In summary

Ethnic studies has become celebratory of heroes and holidays, and now it is being further diluted and reconstituted as “diverse studies.”

By Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, Special to CalMatters

Roberto Cintli Rodriguez is an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Department of Mexican American Studies, Xcolumn@gmail.com. He is the author of several books, including “Our Sacred Maiz is Our Mother.”

Given the demographics of the nation and the state, the need for ethnic studies is much greater now than when it was founded in California in the late 1960s. And just as today, counterintuitively, opposition to it is as real today as it was then.

During my high school years in Southern California, shortly after the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War, my high school prevented me from taking the only Chicano Studies class that it offered. Back then, it was not considered college prep and as such, the message inferred was that learning the knowledge of my own ancestors was not of sufficient academic value.

Interestingly, learning about Chaucer and Shakespeare was deemed acceptable, but not Nezalhuacoyotl or Emma Tenayuca.

From its very outset, pretty much all officialdom, including the educational system, not only opposed the Chicano Movement and this new discipline, but it also abhorred that rebellious name, with Indigenous roots: Chicano/Chicana. That’s why we shouted: Chicano Power! and Chicana Power! in the streets at that time. During that era, we learned to say no to everything harmful to our community. That’s why “Si Se Puede” or “Yes we can,” resonated with us.

At the core, we knew that opposition to us was because of our color – due to our Indigeneity – and thus why also, “Brown is Beautiful” became our mantra. To be remembered is that the East L.A. sheriff’s deputies had just violently put down a rally in Laguna Park, leaving hundreds injured, hundreds jailed and three dead, including our only voice, journalist Ruben Salazar, who was silenced with a 9-inch armor-piercing projectile to the head.

After a career as a writer and after returning to the university after a generation, I ended up in Arizona in 2007, where the movement against ethnic studies, in particular against Tucson’s highly successful Raza Studies program, was heating up. As a new professor, I witnessed how the state attempted to define what could be taught inside the state’s K-12 classrooms. The attempts to dictate what was permissible knowledge was precisely why the discipline existed in the first place. Historically, the American educational system had functioned to “deculturalize,” assimilate and “Americanize” students, with all its attendant myths of freedom and democracy for all.

Peoples left out of those national myths are to this day, still left out of that “American Dream.” In Arizona, teaching about the nation’s roots: genocide, land theft, slavery and dejure and defacto discrimination were deemed unacceptable, while teaching Greco-Roman culture was mandated. Not acceptable was Indigenous knowledge – the knowledge stemming from the many thousands of years of maiz culture of this continent – the historical culture of the majority of Tucson students.

In response, powerful ethnic studies movements also arose nationwide, most notably in Texas and California; at the same time, counter-movements emerged to eliminate or dilute ethnic studies. In Texas, people outside of ethnic studies disciplines, put forth inaccurate, stereotypical and worthless textbooks. In California, we now see non-ethnic studies scholars attempting to dictate the nature of ethnic studies.

In effect, the struggles called for, then and now, “Third World Studies,” decolonial and liberatory education. What the education establishment instead gave us was “ethnic studies,” with preference to celebratory heroes and holidays. And now, it is being further diluted and seems to be reconstituting as “diverse studies” so that any culture can fit into ethnic studies, despite the fact that many of these new areas of studies are already disciplines unto themselves.

In reading the Dec. 15 commentary regarding ethnic studies, it is perplexing as to what gave those non-Ethnic Studies authors the authority to cross disciplines, akin to what the state is also attempting to do in re-defining ethnic studies. Ethnic studies scholars have already defined their disciplines for 50 years and in California, have even written their own model curriculum. That should be respected as opposed to sabotaged.

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