¡Agua y Libertad!: What Do You Do With Chicana/o Studies?

If asked once I have been asked a thousand times, what do you do with Chicana/o Studies? You get an education that hopefully frees you from the Eurocentric worldview that an American education produces.

For example, in 2014, 87 percent of scientists said that human activity causes global warming, yet only half the American public believed this to be true. This is important because education forms American attitudes on race, gender, sexuality, the poor and foreign policy. Mind you, this is after the respondents had gone through twelve years of American schooling.

In my case, the study Latin American and Chicana/o Studies helped me break out of this fog. Even though I received a master of arts in U.S. history I learned little about the ancient Native American civilizations. True to form we were required to take Western Civilization, not World Civilization.

The academy’s worldview resists non-western European thought. When Black Americans pushed for Black Studies, American scholars labeled them “Afrocentric”. They said Black Studies was limiting although, the truth be told, it was about identity and liberation, which all education should be.

When Chicana/o Studies emerged similar accusations were made with even Chicano academics chiming in labeling it nationalistic. Eurocentric scholars could not understand that all learning does not begin and end with Western Europe.  La zorra nunca se ve su cola.

Their mindset is, why should we teach or speak anything but American? The United States publishes more books than any nation in the world.  Everyone wants to study here, don’t they? This closed mindset produces a Eurocentric worldview that begets the climate change deniers and neo-John Birchers who are today battling local and state school boards to change history standards to adhere to their Eurocentric worldview.

My research on Mexican society has led me to explore the water question and has prepared me to appreciate the present crisis in California and throughout the world. Water is the essence of life. One of the first things that scientists look for on other planets is water whose presence means life.

My research on Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933 (2007) took over 30 years. When I started to put it together I wrote 1,000 pages that I had to pare down to about 400. Similar to the history of American and Spanish Colonialism, it was a micro view of the privatization of water (something that is strangling us today).

My odyssey began with the simple question of why and how Chihuahua and Sonora differed, separated only by the Sierra Madre Occidental. It raised questions such as why did the Yaqui, Mayo, Opata and other Sonoran Indians resist the Spanish for such a prolonged period, and why Chihuahua tribes such as the Conchos were wiped out or driven into the Sierra Madres?

It was water that allowed large villages to develop on the Sonora side. The precipitation blowing west from the Gulf of California and the Pacific was trapped in the high sierras where snow packs kept Sonoran Rivers stocked.  Less precipitation fell on the Chihuahua side where the Conchos and other tribes travelled in bands of a dozen or so to allow the ground water to replenish the streams. The Tarahumara and the Conchos traveled to the headwaters of the sierras during the summer, and drifted back to the deserts during the winter.

The scarcity of water made the Indians vulnerable to the Spanish whose cattle and mining enterprises polluted the water. The missions, the presidios, pueblos and silver mines appropriated the water making the Indian vulnerable and dependent on their system. Finally, the ejidos that had been used to attract mestizo and criollo settlers to the frontier along with the acequias were monopolized by rich farmers, hacendados and capitalist enterprises.

The same process occurred in Sonora where the water was targeted especially in the fertile Yaqui Valley. The Yaqui resisted well into the late 1920s. It was a tale of genocide with the Mexican and Sonoran governments selling Yaqui men, women and children to the plantations of Yucatan.

I found my answers outside the parameters of the United States, and I was introduced to Mexican historians such as Luis Aboites Aguilar and Rocío Castañeda González, specialist in the use of water. Aboites’ work is essential to studying the Mexican Revolution and provides a window into today’s water crisis and the treachery of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto who is privatizing the nation’s natural resources. The study of the struggle for water gave me a deeper appreciation of the destructive nature of neoliberalism and privatization.

Much of Aboites’ research centers on the area along Conchos River that historically sent labor to Chihuahuan and Arizona mines. Because the river ran northward to the Río Bravo, it was a corridor to New Mexico and Texas as well as a gateway to New Mexico and Arizona. People from Durango, Zacatecas, and colonists from the interior travelled through this corridor.

The population worked primarily in farming and mining that were dependent on water. Meanwhile, hacendados, rancheros, and ejido farmers multiplied along the Conchos River where small farmers dug acequias during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This corridor was an essential to my research and a link to the Arizona mines and then to the 1933 San Joaquin Cotton Strike and other corridors. These workers and their families carried historical memories of struggles won and lost.

Aboites Aguilar in a simple narrative tells the story of Santa Rosalia, today Camargo, Chihuahua, where ejidos coexisted with haciendas and small and medium sized farmers. Aboites describes how tensions developed over the use of water, as mestizo farmers and ranchers encroached on former mission and native holdings. Gradually the communal system gave way and the water fell under the control of medium sized landholders who along with a terrateniente in nearby San Francisco de los Conchos monopolized the water.

Communal holdings disappeared in Santa Rosalía and La Cruz where small property owners shared the land with hacendados. Consolidation accelerated as the ayuntamientos (town councils) sold off communal properties and water rights to their friends and relatives. The monopolization of water was happening concurrently throughout Mexico, New Mexico and the southwest.

State policies facilitated this monopolization. Chihuahua passed a law in 1825 to encourage the colonization of the margins of the Ríos Bravo and Conchos. It privatized public lands and the holdings of the native villages. This encroachment occurred all along the Conchos and along the Florido River (on the north side of the Valle of Allende). Further up, north of Santa Rosalia, Meoqui was part of the Hacienda Delicias until 1826.

I would have never acquired this knowledge if it had not been for Chicana/o Studies that has forced a tiny number of scholars to explore this phenomenon and look at the trans-border nature of knowledge. The truth be told, the study of Mexico has grown tenfold, i.e., the publication of dissertations, books and articles, because of the establishment of Chicana/o Studies and the growth of the Mexican and Latino population.

Unfortunately, much of the new knowledge is stamped Made in the U.S.A. and bears a distinctly Eurocentric flavor. It is this bias that we have to breakdown while at the same time expanding our own worldview.

Hopefully this worldview will include the urgency of the grito ¡Agua y Libertad!

— by Rodolfo F. Acuña

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