This is the second in a series of documentaries in Chicana/o Studies at Cal State University Northridge, leading up to the CSUN appearance of Andrés Manuel López Labrador on March 28th, you are invited. They are not meant to clutter up your computer but to remind you why we struggle. When they burned the first Chicana/o House down, we only had about 250 Chicanas/os on campus, 225 marched in protest.
“A House Is Not a Home” was a 1964 movie based on a New York madam, Polly Adler’s autobiography. The theme song written for the film was written by Burt Bacharach, and it starts:
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there’s no one there to hold you tight
I felt that way about the first condos that I saw in the 1960s just south of Roscoe and Reseda; they housed people but it did not seem like a home, which to me had to have land. It was the land that gave one a sense of home, a sense of place, and held you tight.
As a child, I remember my grandfather. He loved to stay with us because although it was a small backyard, it had land. I thought that he was going senile because he would pick up the dirt and taste it. To him it belonged to us (and the bank). He never felt at home in an apartment, it was a house and not a home.
That is the way many of us feel about the Chicana/o House at California State Northridge that gave us a sense of place. Although it was not part of the original Chicano student demands, it followed soon behind. It was the spontaneous demand of Hank López, called the hammer. Hank contributed a lot to laying the framework for the department, and instinctively threw in the demand for a home during negotiations. The African-American students and the others followed suit.
The administration initially gave it to us to keep us quiet. At the time, San Fernando Valley State had a lot of land, and administrators thought that when the student union was built they would throw us into small cubicles – not realizing that we did not space. “A House was not a Home,” you could not feel the land.
Periodically, they would try to take our home away from us and each struggle bonded us more to the land. Although called the Chicano House, it would have been more appropriately called the Chicana/o home. But, as in the case of the Mexican farmer who has been uprooted, many no longer identify with the land; many of today’s students are not as bonded with our home, not remembering the taste of land. Some have given bits and pieces away – it is easy to give away what you have not fought for. However, there are those that want a home on campus, and that is why the African American and Asian American students have fought to keep their homes intact.
1. Stu Simmons, “MECHA loses campus home,” Valley State Daily Sundial (May 11, 1970)
The Mexican-American Studies’ Center at Valley State burned Tuesday evening while Chicano students were celebrating Cinco de Mayo at Rincon Hall. The fifth of May commemorates a battle victory in 1862 by the Mexican people over French Invaders who occupied Mexico between 1862 and 1867.
The Chicano students at Valley State will also remember May 5 because on that date they lost their campus home and saw two of their sisters arrested. Witnesses to the arrests said the girls were treated with unnecessary roughness, when they tried to enter the burning house located at 9535 Etiwanda Ave.
According to one witness, the girls, Yvonne Aguirre and Monica Medina, were handcuffed and put into a police car, following a brief period of yelling and shoving. The girls were arrested for allegedly interfering with police officers.
Dr. Rudy Acuna, chairman of the Mexican-American studies department said the girls were treated ‘belligerently* and that one was in “shock” and the other was ‘hysterical’ following their ordeal.
Chicano students marched in silent vigil across the campus Tuesday morning from the Administration Building to the Open Forum area where Jose Galvan, president of MECHA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlan, spoke on behalf of Chicanos on
campus. Galvan said Chicanos do not seek to respond to the incident in a violent manner, whether or not the fire was set deliberately. ‘If It was set by some person or persons, we feel sorry for that individual or individuals,’ he said.
“It would not benefit us in any way to perform the same type of act against individuals or against any other structure on this campus,” he added.
Galvan also said that Chicano students lend moral support to the student strike at Valley State and throughout the nation, “We are sorrowed by any action that leads to violence and especially to the death of other students,” he added.
“Due to the destruction of our home, however, we must put all of our physical energies into this “issue “and not join any active strike at this moment,” Galvan said.
The fire destroyed about 50 per cent of the house. Three companies of the Los Angeles City Fire Department responded to the call at about 9:45 p.m., and had the fire out in about 10 minutes. Capt. George Pinckney of the fire department said it was a full first alarm fire.
The MECHA house was used by Chicano students for a variety of purposes Including classes, social gatherings and preparation of the Chicano newspaper El Popo. Several students were at the house Wednesday morning, salvaging copies the latest edition of their newspaper, and the reaction seemed to be one of disbelief.
Rosa Martinez, one of the editors of El Popo, was among the students present. She spoke of the importance of the house to all the Chlcano students who referred to it as their “home.”
She added the loss must be measured not only materially but in terms of what the house meant to the Chicano campus community. The cause of the fire is under investigation and arson has been suspected but not in any way confirmed. The investigation is being conducted by Merle Pugh, senior investigator with the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
The college administration responded to the incident by offering a new location to the students, which is being called MECHA House #2. Furniture for the new house at 18653 Plummer St. is needed to replace that which was destroyed by the fire, according to Galvan.
Persons Interested In making donations should contact the Mexican-American Studies department In Administration 152, or by calling 349-1200, extension 798. Dr. Donald Krimel, executive assistant to the president, said College President James W. Cleary regretted the incident, and the college awaited the outcome of the investigation to determine what action would be taken as a result of this destruction of state property.
2. “Arraignment slated today for students,” Sundial (May 11, 1970)
Yvonne Aguirre and Monica Medina, arrested last Tuesday night near the fire at MECHA
House, will be arraigned today at 8;30 a.m. in Van Nuys Municipal Court, Division 75. Miss Aguirre was charged with interfering with police and Miss Medina was charged with interfering with an arrest.
Both Valley State coeds intend to plead not guilty to the chargesand members of MECHA have demanded the college and especially College President James Cleary do everything possible to see the charges, which MECHA reels are ‘trumped up’ be dropped.
Witnesses to the arrests have indicated the two Chicanas were mistreated by police. One witness said a total of five officers physically took the girls into custody, ‘The girls aren’t very big and don’t know karate or anything so I don’t know why so many of the police were necessary,’ the witness said.
Only the charred framework of “MECHA” House remains after Tuesday night’s fire. Chicano students held a s i l e n t march to the Open Forum Wednesday in protest of the burning, while the College administration offered to give them a new house’.
3. Jeff Schnaufer, “CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE Chicano House Suit May Be Filed,” [Valley Edition] Los Angeles Times (13 May 1991): 6.
Latino activists at Cal State Northridge said they may take legal action if administrators follow through with their plan to turn the campus Chicano House into a multicultural center.
More than 50 students, mostly members of the campus MEChA chapter, staged a sit-in last week to protest the proposal. Charging that CSUN administrators had reneged on a promise to preserve the house, the students briefly blocked doors to an administration building room in which officials were meeting to discuss CSUN’s master plan.
Protesters, who included students from UCLA and Valley College, said they felt that they had no choice but to stage the sit-in Wednesday when they learned that the newly released CSUN master plan calls for the 21-year-old Chicano House to be replaced by a multicultural center.
MEChA leaders said that for two years they have been negotiating with CSUN President James W. Cleary and Bill Chatham, vice president of facility planning and operations, to preserve the house, a center for Latino studies.
“They basically undermined what we had agreed to,” said Gerardo Cueva, MEChA vice president. He said the group may take legal action against the university in an attempt to save the facility.
Cueva said the two administrators had assured students that the facility would be kept intact or, if torn down, would be replaced with a comparable facility.
The three-room house is used by MEChA members and other Latino students for meetings, study and cultural and outreach programs.
Administrators reportedly said at last week’s meeting that classroom sites for the Chicano House might be found, but Latino students said that is not acceptable.
“The administration wants to take away the house,” Cueva said. “They’ve been wanting to do it for the past 15 years.”
Cleary said Friday through a spokeswoman that he will continue to seek solutions “to the concerns of MEChA over the Chicano House. I hope that we can come to an understanding of their needs as well as the needs of all ethnic groups at CSUN.”
Although they support the idea of a multicultural center, MEChA students and some faculty members claim that abandoning Chicano House would ignore its historical significance. In addition, some said they see a multicultural facility as a form of discrimination.
“It’s just ghettoizing people, throwing them together and fighting over the space,” Chicano studies professor Rudy Acuna said.
Acuna also asserted that the administration is attempting to make the MEChA students appear to be “the bad guys” who oppose ethnic diversity.
The photos are courtesy of Oscar Castillo, Jose Reyes García and El Popo
— by Rodolfo F. Acuña