A Testimonio: The Personal Odyssey on Becoming Chicano

I recently re-read Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodríguez and Somos Chicanos by David Gómez, along with the epic poem I am Joaquin by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez. The readings represent a diverse spectrum of what is considered Chicana/o literature.

All three readings are classic case studies into what Carlos Muñoz calls the “identity problematic.” That is, Chicanas/os, more than any other ethnic/racial group in the United States, have been given a multiplicity of identity labels. It begs us to ask the inevitable question: who are we?

The “identity problematic” has fragmented the Mexican community since its incorporation into the American polity in 1848. It is no coincidence, then, that the Chicano Movement, especially in California, was forged on building unity through a non-white identity by rejecting previous imposed identities.

The readings explore the “identity problematic” through a particular political space in time from the point of view of each author that, according to Deena J. Gonzales, ultimately defies categorization because the various identity labels that have been forcibly imposed on our people have led to our disunity and thus a Chicana/o identity remains elusive for many of us.

Thus, Hunger of Memory, Somos Chicanos, and I am Joaquin essentially reveal what Deena J. Gonzales has so eloquently stated: “We find tremendous consolation in tracing the sources of our empowerment-the struggle for identity and for recognition is one, but only one, struggle in a long history of finding or locating identity.”

Like Rodríguez, Gómez, and Corky we are also on that daily struggle to find out who we are. Eventually, some of us find our identity by locating our historical ties to our Indigenous ancestry, while others unfortunately remain captive to the genocidal aspects of Hispanicism.

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldua views the marginality and invisibility of Chicanas who have no name by suggesting: “She has this fear / that she has no names / that she has many names / that she doesn’t know her names/ She has this fear that / she’s an image / that comes and goes / clearing and darkening”

As I make a daily effort to decolonize my inner self, I’ve come to question if we can ever truly be free from the monstrosity of colonialism? My journey towards the path of Chicanismo has been a struggle, yet it has “liberated” me in many respects. Like Anzaldua’s notion of the no name Chicana, I once had this fear that I would never find out who I was or where I came from. I once had no name.

Eventually, I was fortunate to have found empowerment through Chicanismo, but why is it that many in our community never identify with the beauty of what it is to be a Chicana/o? What part of the current political system is purposely set up to deny us our right as Indigenous people to our land and identity?

It is often said that the personal is political, but I also realize that the political is also problematic because it entails questioning the given assumptions and it places one in direct confrontation with those who maintain the status quo mainly because those in positions of power have internalized the colonial borders that fracture our people.

Thus, the so-called “identity problematic” is not a problem for us as it is for the system that will be challenged once we find out who we truly are.

Using Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands framework to conceptualize my own political evolution and ideological development, I have often wondered how and when did I become a Chicano? When did I recognize that I was “caught between” spaces and identities?

And that’s where this journey begins. It begins in Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles in the 1990s through the “discovery” of Chicana/o Studies. It is this “discovery” that forged an identity of resistance within me against the externally imposed “identity problematic” that purposely confuses our people.

It was the first day of classes at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and I had no idea what I was planning to do with my life. I didn’t have any dreams to follow for a “successful” future career.

I had been accepted to a couple of universities as an English Literature major. Yet, somehow I ended attending ELAC instead.

I had just recently “graduated” from Roosevelt High School with 2.5 GPA or something.

As an English Literature major, I hoped to write and write. I wanted to write about music. I wanted to write poetry as well, but I never had any mentor to guide me so my writings never improved and they remained invisible and hidden in some notebook.

And while I loved reading, I didn’t want to spend my entire life stuck reading books like my brother who had been a Spanish Literature major at UCLA. I always saw him reading. I guess this was cool since I never had to go to the library because he had all the books I ever needed.

Honestly, I  felt distant from the readings I was required to read in high school. None of the readings reflected my experiences nor my understanding of the world. The readings were too European.

I needed to voice my discontent but I didn’t know how. I occasionally got the opportunity to express myself in a critical essay here and there, but rarely did I ever get the feedback or support I needed in order to grow. I was just passed along.

I didn’t care about Charles Dickens. I didn’t care about Ernest Hemingway. I didn’t care about James Joyce. I didn’t care about Emily Bronte. I didn’t care about Jane Austen. I didn’t care about any of them.

I did enjoy reading George Orwell’s 1984 and the Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. But I really didn’t understand why. Something about those specific writings intrigued me.

I hated school. I hated the idea of being trapped within the walls of traditional “schooling” and “learning” because it didn’t challenge me intellectually nor liberate me from any of the socioeconomic circumstances my family and I found ourselves in, which at the time I couldn’t fully comprehend.

I eventually sat through my first year at ELAC in much the same way I sat through high school: bored with so much potential, and yet the grades still didn’t show it. I think my GPA was somewhere around 2.0 just barely getting by. My high school grades were better. At ELAC, I attended classes whenever I wanted to.

Eventually, I decided to change my major to Political Science, then Psychology, then History. I couldn’t find myself academically, spiritually or anywhere. Not even music could save me. And I loved music.

I changed majors so many times that I realized education wasn’t about change or empowerment but about maintaining the status quo. But how could I ever express that? I didn’t have the means to do so.

At some point, I had to meet with my academic advisor to talk about my academic “progress” and he pretty much scolded me for not putting any effort into my education. I felt like a high school student once again.

God, how I hated school.

Perhaps I needed to accept personal responsibility for my own education, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the educational system was achieving exactly its intended purpose, its hidden curriculum was coming to fruition in my very own life: either assimilate into the system or be forced out. Sink or swim.

I resisted by not going to my classes, for instance, but in doing so it only affected my academic standing. I wasn’t helping myself, my family or anyone.

Yet, one day everything changed.

During my third year at ELAC, while waiting for classes, one of my friends began talking about Chicanismo, Chicano Studies, the Brown Berets and other things I couldn’t grasp at the time.

I was angry, intrigued and even repulsed by what he talked about.

I hated the fact that I wasn’t taught any of this while I was in high school, especially since I attended Roosevelt High School, which I eventually would learn was a major site for the East Los Angeles High School Blowouts of 1968 and where the LAPD came down heavy on the striking students.

Even though in the back of my mind I always knew something was wrong with society, I would tragically come to hate the word Chicano. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t identify with it. I was a Mexican American with an emphasis on American. I wasn’t even hyphenated.

The educational system taught me to hate myself. The educational system worked perfectly. And if you think about it, the educational system still works perfectly today.

And so I decided to take a Chicano Studies class to be able to “learn” for myself what my friend had been telling me for weeks.

I took my first class in Chicano history with Dr. William Estrada, who was also teaching at CSUN at the time. One of the books assigned was Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña.

I was attentive to every lecture, to every historical fact that described the Chicano experience.

I began flipping through the pages of Occupied America, and I devoured every page like if there was no tomorrow. I finally came to believe what one of my brothers had once told me: California belonged to Mexico. I thought he had been lying to me all along.

I especially loved the section on the Chicano Movement in Occupied America.

How did people manage to come together to protest something that was wrong? Was it really true that nearly 15,000 students walked out from several schools, including Roosevelt High School? 1968 sure did seem like a long time ago.

I couldn’t help but be astonished by all the history that had been denied to me. I wondered how many others in my community didn’t know about this hidden history? In retrospect, I now know that many of our people are purposely being denied the opportunity to learn about their people and themselves.

I came to the realization that I had wasted three years wandering aimlessly in community college and yet suddenly I found my sanctuary and my academic salvation: Chicana/o Studies.

Around the same time that I “discovered” Chicana/o Studies, the Chicana/o community had been organizing at UCLA to create a full-fledged Chicana/o Studies department. About seven people would go on a hunger strike to fight for Chicana/o Studies and to defend our community against the racist educational system. César Chávez had also recently passed away.

The spirit of the Chicano Movement was rekindled. I wanted to be part of it, but I really didn’t know how. I was reading about history, yet history was occurring right before my eyes.

I took a second class in Chicano Studies. It was a class taught by David Sanchez, who I found out was a co-founder of the Brown Berets. He talked about the Chicano Movement, the need to continue the struggle for self-determination, the Brown Berets, and so many other topics that I realized that he never lost the commitment to his community.

I wanted to meet the Brown Berets. I eventually got the courage to ask him about the Brown Berets, and he said they were still around and if I would be interested in meeting them? Of course, I wanted to meet them. The Brown Berets had just been recently “recommisioned” after nearly a twenty-year absence.

I wanted to learn everything there was about Chicanos. I even  attended my first Chicano Moratorium event and I met some of the people that I read about in Occupied America.

I was no longer wandering aimlessly or sitting idly. I was now a proud Chicano fighting for self-determination. I became a threat to AmeriKKKa: I was becoming “educated,” not in the traditional sense of the word, but rather I was becoming an educated Chicano.

I spent four years at ELAC. I never graduated with an Associate of Arts degree. I regret it because I spent four damn years there. I did managed, however, to improve my GPA during the last two years at ELAC, I changed my major to Chicano Studies and was (re)accepted at Cal State LA.

At Cal State LA, I graduated as a Cum Laude student in Chicana/o Studies. Dang, after barely making 2.5 all these years I graduated with honors. I was no longer detached from my history nor from my community. Chicana/o Studies allowed me to excel in all my studies. Chicana/o Studies saved me.

I have been an advocate for Chicana/o Studies ever since. The University Times, the student newspaper of Cal State LA, once attacked Chicana/o Studies for not being academically rigorous and for instilling victimization politics onto its students. I defended Chicana/o Studies.

In the 1990s, along with the Brown Berets, I fought for the return of Chicana/o Studies to the original goals as spelled out in El Plan de Santa Barbara. It has been a struggle to say the least. This struggle continues today.

I have continuously encouraged every student I meet to take a Chicana/o Studies class and consider majoring in it. I created a Chicana/o Studies curriculum for middle/high school students. Chicana/o Studies has not been implemented in the K-12 system, but the few schools that offer it there is no question that it has been a positive success for our students.

Chicana/o Studies is truly revolutionary and empowering and is guided by what Ernesto “Che” Guevara once said: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Chicana/o Studies and to identify as a Chicana/o truly reflects that “self-love” and revolutionary spirit that has allowed our community to resist and survive 517 years of oppression and colonization. I believe Chicana/o Studies is one tool in the liberation of our community.

I often see many in our community going through the same issues that I went through growing up. We have been purposely denied our history. We have been detached from our own land and our identity.

We have been made to feel strangers in our own land. We are “caught between” the fractured spaces of these geographic and spiritual borders.

We have been forced to either assimilate into the system or be forced out of it. Yet, in the end, it doesn’t matter if we assimilate or are forced out because the main purpose of the system is to keep us divided and to have us wander aimlessly with or without an “education.”

This is why Chicana/o Studies is attacked. It is attacked because Chicana/o Studies by its very existence implies critical thinking, activism, and resistance against racism, sexism and classism. Those in power are afraid of the Chicana/o waking up and saying Ya Basta and having the power to disrupt the system of exploitation.

I have come to the conclusion that a weak Chicana/o Studies program translates into a politically weak Chicana/o community. This partially explains why in 2013 our community is worse off than in 1968. Many in our community have lost the desire for change while for others the movement has not reached them.

Chicana/o Studies is important for our community and we must come to its defense every single time it is publicly attacked by racist legislation that seeks to eliminate it completely and from those who seek to pacify Chicana/o Studies by calling for a gradual merging with the generic Ethnic Studies or Latina/o Studies paradigm.

It is especially important to strengthen Chicana/o Studies when there appears to be a political lull so that we don’t get caught unprepared and become reactionary when the next racist politician tries to make a name for her/himself by attacking Chicana/o Studies.

Mention Chicana/o Studies as the primary field of study, and every doomsday scenario is played out from “you’re not going to find employment” to “stop wasting you’re precious time and money at the university.”

So what can you do with a Chicana/o Studies degree? Where will you find employment with a degree in Chicana/o Studies? These are the first questions that are meant to plant seeds of doubt in order to demoralize any Chicana/o student.

I’ve yet to hear anyone question the validity of a major in Greek & Latin, German, Russian Languages & Literature, Philosophy, or any other western fields of “knowledge.” These “specialty” fields are instead romanticized and the student exalted for their love of learning.

There is a cultural war taking place in academia. Chicana/o Studies, however, seems to be unprepared to defend the community’s space. The National Association of Chicana/o Studies (NACCS) has been essentially cruising since its founding in the early 1970s.

NACCS has failed to promote Chicana/o Studies and/or empower those students majoring in Chicana/o Studies. There is something wrong when, for instance, none of the faculty within the Chicana/o Studies department at Cal State LA has a degree in Chicana/o Studies.

Furthermore, NACCS has failed to pressure for the implementation of El Plan de Santa Barbara at the K-12 level, which partially explains the horrible academic experiences many of us go through in the educational system.

Chicana/o Studies proponents know far too well the history of the government’s war on dissent. Yet, it is obvious that Chicana/o Studies has not learned from the history of the power of Anglo oppression vis-à-vis the Chicana/o community.

It is no coincidence, then, that the historical and current attack on Chicana/o Studies is part and parcel of a larger right-wing agenda to destabilize Chicano Studies.

On August 20, 2000, Gregory Rodríguez, a fellow at the New American Foundation, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Chicana/o Studies has been influenced by ideologues who prefer to argue that “larger economic and political forces thoroughly dictate both individual life choices and chances.”

By ingeniously attempting to depoliticize and delegitimize Chicana/o Studies in the public sphere, Rodríguez tilted the debate against the “liberal structuralists” (re: Chicana/o Studies) who prefer to live in the past of their “Marxist leanings.”  In general, Chicana/o Studies failed to establish a platform to counter Rodríguez’s argument. To add insult to injury, the Department of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara co-presented a lecture event with Gregory Rodríguez as a featured speaker to discuss his book.

In light of the banning of Chicana/o Studies in Arizona, the future of Chicana/o Studies is at stake.  Chicana/o Studies needs to extend beyond the Brown Tower and reach out to the community.  A return to the original goals set forth by El Plan de Santa Barbara would entail creating community partnerships.  Chicana/o Studies needs to reorient itself by organizing at the grass-roots level.

NACCS, however, seems caught in a bind as it tries to legitimize the profession. On the one hand, Dr. Felipe B. Gonzalez contends that the idea behind Chicana/o Studies was to be politically active with a community emphasis.  On the other hand, Dr. Dennis J. Bixler-Márquez discourages students from majoring or minoring in Chicana/o Studies because they want Chicana/o students to think like Hispanic entrepreneurs where their skills would be better used in the labor market; this coming from the CHAIR of Chicana/o Studies.

Despite the fact that NACCS organizational structure includes a Foco component that in theory roots it in the community, NACCS is non-existent in the community

If recent events are any indication, however, NACCS is more prone to whiten its tower than to indigenize it.  Most recently in 2011, NACCS held its annual gathering in the lovely confines of Pasadena, away from the struggle and suffering of the community. To be sure, there were a number of important topics discussed and resolutions condemning HB 2281, but at the end of the day, Chicana/o Studies remained fragile and in need of repair.

NACCS continues to hold its annual meetings away from those who it purports to “liberate.” Chicana/o Studies was founded with the purpose of being the intellectual arm of the Chicano Movement not for the purpose of swimming with the intellectual masturbators of academia.

As in 1968, 1993, and most recently in Tucson, ultimately it is the Chicana/o community who has come to the defense of Chicana/o Studies when legislation calls for the elimination of the program.  It is a matter of time before it spreads throughout the country. It is obvious we are headed towards that direction.

The Chicana/o community, many of whom will never enter the university setting, will sacrifice, protest, rally and march, while the majority of Chicana/o Studies scholars will remain on the sideline.

Chicana/o Studies developed within the context of the Chicano Movement. Let us never forget that struggle. I was fortunate to have found Chicana/o Studies, and be able to have the necessary tools to critically question and organize against injustice, yet so many in our community never will have that privilege.

The philosophy behind “each one, teach one” needs to be radicalized to mean self-determination. We can ill-afford to wait any longer. I echo the words of the Chicano Movement: Ya Basta!!!

This is my personal odyssey on becoming Chicano. Chicanismo was always within me. It has been part of our people’s struggle. We carry it in our heart.

– C/S

Cultural Sovereignty

This entry was posted in Boyle Heights, Chicana/o, Chicana/o Identity, Chicana/o Studies, Chicano Movement, Community, Cultura, East Los Angeles, History, Indigenous, Knowledge, Los Angeles, Palabra, Politics, Resistance. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Testimonio: The Personal Odyssey on Becoming Chicano

  1. Xihuan Montalvo says:

    Thank you for using C/S in relation to cultural sovereignty, and mentioning how we are deter from majoring or not having degrees in Chicano Studies.

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