Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, one of the leading founders of Chicana/o Studies is professor Emeritus, California State University, Northridge, who has the largest Chicano/Latino Studies Department in the United States.
“Viví en el monstruo y le conozco las entrañas”
Rodolfo F. Acuña
When I sat down to conceptualize Chicana/o Studies, I was forced to distinguish it from Mexican Studies. If I had not done so, I would have never gotten it through the committees. I also had to differentiate CHS from race studies as well as Latin American Studies. I was fortunate that I had taught U.S. history and government, and specialized in U.S. History for my Masters. My PhD was in Latin American studies so that was icing on the cake.
Academe was caught flatfooted in responding to the challenge of ethnic studies, and it has never really got a handle on them. Many perceive them as race studies, so the inclination is to lump Chicana/o Studies into their flawed model.
I believed that if Chicana/o Studies was to grow; it had to find its own identity. Very early the main thrust of our program was pedagogical. We were there to teach more than a subject; it involved teaching students identity and skills. The truth be told, years of marginalization had damaged Chicanas/os.
It did not take a genius to deduce that what distinguished most Chicanas/os from most Mexicanos del otro lado was their experiences in the United States. Just reading the literature gave you a clue; the great Cuban poet José Martí wrote to Manuel Mercado, “Viví en el monstruo y le conozco las entrañas.” It is the knowledge of the entrañas (the bowels) that distinguishes most pochos from most Mexicans who have not lived in the bowels of the monster.
The variable of race is important; it influences the multiple disciplines within CHS. In the future, research on this experience will grow in importance. The Mexican origin population numbers about 38 million in the United States (114 million in Mexico), and numbers matter.
Chicana/o students and scholars bring with them the perspective of having lived en las entrañas del monstruo. They have experienced American Imperialism from within, and in my opinion have the potential of knowing and understanding it more profoundly than others – that is, if they don’t identify too closely with the monster.
As a general rule, I have found Chicanas/os more sensitive to American racism than other Latin American immigrants. When I worked in the Central American solidarity movement I remember long conversations with the compas who would say that Chicanas/were too anti-gringo, which we tended to be – much the same as Martí. I would respond that this was true because they were working with mostly good gringos.
In Mexico, the Left talked incessantly about Marxism and revolution. At the same time, they had a tendency to look on us pochos –we weren’t real Mexicans. Once during a heated discussion with the head of the Partido Comunista de México (PCM), I told him what separated pochos and Mexicans was that we had actually worked in factories while many PCM stalwarts were scions of the ruling class, in other words, sojourners, witness Jorge Castañeda.
Pocho students are for the most past First Generation College students, and unlike most Mexicans they have experienced racism on a daily basis. Extending this to other Latino groups, many were raised in their native countries; they have not grown up looking at life through a race prism. Yet their children are undergoing a pochoization.
This is not to say that the parents have not suffered other forms of oppression. Just that being brought up in their native countries they don’t experience an identity crisis. The difference is that they have grown up as Mexicans or Hondurans instead of a hyphenated model. Within this process, there are generational differences to consider.
Because I am a pocho I live the national question. This means that often words carry different meanings or emphases. Words such as scab and vendido have a life of their own. From copper mines to fields of Arizona to the cotton fields of California, the word scab has a nasty meaning. The scab broke their strikes, their futures. It had such a bitter meaning that it turned brother against brother and father against son. There was no middle ground.
The word vendido (sellout) has a similar meaning, although in a sense it is worse. Scabs often crossed the line to feed their families whereas the vendido sells himself willingly. Historically it was a Mexican consul or the politician who sold out the interests of their people. The vendido today is your fellow worker who passes on information to his boss often for as little as a smile.
As a pocho, you learn to respect territory and interests of other working class people. This is often trying because as people at the bottom we compete for the crumbs. In 1964 while working against Proposition 14 that was seeking to nullify the Rumford Fair Housing Act I had many conversations with Dorothy Washington, an activist in the Pacoima area. She told me the story of a white man who when she was a child, she and her friends would anxiously wait for. When he arrived he would throw pennies on the gravelled ground of the schoolyard; the black kids would scramble to get the pennies, knocking each other down. The man would laugh. It was not until years later that she realized that he was not a nice man and that he was laughing at them.
Living the national question I realize that I have a lot more in common with the Dorothy Washingtons of this world than I do with many Mexicans or Latinos. In order to be in solidarity I have had to respect her territory and her issues.
I guess this is why I reacted so strongly to the sneaky deal with la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). It was as if the vendido button had been pressed. I was amazed that liberals in the administration treated it so lightly, and had not even raised elementary questions. In building a stadium, the university is at least required to conduct an environmental impact study.
For me, the UNAM and the CSUN movers and shakers are like the laughing white man, and their Latino cheerleaders are like the children stampeding to scoop up the pennies.
Privatization has impacted my life. I can remember qualifying for a home loan on a janitor’s salary. There was time when my students paid $50 a semester to attend SFVSC, and they could afford to work 10 hours a week. I remember that we had janitors who were state employees. Jorge García and Toppy would spend hours talking to a white haired janitor named Nell Davis from West Virginia. He was a regular state employee who raised a family and was able to buy a house in Mission Hills.
There was the cafeteria on the roof of Sierra North. Mexican servers and cooks were always smiling, and took pride in telling us which Mexican foods to eat. We would tease middle aged women from Guadalajara telling her she looked like a gringa (she was light and had green eyes).
Privatization has ended that world. Students have to work to attend the privatized Tseng College; they have to work 40 plus hours to pay $3200 a semester to attend the public university; they have to work to pay for the dorms; they have to work to pay for the illusionary grants projected for CSUN professors to study abroad; and they will have to work to pay for the hidden costs of the UNAM deal.
As a pocho, I know what a vendido is; we often see them as someone who is trying to help us while they are knocking us down for the pennies.