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Latino Politics in the U.S.

Latino Politics in the U.S.
Kendall-Hunt, 2012 (2005)

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Racialization of Chicano Studies: The Genealogy of the Subsuming of Utopia

Michael Soldatenko. Chicano Studies: The Genesis of a Discipline. The University of Arizona Press, 2009.

(In Press CENTRO Journal of Puerto Rican Studies, Fall 2010)

When a member of discipline produces an intellectual project that arises out of a deep introspective process of self-reflection, it signals the maturity of a discipline. In 1980, Alvin Gouldner, wrote the Coming Crisis of Western Sociology a stinging, powerful critique of the conservative encasement of the discipline. Its focus was on structural-functionalism, the dominant theoretical and epistemological paradigm that was the foundation of much work in sociology. But sociology produced that self-reflective assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, two centuries after the discipline already had established itself on the hierarchical shelf of the academic world. Michael Soldatenko's book is a tour de force that critically evaluates the process by which Chicano Studies found a space in academia. He provides a mature and comprehensive self-evaluation of the shifting paradigms, theoretical perspectives, master narratives and power struggles which have shaped and ultimately ensconced the discipline in an almost respected stratum within the academic intellectual ladder. But, as Soldatenko poignantly reveals, in the process, Chicano Studies lost its soul.

This is probably the most comprehensive, and iconoclast treatment of the genealogy of this discipline. In order to achieve this comprehensive assessment and mapping of the tortuous journey of Chicano Studies, he used archival sources, self-studies, and interviews. He also gave a close reading to some of the major works produced by Chicano Studies scholars during this period. He covers a critical, conflictive period in higher education, 1967-1982, and because of the leading role that California=s university systems had in the rise of the discipline, it receives most of the attention.

The first thing that he challenges is the master narrative which functions like a creation myth that many in the discipline have used to introduce the discipline to students and to legitimize its presence in the academic arena. Chicano Studies, just like Black Studies were not the outcome of an epistemological shift in the leaders of white higher educational institutions, they were partially the outcome of the struggles to expand the realm of freedom in the 1960s. But in its evolution the creation myth erased the internal intellectual and contradictory journey transforming the journey to a teleological process into the finished product. Soldatenko, like many other scholars in Chicano Studies departments across the nation, is not trained in Chicano Studies; he is a historian whose training was in European history. As a young discipline, there are still very few programs that provide doctoral education in the discipline. It could be argued that his ability to reconstruct the myth and reveal the historical and intellectual process may lie in his different academic background. This background provides him with the epistemological distance that produces a nuanced and critical description and interpretation of 15 years of scholarship, politics and in the end, the domestication of an oppositional movement that entered the dusty world of academia.

Soldatenko begins describing how a discipline with activists scholars who like Marx did not merely wanted to describe the world but to change it, became subsumed and racialized in one of the most important pillars of the empire, higher education. He carefully describes the role of the mythical Plan de Santa Barbara which laid out the foundation for contemporary Chicano Studies programs, department or research centers. The hidden agenda was to enter the intellectual space of academia and from within provide the knowledge, understanding and ethos to transform the subordinate role of Chicanos in the United States. Unfortunately, the efforts were marked by the fissures that are part of the American social landscape, race, gender, class and sexual orientation. What is unique about this book, in addition to its comprehensiveness, is its well constructed narrative of the marginalization of Chicanas, not only as scholars but also as purveyors of new epistemologies to challenge the dominant male-centered paradigms which emerged within the discipline.

Forgetting the wise warning of Audre Lord about not using the master's tools to dismantle the master=s house, Chicano scholars engaged with every new Eurocentric theoretical or methodological tool in the master=s shed. The first dominant paradigm, nationalism was later transformed into internal colonial model, shaped by Marxist theory (in its various schools). Later, other scholars in search of tools to develop an oppositional discipline latched onto post-modernism, post-structuralism, and more recently post-colonial theory. More recently, Cultural Studies and Transnational Chicana/o Latina/o Studies have become interdisciplinary ways of approaching the subject. The underlying logic was the need to know the Mexican American community, in order to provide the tools to transform it.

The basic trends that early struggled for hegemony within the discipline are described by Soldatenko as the Perspectivist Chicano Studies and the Empiric Chicano Studies. The Perspectivist wanted to challenge the prevailing epistemology with subjectivity and a standpoint epistemology. Many of its adherents we unable to build a strong position in academia and eventually lost ground to the Empiric Chicano Studies, this last became the dominant form of Chicano Studies. It was initially rooted in the Plan it wanted to create knowledge to aid in the liberation of the Chicano people and saw its role as institution builders. It mimicked other disciplines, embraced the methodological tools of the social sciences and the humanities but with the purpose of politicizing and presenting an oppositional discipline to contribute to the struggle. Following the call of the Plan it eventually drifted towards advocacy, public policy research as a way of maintaining a connection with the community as the Plan had called for.

But in order to conquer a space in higher education, the Chicano scholars had to seek legitimacy, in seeking it they were constrained by the rigid bureaucratic structures that exercise control over academic programs. Budgets, systems for tenure and promotion all had pre-ordained strictures that created the path these programs had to follow in order to stabilize their programs. They had to publish, provide service to the institution and were constrained by formal and informal rules that shaped the contours and at times limited contestation and oppositional practices.

In the end, Chicanos Studies had created an infrastructure which included the National Association for Chicano Studies, its own peer-reviewed journals, a diverse canon but canon nonetheless which reified the process of intellectual production. But in the process of gaining relative success, it also failed to engage in a critical self-reflection about the epistemologies and methodologies which it incorporated into its practice in order to gain institutional respectability. Its collection of data on the Chicano community, more progressive than the pseudo-racist research on Mexican Americans still failed to provide the vision for change. The Cartesian foundational epistemology that is at the basis of the positivistic social sciences used by many was not challenged in a fundamental way. While the perspectivistic attempted to transform it based on a standpoint epistemology that was rooted in a Chicano reading of Jose Ortega y Gasset, Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz, the product was not a structural transformation but as Soldatenko characterizes it was a new “philosophy of life.” It was a way of challenging Anglo materialism with the Chicano values of carnalismo. This project however could not survive in academia and empiric Chicano Studies became entrenched in the ivory towers. The perspectivist failed in their project, most remained outside the academic world and the trend withered away.

Ironically, the existence of Chicano Studies programs inside institutions of higher education softened the radical critique of the academy and led to the racialization of Chicano Studies. Racialization is the social and historical process by which individuals and groups (and institutions) are assigned a racial identity and status. The process by which the racialization of a discipline occurs provides the participants flexibility and a space which leads eventually, not to the transformation of the larger institution, but to a process of negotiation whose end product is accommodation. Racialization fragments, individualizes members of the groups as they strive to climb into positions of more access to power and prestige. Just like the Irish who found that distancing from African Americans gave them leverage in their aspiration to become white, the collective values of Chicanismo became substituted for the individualistic ethos of the Anglo academy. The struggle to transform the Mexican American community became an individual ascent through the hierarchy of institutions of higher education.

Because there was not a fundamental questioning of what the “given” epistemology and methodology were really all about, in the mad race for upward social mobility the ex-movement lost its soul. Social sciences are about control, the educational system, despites its spaces for liberation, are still the pillars of the empire and white supremacy. The scholar-activists were processed by racialization and bureaucraticization--- which are the cornerstone of institutions of higher education---and produced managers. The other potential source of resistance that could have provided a rupture with the structures and limits placed by Eurocentric epistemology and methodology, feminist epistemology, has faced strong resistance within the discipline. The Chicana feminist perspective which challenged ideas dear to the traditional disciplines’ objectivity, universality was too radical and crashed into a wall of skepticism and sexism. While the impact is growing within the discipline this trend is still contesting territory with empiric Chicano Studies. Also, it remains to be seen whether it can avoid the processes of co-optation that plagued the previous generation of Chicano Scholars.

The revolution never took place, except in monographs and conferences, or in the documentaries that have reified the movement and which now have also become part of the creation myth. Just like in traditional politics, Chicano and Latino students are exposed not to real persons but to mythical figures like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huertas (less often) which seem so mythical that they are impossible to emulate. The sense of powerlessness that is pervasive among Chicano and Latino youth is being, ironically reproduced in departments that were to be the spaces to train the catalyst agents for social transformation.

Some important lessons have been incorporated into the Chicano Studies discipline. Soldatenko’s narrative is nuanced, gender and sexuality are explored in the curriculum and unlike some years ago many Chicano Studies departments have reluctantly embraced a pan-Latino perspective. But again, they are part of a curriculum that compartamentalizes knowledge and while it eulogizes its “interdisciplinarity” in practice, students are offered a fragmented vision, not the kind of utopic vision that mobilizes. Taylorism, has entered Chicano Studies and while the original version was about creating domesticated and efficient blue collar workers now we are creating domesticated and efficient Chicana/o/Latina/o white collar professionals.

Soldatenko also briefly addresses in its conclusions the new “fads” of Cultural Studies and Transnational Chicana/o Latina/o studies. He hopes these trends will initiate a broader conversation with Jose Marti’s “Nuestra America” to widen the narrow focus of earlier Chicano Studies focus. He feels it would lead to a better understanding and deconstruction of nationalism because nationalism was also based on racialization and required the homogenization of diverse groups (in this case the nation) and to the erasure, in the case of Mexico of Mexicanos of African descent. The national imagery, out of which Chicano nationalism emerges, is based on a “mestizaje” which is anti-black and at times ambiguously anti-indigenous. Being Ladino is better than being black or “indio.” Also, the barrios are transnational; therefore, the approach to organizing and knowing of the community must also be transnational.

In the end, we are wishing for “the solution” a way out from this totalizing “system” that Chicano/Latino Studies is enmeshed in, but Soldatenko gives us a “Frankly, I am not sure.” There is no utopic visionary way of avoiding the role of gatekeepers for those in Chicano Studies. What he offers leaves the reader wanting. After an intellectually stimulating drive through the genealogy of the discipline we find ourselves at a crossroads with a cul de sac and a call for something that could be characterized as an ethical praxis. While Soldatenko provides a wonderful philosophical argument for the need of a way for those in the discipline not to continue “othering” each other, this ethical turn seems insufficient. Soldatenko says “The Ethical turn questions the centrality we have given to ontological and epistemological issues as well as our battle for institutional spaces.” (p. 184). The ethical call to be responsible for each other, basically a philosophical discourse on the Christian “golden rule,” just seems so distant from the kind of major transformation and rediscovery of what was the “raison d’être” for Chicano Studies. Unfortunately, he respectfully dismisses somewhat Rudy Acuña’s call for challenging epistemologically and politically the dominant paradigm. In Sometimes There Is No Other Side, Acuña explains his struggle with the academy, and clarifies why so many acquiesce “The main reason for this, I believe, is that an essential part of positivistic logic is to evade responsibility for one’s actions and recognition of one’s true motives, in this case, opportunism and a lack of political commitment.” This stance together with an ethical praxis can be the way for realizing the promise of Chicano Studies. Can Chicano Studies now within the “belly of the beast” find its soul?

Victor M. Rodriguez Dominguez
Department of Chicano and Latino Studies
California State University, Long Beach

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