A Reflection on Occupied America: A History of Chicanos

Occupied America (3rd edition)

Occupied America (3rd edition)

The first Chicana/o Studies book I ever purchased was Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (3rd edition) by Rodolfo F. Acuña for an introductory Chicana/o history class at East Los Angeles College (ELAC).

Occupied America introduced me to my history, culture, and a legacy of Chicana/o resistance against Euroamerican oppression. A Chicana/o history that had been purposely kept from me and my community by the public school system, media, and the government.

Occupied America empowered me. Occupied America saved my life.

Occupied America is, without a doubt, the most influential book in the history of Chicana/o letters. First published in 1972, at the height of the Chicano Movement, Occupied America: The Chicanos’s Struggle Toward Liberation filled an historical and intellectual vacuum that finally told “our history” from our point of view.

Occupied America (1st edition)

Occupied America (1st edition)

Fueled by the political climate of the Chicano Movement, Acuña’s book spoke with anger and moral outrage, yet it also encouraged, even if indirectly, its readers to join and be part of the movement, a messsage that has been missing lately in most Chicana/o Studies monographs and texts.

Using the internal colony model as its basis, Acuña’s work was an unapologetic documentation of the racism Chicanas/os had faced since 1835. The book rested on a historical truth that Euroamericans took Mexican land through violent theft and an expansionist war of Manifest Destiny. The social, political, and economic consequences have beeen damaging to the Chicana/o people.

Most importantly, Occupied America demonstrated Chicana/o resistance against social injustice. The myth that Chicanas/os are passive and docile was dismantled by this work.

Occupied America was and is a book of empowerment: it is a weapon of knowledge.

I first met Dr. Acuña sometime in the mid-1990s at a Chicano event at the old Lincoln Heights jail, which had been converted to the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. David Sánchez, who at the time had just recently resurrected the Brown Beret National Organization (BBNO), introduced me to Dr. Acuña.

During our brief exchange, Dr. Acuña mentioned that he was in the process of writing a book on Chicano politics, a book which would eventually be Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles. I was attentive. I was learning and unlearning.

I met Dr. Acuña a few more times at a couple of book signings. If my memory serves me correct these were held at Premiere Aztlán at the Montebello Town Center. Dr. Acuña signed for me his Sometimes There Is No Other Side: Chicanos and the Myth of Equality.

Taking these Chicana/o Studies classes at ELAC helped me to “discover” my true identity as a Chicano, an identity which I continue to refine as I learn about my Indigenous heritage. In particular, Occupied America helped me focus on the larger picture of a racist American society and its relationship to the Chicana/o people. Occupied America provided me the methodology by which to understand the social conditions of the Chicana/o in the United States.

I eventually came to understand that it was not just bad luck or mere coincidence that Chicanas/os were at the bottom rung of the economic and political system. Occupied America revealed the historical factors why this was so.

It also provided me with strategies and solutions that helped me in my own activist, scholarly, and professional work.

I flipped through the pages of Occupied America with intense passion. I think I read Occupied America over and over the first few months I had it. I was especially intrigued by the section on the Chicano Movement.

I couldn’t believe what I read. Even in high school, we all learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. But never were we taught that Chicanos had a history or that our people were part of the movement as well. For instance, over 15,000 Chicana/o students stormed out of their schools to protest an inferior school system.

I wanted to know more. I eventually did. Occupied America was my teacher and mentor. It was my intellectual sword and shield.

Since then, my primary research focus in Chicana/o Studies has been on the Chicano Movement. With the struggle to dismantle Chicana/o Studies in Tucson and other regions, it is very important that we defend Chicana/o Studies. My basic argument is that in the post-1970s, a weak Chicana/o Studies has equated to a weak Chicana/o community. This is a topic I’ll explore more in-depth in the near future.

The significance of Occupied America cannot be overstated. It opened my eyes to the past, present, and future. It gave me una arma de concientización that I now use quite frequently.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Occupied America would be the beginning of a literary quest I would undertake in collecting what I hoped would be the most extensive Chicana/o Studies library anyone could have outside of academia.

Dr. Acuña once told me: the second edition “is very important because it marks the transition from the monograph to a text.” Now in its 8th edition, Occupied America has changed considerably from its initial publication. And for good reasons. Chicana/o Studies and Chicana/o history are not static.

Although there are only a few traces of the internal colony model left in the newer editions, Occupied America is at its root still about [re]educating the Chicana/o community about our past, and most importantly, it serves as a literary model for activism.

Albert Einstein once remarked, “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.” As such, Occupied America almost dares us to get out of the Ivory Tower and organize at the grass roots level with our people.

Occupied America has always been about creating awareness of the lived experiences of the Chicana/o in the United States. It is about ensuring that the words “justice” and “equality” have relevance in our daily lives. Moreover, the terms are not meant to be mere rhetorical devices simply to be thrown around by politicians and pundits who have no sense of history.

Occupied America is about upholding justice and equality for the Chicana/o people. It is about self-determination and empowerment. El Futuro de Nuestra Gente esta Basado en el Pasado.

Truth be told, one cannot deny the fact that Euroamericans have been hostile and have used at their disposal the “law“ to keep Chicanas/o “in their place.” Yet, Occupied America was not written as a vehicle to create resentment towards others. That is further from the truth.

Anyone who will tell you otherwise, is lying and does not understand Occupied America nor do they understand Chicana/o Studies. Yet, many find Occupied America and Chicana/o Studies to be a political and academic threat to the status-quo.

As one of the books banned in the recent assault on Chicana/o Studies in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), Occupied America has been maliciously misinterpreted and misrepresented by people, such as the former Arizona state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

Tom Horne falsely claimed that Chicana/o Studies “is inherently designed for students of a particular ethnicity, and it’s got to stop.” It is blatantly racist, disingenuous, and ahistorical for Horne to speak about a history that is “designed” specifically for a particular ethnicity.

Anyone who happened to be awake in any U.S. History class while in K-12 knows quite well that American history was designed specifically to uplift the self-esteem of Euroamerican students and give them a false sense of history through the racist hidden curriculum known as American Exceptionalism. This history of American Exceptionalism is one that we all have learned at one time or another. It taught us to hate ourselves. Chicana/o Studies has deconstructed this notion.

Occupied America (8th edition)

Occupied America (8th edition)

Through Occupied America, Dr. Acuña laid the foundation for an intellectual pedagogy, methodology, discourse and discipline that has come to be known as Chicana/o Studies. Chicana/o Studies was founded by students for the self-determination of a people. Occupied America is born out of that struggle. As the intellectual primer of our people’s history we must never lose sight of our struggle.

Nearly forty-three years ago, the first edition of Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation was published. We must continue to question and analyze. As Dr. Acuña is fond of saying, “what is behind the story?” Occupied America helps us get closer to answering that question from a Chicano perspective.

Do yourself a favor and get a copy of Occupied America you won’t regret it. It will change your life.


cultural sovereignty 

— by D.Cid

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