Reflections on Chicana and Chicano Studies: Notes on Xican@ Knowledge and Intellectual Histories in Higher Education
Reflections on Chicana and Chicano Studies:
Notes on Xican@ Knowledge and Intellectual Histories in Higher Education
we are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlán belongs to the Creator who brings nourishment to the seeds, and brings rain and sun to the fields to give people crops for food, and not to the yankee empire. we do not recognize capricious borders on the Red Continent.
― Alurista, “The Red Spirit of Aztlán: A Plan of National Liberation,” Nationchild (1972)
For the last three years, I have been involved in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies (CCS) at UCLA. I have been an undergraduate student and emerging scholar taking seriously the work, scholarship, and literature that has defined and outlined the contours of what we know as Chicana and Chicano Studies across the US. As a student worker for the Academic Advancement Program (AAP) Peer Learning unit, I have worked with diverse Students of Color in their coursework in CCS introductory and theory classes. While working with these students I have also been deeply invested in what constitutes introductory courses into CCS while thinking through what I know as the complex nature of CCS. This is a reflection of my time in CCS and an examination (or what I will call notes) of Xican@ knowledge and intellectual histories that are many times missing from the bulk of the major’s coursework and topics in CCS. I also ultimately want to address the “demise” of CCS in a time of political ambivalence among radical organizers, students, and faculty in the US.
I transferred into UCLA as a pre-Sociology major from the Los Angeles Southwest College in the unincorporated West Athens district of Los Angeles. While I had an interest in Sociology as a field of study, I could not wrap my head around drudging coursework that seemed uninteresting to me at UCLA in the Department of Sociology. I switched majors in my second quarter at UCLA to Chicana and Chicano Studies, while already have taken the two mandatory introductory courses titled: History & Culture (10A) and Social Structure & Contemporary Conditions (10B). I also took a two series history course for CCS titled: History of Chicano People lectured by Professor Juan Gómez-Quiñones in the Department of History. Much of what influenced my early decision to switch majors was my involvement in the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán at UCLA at the time. I was proud to make this decision as I was now on a path of liberatory education and followed a legacy of Chican@ struggle for culturally relevant curriculum, study, and scholarship. Chicano and Chicano Studies was, after all, a community-based movement that was conceived in El Plan de Santa Barbara in 1969.
I remember my first syllabus for the introductory course in History and Culture in CCS in the Fall of 2017. We started with the question of Chicana and Chicano Studies’ beginnings: the Pre-Contact era or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. As an emerging Xicano, I opted for the Pre-Contact era for the beginnings for CCS, a point of departure I was sure was accepted among all students and faculty. I was wrong. I would learn that this question of beginnings was never fleshed out by scholars and faculty, and everyone in CCS debated this question rigorously or not at all.
Yet, the lectures in my class were a great overview of much CCS history, and we as students learned various concepts, traditions, and frameworks. We studied Mexican history tied to what is called the US Southwest; we examined post-WWI & II Chican@ conditions, focused on the cultural production of Pachucos; and we also entered Chicano Movement history and legacies. Yet, something always felt off. While we interrogated concepts of racial scripts, gender, and class, the cultural analysis of this course never interrogated an Indigenous history or movement. My own emergent Xicano consciousness desired content and topics such as Indigenous histories, social movements, and conscientization as Indigenous people.
What is a Chicano? This was a question posed to the entire class one lecture. “A Mexican-American.” “Someone who is in-between spaces.” “Someone ni de aquí, ni de allá.” These were some of the mainstream sentiments of the class, sentiments I as a Mechista at the time did not agree with fully. One person called out, and I am paraphrasing, “Chicano is more than Mexican-American. It is tied to an Indigenous history and consciousness.” I later found out that the student who said this was a member of the American Indian Student Association at UCLA. But I always wondered, how was it that the MEChA space I was part of discussed these topics, yet my own coursework never delve into it? Although our conversations on these topics were marginal and sidelined, they were for a few of us a vibrant part of our political subjectivity.
My sentiments toward this class would be positive in the end, but I felt like something more should have come out of it. As I approach my last year as an undergraduate in CCS, I have been reflective of CCS and its introductory courses at UCLA. This last Fall quarter in 2018 gave me a spark of hope when Professors Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Alma Lopez both co-lectured the 10A course in History & Culture. This was the first class to introduce the concepts of many different emerging forms of the Chicano Movement that did not homogenize it. The class was organized with the theme of Caliban and Prospero from The Tempest by Shakespeare and began with The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi. The emerging conceptual framework was to identify the complex relationship of Chican@s to the US and Mexico. The lectures provided a key seven branches of the Chicano Movement: Student (MEChA/UMAS), Feminist (Chicanas), Farm Worker (UFW), Land Grant (Alianza Federal de Mercedes), Nationalist (Crusade for Justice), Floricanto (Chicano Renaissance), and Political (La Raza Unida party). These branches represented the various strands of the Chicano Movement that may or may not have overlapped with each other over the course of the last 50 years. Now, here, I saw a comprehensive approach to the introduction to CCS. Yet, like the other introductory courses, it fell short in many respects.
Chican@ knowledge and intellectual history were reduced to mainstream representations. Although it proves difficult to survey many topics and points of discussion in an introductory course, there is a pattern of leaving out certain strands of the movement and its legacies. In my own studies, I have come across a specific historical trajectory that has arguably influenced and challenged the supposed “branches” of the Chicano Movement, and it is that of the Indigenista direction of many Chican@s who would later call themselves “Xican@s.” While most Indigenista-based organizing sparked in the 1990s, it’s important to note that its origins were in the Chicano Movement. Danza Azteca is a great example; I had a compañera and fellow Mechista at UCLA (Natalia Toscano, who is now a Ph.D. student at UNM) who researched the Danza Mexica influence on Xicanx Indigenous consciousness and sacred purpose. Her literature review demonstrated the early practices that Chican@s partook as part of Danza Azteca circles in the 1970s. Many Xican@s over time and space became Mexica ceremonial danzantes and today continue to practice Mexicayotl or other Danza Azteca traditions. A point to discuss here is the prevalence of Xican@s engaging Native ceremonies, whether they have been American Indian or Mexican Indigenous. This is an important part of Xican@s re-connecting as Indigenous people to our cultural lifeways and value-systems. No, not all self-identified Xican@s are Mexica, but Danza becomes a ceremonial space for one to shift from colonial paradigms into one that understands our severed ties in order to re-root our ombligo.
Why didn’t CCS take seriously this early strand of Chican@ Indigenistas? If we take my epigraph from the beginning of this reflection, we see a Plan Espiritual de Aztlan transformed to think about Native spirituality and belonging to Mother Earth. There is no claim to land nor territory for Aztlan has become a concept that belongs to the Creator, a concept for life and re-humanization. Xican@ knowledge today encompasses a large and diverse intellectual tradition, one that a friend of mine maintains has been evolving for 50 years and unexamined (Natalia Toscano, personal communications). A question I ask is, what will it take to legitimize the Indigenista “branch”/epistemology of the Chicano Movement and understanding its legacies today? How are we to account for this new ontology that was always present but only hidden by anti-Indian structural forces?
Many scholars and faculty are identifying CCS as a failure. But this premature, supposed failure is rooted in their conception of CCS as not being able to adjust to the growing population of other “national”/Indigenous groups migrating from Latinized America. Apart from this critique, these same people identify CCS as not being able to name the powerful loss of their Indigeneity, thus rendering Chican@s (“Mexican-American mestizos”) as settlers in the US. Their perception of CCS in these ways are limited, narrow, and obfuscate the realities and growing epistemology of both CCS and Xican@ people. In the push for the political project of Latinidad and of Latinx Studies, forfeiting the political aspirations and community-based liberatory stature of CCS, we are seeing the decline of Chicana and Chicano Studies as a program for liberation.
More and more, my time at UCLA has seen the unwarranted critiques of CCS as not being “inclusive” enough of Latinxs beyond Mexico, of being Mexican-centric, and it being an “old-aged” program and site of struggle. Yet, this neoliberalization of CCS demands inquiry: How does the demise of CCS undermine the revolutionary struggle for culturally relevant education and the analysis of power in the academy? Although I have my own reservations and critiques of CCS at UCLA, I believe in its power and potential for students across Abya Yala, transnationally and hemispherically. CCS in and of itself is not a failure; rather, the de-generative approaches scholars and faculty undertake to address CCS is the failure. Like any other organization, collective, federation, or group, CCS demands a nurturement with a radical commitment and dedication to its growth, scholarship, and transforming analysis of the world.
In Spring of 2018, Professor Reynaldo Flores Macías, in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA, taught a special course topic on Chican@ Indigeneity. Maritza Geronimo, Joel Calixto, and I (Xicana Tiahui podcasters) assisted Profe Macías in the construction of his syllabus, albeit it proved to be a struggle considering much has not been written on the topic. Yet, we are seeing a resurgence of Indigenous consciousness among Chican@s and “Latinxs” and our literature within academia doesn’t reflect it.In this class, we were able to challenge normative frameworks that understood Chican@ people and our seminar-style readings and dialogue interrogated Chican@ Indigeneity through a interdisciplinary perspective. In retrospect, this was the only class I have known to have explicitly studied Indigeneity and contemporary Indigenous scholarship about Xican@s in CCS. This aspiration to transform the scholarship and curriculum of CCS gave me hope, and we are seeing changes, despite the opposition to see its death.
The language of “death” may stir questions and shock for using such words to describe this situation. I maintain the language of “death” for its figurative and literal meanings in the grand scheme of the dying spirit of radical departments, programs, and movements on US college campuses. CCS as it was imagined and put into practice by El Plan de Santa Barbara prepared for the opportunist actors of and for the settler colonial university. The writers and committee of El Plan de Santa Barbara knew of the threat that implementation would carry when considering the structures of the settler colonial university. It is hard to see how many CCS departments and programs neglect that spirit of ‘69 and assimilate into the apolitical confines of the university. Death of CCS is desired by the university; and it is assisted by the faculty and students who wish it to die, to build from its hard-fought origins a delusion of “inclusivity”: the rigor and the spirit of CCS buried beneath a misguided discourse of failure and silencing.
Although this negative picture I am painting occurs in specific places (thus not all), I also want to guide us to futurities that consider the possibilities of CCS rather than its death. For instance, I commend CCS programs and departments that consider Indigenista strands of Chicanismo and Chican@ history. This isn’t to say that only these programs and departments are doing it “right” but that they are most likely not attempting to seek the death of CCS. Those who seek inclusion, assimilation, and validation from the university are doomed to create tensions in CCS. CSS as the spirit of Chicanismo invokes analyses of power, rooted in the diverse disciplines that scholars and students engage to understand the world.
I point to Indigenista strands/branches of Chican@ history and politics because much of the scholarship neglects to speak comprehensively on it. That is the imperative for future students and emerging scholars in CCS, to build from the foundations and work with the tools we are collaboratively creating in order to do so. Each CCS program and department must sustain that radical spirit of ‘68 and it will be the students who realign that spirit again and again. And we will always have room for our Elders and veterans who seek that intergenerational dialogue on Xican@ futurities. Our Xican@ knowledge and intellectual histories is dependent on this intergenerational dialogue and we must not make the mistake to disregard our Elders in this movement and struggle. This is also why CCS fails.
What I have hoped to have outlined in this reflection are notes of the various experiences I have had in and through CCS at UCLA. Fortunately, programs in CCS are growing and expanding: an example of this being the recent Ph.D. program at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in CCS. With the upcoming annual National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies conference of 2019 happening at UNM, we will continue to see the debate and dialogue of CCS and the diverse plethora of scholarship being produced by scholars of all walks of life. With this year being the quincentennial time of Indigenous resistance in Anahuac, many are pointing to this year also being the year of Xican@ resistance through study, praxis, and reflection. May we continue that spirit forward, with the hopes of a liberating future.
In some final thoughts, I believe CCS to be a threat to the US settler-colonial institution of academia. We mustn't allow it to be co-opted by opportunists and infiltrators who would seek its demise and subordination. Xican@ knowledge and intellectual histories must be re-examined and re-generated for our future on this continent. Today’s semillas (youth) must see the potential of the radical organization at the university that seeks to overturn its elitist resources for the community. We mustn’t be distracted by outside detractors who seek the death of CCS. We should take from those perspectives the motivation to grow and build toward new theories, new methods, and new worldviews. Xican@s and CCS have never been fully embraced by some communities, and at the same time we have been enriched and challenged to continue this work in a good way. We have the imperative to continue the work left to us by our ancestors, from wherever we as a people emerged, and struggle for a world in harmony.
The work of El Plan de Santa Barbara, the struggles of Chicanx people, is unfinished, and the prophetic vision of Alurista’s words are ringing and echoing in Xican@ temporal space: “we are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts.”
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