimed a Mexican heritage. The academy was mostly indifferent and at the K-12 level, state legislatures – especially in the states bordering Mexico mandated pro-American curricula that marginalized Mexican Americans. The issue was politicized and has remained so to this day, even with a steady increase in Chicana/o Studies and Latina/o Studies.
Acuna was a high school teacher in Los Angeles before moving to the community college world. He focused on history in college and completed a PhD in Latin American Studies at USC in 1968. The following year, he was appointed the founding chair of Chicano Studies at San Fernando State College (now known as California State University Northridge). He has been a tireless advocate for research and scholarship on the Chicana/o experience, an indefatigable teacher, and an activist. He has written many books and textbooks, while also making time to extend his influence to journalism and popular media. The Making of Chicano/o Studies is his account, both scholarly and personal memoir, of the development of the largest Chicana/o studies program in the nation. He contextualizes local academic decisions within the larger questions of national and state politics, immigration rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and education reform.
It is critical to realize, too, just how political Chicano Studies has been over the years. While Acuna was writing the book, Arizona passed House Bill 2281, which banned Mexican American studies from high schools. It was one move in a longer battle between Republican leadership and Mexican American activists. The law, ironically, led to a massive counter-protest and the rise of ethnic studies in high schools around the country.
Acuna’s book is rigorously researched and strongest on developments in California. He cites sources assiduously and is blunt in his assessments. Chronology drives his narrative, from the student protests of the 1960s to the particulars of Chicano studies. Acuna is, first and foremost, a historian. He writes in detail about the minutiae of growing and leading an academic program. If it is to get a toe-hold in higher education, one needs enrollment, strong faculty, and the support of administration, and a place in the academic world of ideas. It is not a simple task for the faint of heart.
Take finding full-time tenured faculty, for example. They are essential for program and growth and stability. Provided one can secure funding – which is always a challenge – recruiting in an emerging area is a serious hurdle. Without strong graduate programs in Chicano Studies, Acuna had to recruit from other fields, finding candidates willing to take a chance with their careers. They had to be good teachers and possess the scholarly skills and ability to weather a rigorous tenure process. Building up the ranks of full-time faculty is a recurring concern for Acuna and for his colleagues.
Acuna maps the friends and foes of Chicano Studies. He notes that African-American studies programs are often partners within the academy and in terms of community outreach. Gender studies informed him and affects the thinking and work in Chicana/o Studies programs. Students – individually and in clubs and organizations – are a reliable source of strength and inspiration. Acuna’s agenda for Chicana/o Studies includes securing political and social capital, rights, recognition and resources for the Mexican-American population. He is a scholar who is comfortable with the title and actions of an activist. Resistance to Chicano Studies, he writes, comes from older units in the academy, especially Spanish literature departments, and those externally who have a different political agenda.
The Making of Chiana/o Studies underscores the influence of smart and committed faculty, students and administrators in shaping academic institutions, programming, and intellectual inquiry. The United States has experienced many waves of immigrants from different countries and cultures. Academia has responded differently to each. Decentralization and the lack of a formal mandate means that program growth in higher education takes place in a complicated marketplace of ideas, of institutional interest, and external need and desire. Successful programs have to be successful in all of these arenas.
The number of Mexican-Americans in the United States increased dramatically in the 1960s and following decades. Simply in terms of demographics, it makes sense for higher education to study this population’s history and to provide relevant curricula. But that does not mean that there is a blueprint for higher education follow. The development and spread of Chicana/o Studies is the result of the concerted effort of a few talented and dedicated leaders. They worked at the right time in the right environment. Of equal importance, they were able to build their vision into something meaningful and sustainable: courses, programs, faculty, scholarship, and thousands upon thousands of educated students. Rodolfo Acuna’s account of that effort makes for fascinating history.