Towards an Understanding of Chicana/o Studies (1968-2008)


this is the first in a series of posts on Chicana/o Studies…

Chicana/o Studies finds itself at a critical juncture in history. Chicana/o Studies is being challenged from internal and external forces that question not only the direction of its scholarship, its role as an advocacy discipline, but whether it should be an “inclusive” field of inquiry due to the changing demographics of society and the realities of globalization.

As such, there is an internal push in academia towards homogenizing Chicana/o Studies into “Latina/o Studies.” Juan Flores, Frances R. Aparicio, Nicholas De Genova, Walter D. Mignolo, Tomas Almaguer, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, among others, are in the midst of this current academic debate. This debate and its outcome has tremendous impact for the future of the Chicana/o community.

Juan Flores in his article “Latino Studies: New Contexts, New Concepts” argues that Ethnic Studies programs are under the threat of “consolidation.” Flores accentuates his argument that the field of Latino Studies must be understood within the context of globalization. Flores believes that the increasing “transnational nature of the student population and their communities,” makes the move towards a Latino Studies formula a necessity.

Frances R. Aparicio in “(Re)constructing Latinidad: The Challenge of Latina/o Studies” focuses on the question of identity as it relates to the attempt to find “new interdisciplinary approaches that can address our multiple and shifting realities.” The question as to what constitutes a “Latina/o” identity is explored from the dynamics of the author’s circle of friends, as well as, to the notion that most scholars and community members have “embraced” the term Latina/o because it represents a more organic alternative to the government imposed “Hispanic” label.

Nicholas De Genova in “The Everyday Civil War: Migrant Labor, Capital, and Latina/o Studies” grounds his argument on the idea that the study of the “Latina/o” needs to be based on the conflicting struggle between labor and capital. The critical analysis of the capitalist structure vis-à-vis labor relations is central to constructing a legacy of an “insurgent intellectual and political project.” According to De Genova, only through this political discourse or orientation will US Imperialism be challenged.

Walter D. Mignolo in “Capitalism and Geopolitics of Knowledge: Latin American Social Thought and Latino/a American Studies” explores the epistemology and political goals of three different but interrelated intellectual projects, namely Latina/o Studies, Latin American Studies, and Pensamiento Crítico. Mignolo argues that Latina/o Studies is contributing to a remapping of the geopolitics of knowledge.

Tomás Almaguer in “At the Crossroads of Race: Latino Studies and Race Making in the United States” considers race and race making as central to understanding the “Latina/o” condition and multiraciality as the single most unique feature of the “Latina/o” experience in the United States. The historical legacy of racialization shared by “Latinas/os” is systematically central to assessing the lived experiences of “Latinas/os” in relation to systems of white supremacy.

Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano in “Reflections on Thirty Years of Critical Practices in Chicana/o Cultural Studies” conveys her personal participation in the creation of Chicana/o Studies as well as to the internal factors that have shaped the academic discipline. Through personal reflection, Yarbro-Bejarano identifies the key elements that inform her critical practice in Chicana/o Studies.

In a general review of the intellectual debate on the principal question as to whether Latina/o Studies may be equated to Chicana/o Studies, it is critically important to focus on the dynamics of power, language, and status of those in position to nurture this discussion in the first place. That Chicana/o Studies has had to struggle for survival since its inception as an academic field since the late 60s and early 70s, seems to have been conveniently bypassed by the authors in their review of the field.

In fact, a close inspection of the works referenced by the authors show a tremendous gap in the debate. Chicana/o scholars seem to have been systematically excluded from the debate. The debate has been tilted in favor of those seeking to de-politicize Chicana/o Studies. Juan Flores and Frances R. Aparicio, for instance, focus on the “limitations” of the field without a critical analysis on how the institution of higher education has been at the forefront in destabilizing Ethnic Studies programs from their inception.

While the aforementioned authors all seem to agree that Ethnic Studies programs primarily developed in response to the blatant racism inherent in academia, a careful reading suggests that these “Latino Studies” intellectuals believe that only through a migration or consolidation of existing Chicana/o Studies programs into a generic “Latina/o Studies” dialectic will somehow protect a growing minority from institutionalized racism. Juan Flores, for instance, speaks of a Latino Studies “agenda.”

The Latina/o Studies “agenda” as Flores argues is not charged with a “revolutionary aura.” As such, the new Latina/o Studies “agenda” is meant to “save us” from the detrimental effects of the past, which apparently Chicana/o Studies is unable to resolve in its historic struggle over “immigration, racism, and colonialism.” According to Flores, the shift to a Latina/o Studies dialectic is marked by “globalization.” In the larger context, however, Flores fails to acknowledge that globalization is a euphemism for colonialism, which continues to exploit people of color.

So where does the Latina/o Studies “agenda” originate from? Consistent with the overall power sphere, the Latina/o Studies “agenda” appears to originate from East Coast and Midwest academic spheres. The reconstruction of Chicana/o Studies into Latina/o Studies is occurring in conjunction with the historic attempts to dilute the identity, history, and culture of Chicanas/os.

Chicana/o Studies is portrayed as a romanticized discipline that has not met the challenges of changing population dynamics. The true history of Chicana/o Studies and its fight for survival is ignored. So instead of having a Eurocentric pedagogy of oppression, we now have an emerging Latina/o Studies pedagogy of oppression.

Frances R. Aparacio acknowledges that the term Latina/o can be used to “erase the specificities of the various national groups and historical experiences.” Yet later in the same article she writes: “the term Latino does not necessarily displace the significance of the national identifiers…” It is obvious that these Latina/o Studies intellectuals are purposely confusing the issue of identity within Chicana/o Studies. The central question is for what purpose?

This leads us to ask two important questions: Who benefits from the transition from Chicana/o Studies to Latina/o Studies? What is Latina/o identity? The failure of Chicana/o Studies to ask these questions has served to dilute its centrality within the academic sphere and, hence, lose its historic place as an advocacy discipline. Yet Chicana/o Studies has been excluded from voicing a coherent and unified stance against those that seek to destabilize it. Chicana/o Studies is being marginalized within the academic debate by a mostly non-Chicana/o discourse.

In a historical analysis of identity, the terms Latino and Hispanic are Eurocentric labels meant to dilute the historical legacy of identity and space (land ownership) of Indigenous peoples in what is now North, Central, and South America. The shifting paradigm from Chicana/o Studies to Latina/o Studies is based on the general Latino/Hispanic agenda of consumerism, which attempts to lump all “brown” people into one.

Yarbro-Bejarano comes closest to articulating a Chicana/o Studies cultural critique of the field, as well as to situate Chicana/o Studies within the larger context of colonialism. Her analysis of El Teatro Campesino’s shift from a political orientation to one based on the spiritual mito demonstrates the general focus and growth of the expanding realm of Chicana/o Studies that Latina/o Studies could never articulate because its not grounded in the community, but rather entrenched in the institution of higher learning.

Moreover, as Yarbro-Bejarano demonstrates through her readings of Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana/o Studies has not only focused on race and class issues, but gender and sexuality issues as well from the perspective of nationally oppressed peoples.

The racial formations that Tomás Almaguer argues in relation to the so-called “Latina/o” population does not consider the miscegenation that took place upon the arrival of the Europeans. The implication of racial identity in Almaguer’s study is considered through the autobiographical works of Richard Rodriguez and Piri Thomas.

Identity is informed by internal and external factors. Rodriguez and Thomas formulated their identities in order to survive in an era when Chicana/o Studies and Boricua Studies did not exist. As such, their identity formations were based on individual hatred and shame of their respective culture.

De Genova argues that his study of labor and capital relations underscores the extent to which all “Latina/o Studies” scholarship should fundamentally be addressing in their analysis of capitalist systems. However, as any informed scholar/student of Chicana/o Studies knows, Chicana/o Studies has been addressing and challenging the capitalist dynamics that have oppressed people of color since its inception as an academic discipline in 1968.

It should be noted that Latina/o Studies is not Chicana/o Studies. It is erroneous, as Juan Flores does, to assume that there was a Latina/o Studies program to speak about in the 1960s. Rather than praising a uniformity of cultures based on an imagined Eurocentric sphere as Latina/o Studies attempts to do, Chicana/o Studies must be critically involved in the academic debate.

In fact, if Chicana/o Studies is considering an academic transformation it should expend its energies into transitioning towards an “Indigenous Studies” program as it is the most logical evolution for Chicana/o Studies. Chicana/o Studies must challenge Eurocentric, colonialist, racist, and sexist systems. If Chicana/o Studies fails to maintain its academic legitimacy and sovereignty, it will have failed in its original intent to struggle against colonialism in all its forms.


cultural sovereignty

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