As we approach the 25th anniversary of the UCLA Hunger Strikes of 1993, we are coming full circle with recognizing the need to assert historical memory and powerful protest. We must remember the painful and direct action that students, educators, and community members engaged in, giving their lives for the departmentalization of a field of study discriminated against in a traditionally white institution. A decision for establishing a department for Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA did not come easy. The César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies would not exist if the community didn’t organize around this struggle.
Demands for Xicana/o Studies at UCLA was a radical and revolutionary act.
It’s no debate to assert that there exists structural and institutional racism in all university campuses in the US. The pseudo measures of diversity and inclusion in university campuses does not absolve the settler colonial project that inherently exists in these institutions of higher education. Radical and revolutionary Students of Color have always known this; Indigenous students have always known that these were physical places to build and promote settler empire. Indigenous land dispossession is what defines the confines of UCLA. The buildings themselves are products of Indigenous Mexican-migrant labor. This is nothing new for settler colonialism. These ivory towers have been destructive and counterrevolutionary spaces where many times Students of Color themselves uphold or are complicit in these practices. One might remember student activists against the US’s participation and complicity with South African apartheid, demanding UCLA to divest from Coca-Cola. The challenges of student organizing is historical memory, of sustaining the legacies of our Elders who fought against mass oppression and empire. UCLA now is almost 5 years into their contract with Coca-Cola since 2013.
The Hunger Strikes of 1993 are part of a legacy of Chicanx student resistance, one that secured spaces for Raza to be included. Many times this institutional and historical memory leaves us; for the dignity and respect of our Elders who participated in this time of tension, we mustn’t forget. As a community struggle, Raza students took it in their own means to propose what sustaining Xicana/o Studies would look like. It was a time where Chicana/o Studies stood at the edge of being cut completely, as well as its resources on the UCLA campus. The spirit and dedication for direct action was needed to put pressure on administration, to remind the university that they serve us -- the people.
Discipline took hold of the student organizers of this Hunger Strike. Spirituality, something that is constantly left out of political resistance, came from the strength of the peoples of the land, as well as the ancestors of those who risked their lives. Ceremony and prayer for the hunger strikers took shape many times in the form of Danza Azteka. At the center of these prayers were the Raza community who backed and supported the students’ demands for a Xicana/o Studies department at UCLA.
Along with Asian and Black students, there was a powerful sense of coalitional solidarity for not only Ethnic Studies, but also a time for the university to recognize and acknowledge its student population of Black, Indigenous, and Asian students. The Conscious Students of Color -- a UCLA student organization at the time -- focused their efforts to secure a future for Xicana/o Studies that left a legacy where Indigenous and Ethnic Studies at UCLA would become sustainable. Aztlan -- the name of the tents and space of gathering among students and hunger strikers located in Schoenberg Quad -- would come to represent more than educational goals, but a lasting impact on what it meant to be present in a traditionally white institution.
Yet, Xicana/o Studies is not where it was imagined. Chicana/o Studies has taken its academics elsewhere: it sits and dwells on the functioning of latinidad in the US. Xicana/o Studies, as it was imagined, necessitated Indigenous language, Indigenous culture, Indigenous accountability in the community of Yaanga -- Los Angeles. The vision of Xicana/o Studies was a decolonization project that trained its majors and minors in the significance of Indigenous knowledge and being accountable to one’s community. These would be alternative measures to combat the settler colonial practice of indoctrination and assimilation: we would be asked to think about what it meant to transform the tools of the university while demanding the same institution to serve our community. Although different routes were taken, we can see glimpses of these influences in its legacy today.
With 25 years after the Hunger Strikes, much work is still needed. The history of this time of 1990-1993 is in itself a site of contestation, with many gaps and many holes. And in the back-burner, the department of Chicana/o Studies today at UCLA sits in a position where discussion surrounding a name change is being had. What will students do to defend a legacy? What will they do to advance Chicana/o Studies? How do students reclaim a destiny that was co-opted by the university?
In pressing times such as these, the future is in the hands of Raza students.
Kristian Emiliano Vasquez
Indígena Scribes is our writing side-project parallel to our overarching podcast of Xicana Tiahui. Here we post our writings of thoughts we have, essays we have written, poetry, social commentary, news reports, polemics, and our zine periodical available for purchase. We hold it valuable to our hearts the written word in the spirit of the huehuetlahtolli, and we aspire to be intellectually on point as well as accessible to our gente from the barrio to the academy.