Photo by Beenish Ahmed
Forty years after it was first published, the book Occupied America: The History of Chicanos has been banned, and its author, Rudolfo Acuña, a widely published professor and prominent immigrant-rights activist thinks he knows why.
To Acuña, a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, it boils down to two things: numbers and control. He says that banning his book and shutting down an ethnic studies program that has been widely successful in Arizona are part of an effort to undermine social inclusion and financial uplift for Chicanos, or people of Mexican descent. Not only has his work come under fire, but Acuña has received numerous death threats from unidentifiable individuals who are at odds with his commitment to improving the system of education and living conditions for Chicanos.
This work is very much tied to the immigration issue, which Acuña, who was born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrants, says, "puts panic in people [and makes them think] 'We're losing our country.'"
This might be why so many politicians have rallied against his groundbreaking work in Chicano Studies - an academic program he helped develop in the late 1960s at California State University, Northridge. While this initiative remains the longest running and largest such program, many others have since been established at universities across the country, and even some middle and high schools.
Not everyone is so keen on seeing Chicano studies expand. Among the program's most vocal critics is Arizona's attorney general, Tom Horne, who has called it a sort of "ethnic chauvinism." He has also claimed that the program is "an officially recognized, resentment-based program," even though the National Education Association has shown that such curriculum instead increases interracial understanding and significantly enhances students' interest in academic pursuits.
These were the very reasons why Acuña first decided to promote Chicano studies. "To me, it's a pedagogy: everyone has to feel proud of themselves." And in a society where immigrants are so often made to feel inferior, teaching students their heritage means giving them access to a sense of personal pride and social worth.
Acuña has been called the "father of Chicano studies," but he scoffs at such a title. "No one could control this movement," he says of the continued push for educational institutions to teach about the influence of Mexico-natives on the United States. Now that the program has been cut from the public education curriculum in Arizona, students are taking a stand to show how much their education means to them. Many of them have expressed their views on the legislation that banned ethnic studies through Tucson Students Rise Up, and some staged a demonstration at a Tucson Board of Education meeting in April at which they chained themselves to board members' seats.
Acuña and those he has educated through his books and classes think that there is inherent importance in learning about the history and culture of Chicanos - not only for those who are Chicano themselves, but for all Americans. Latinos already make up the largest minority population in the United States, and their population figures are only expected to grow in the coming decades.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Pew Research Center Project, the Latino population will increase exponentially in the coming decades. They predict that Hispanics will make up 29% of the U.S. population by 2050, compared with only 14% in 2005. "A group that size deserves some attention," says Acuña.
He also sees a clear parallel between the immigrant rights movement, and the labor movement. Walter Reuther was instrumental in providing support to Chicano leader Cesar Chavez as he formed the United Formed Workers to demand fair wages and respect for agricultural workers who are often Mexico-natives.
Invited as a speaker at recent meeting of the National Writers Union (NWU) in Detroit, Mich., he had a simple message for his fellow UAW members: "Help us raise funds, help us get the word out, help us to tell other people what is happening."
Larry Goldbetter, the president of the NWU hopes to see increased awareness among UAW members for this cause, and is happy to report that his local has already made a financial contribution to the campaign to save the ethnic studies program in Arizona.
"Unions are about more than dollars and cents," he says, "We're about social justice and fighting racism and this anti-immigrant hysteria in Arizona. We need to mobilize the whole union around supporting the struggle in Tucson."
To find out more about the campaign to save ethnic studies programs in Arizona, visit saveethnicstudies.org.