July 21, 2006

Commentary:

Afterthoughts on UCSD’s purchase of the Herman Baca Collection

Jorge Mariscal

The purchase of National City activist Herman Baca’s collected papers by UCSD was celebrated last Saturday by San Diego’s Chicano community and rightly so. One chapter in the history of San Diego’s Chicano community has been saved for our collective memory and the archive will be an important resource for scholars and students. Saturday’s celebration was a huge success.

And yet we must be honest with ourselves and ask to what degree the one-day presence of over three hundred Raza at UCSD can affect change for future generations. Is an archive not in fact evidence that the militancy of an earlier moment has passed and is therefore no longer a threat to the status quo? What impact will the location of the archive in the bowels of UCSD’s central library have on campus life for Chicano/Mexicano/Latino communities? How will it affect the institutional character of the La Jolla campus?

In his remarks at the celebration, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante emphasized UCSD’s status as an elite university. He told the audience that it should take pride in the fact that such a prestigious institution has accepted the papers of a Chicano activist. But he said nothing about the deplorable conditions for Chicano faculty, staff, and students at UCSD.

He said nothing about the fact that Chicana/o professors make up only 1% of the overall faculty (fewer than in 1978), that there are no Chicanas or Chicanos in the highest ranks of campus staff, that the discipline of Chicano Studies is not given adequate support or recognition, that there is no public art on campus that reflects Chicano culture, and that Chicana/o undergraduates make up only 8% of the overall student population.

Bustamante showed up, performed a street-savvy political pirouette, and blew out of town. Of course we do not need Bustamante to tell us where we stand. The issues before us have not changed in over forty years. They are well understood and in may specific cases viable solutions to long-standing inequities have been identified. But an ossified bureaucracy and upper-level administrators with no knowledge and little interest in the Chicano/Mexicano experience make meaningful reform in 2006 as difficult as it was in 1966.

No one doubts that UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox is sincere when says she is committed to creating a campus climate conducive to all of California’s communities. And yet among those administrators who actually make the everyday policy decisions that affect students, faculty, and the curriculum there is no one who has demonstrated the vision and courage necessary to overturn existing habits and structures that impede the transformation of campus life in order to improve UCSD’s relationship with Chicanos.

There is no need to impute personal biases or motives to these administrators. The problem is institutional in nature. In other words, the collective mentality of those who have made campus policies since the early 1960s reveals still today a shared commitment (unconscious in most cases?) to limiting the empowerment of Black and Brown communities on campus in order to maintain what they consider to be the elite institutional character created by UCSD’s founders.

The expansion of Chicano access to policy-making in academic and student affairs, the growth of Chicano academic programs, or the tripling of the number of Chicano/a students (from 8% to 24%) might so alter the “nature” of the campus that it would become unrecognizable to those who created it and more important to those who govern it today. The unspoken institutional message? A new archive and a one-day celebration are fine. Major reforms are not.

History teaches us that entrenched bureaucracies never reform themselves from within. Outside pressure together with decisive leadership from the top must work together to break the stranglehold of unquestioned attitudes and practices.

Chancellor Fox should be congratulated for attending last Saturday’s event as well as for being present at recent Chicano graduation ceremonies. Unlike her predecessor, current University of California president Robert Dynes, she has displayed a willingness to engage in a serious way with Chicano community and student groups. But she may be as trapped as the rest of us by the structural impediments built into the institution.

Moreover, Chancellor Fox is new to California and to a statewide university system whose track record with Mexican Americans is one of neglect and tokenism. One can only dream of following scene — the same 300 Chicanos and Chicanas (including Lt. Gov. Bustamante) who were present last weekend for the Baca celebration are transported to Oakland to confront UC President Dynes about the university’s lack of accountability to the Chicano community.

Until a complete overturning of the UCSD status quo has begun, the university will continue to court small well-heeled sectors of the “Hispanic” community while grassroots and working class communities receive occasional pats on the head and the majority of Chicano/Mexicano youth are locked out. Don’t be surprised if in the year 2026, when projections suggest that “Hispanics” will comprise over 45% of the state’s population, UCSD announces the purchase of another Chicano archive and then quietly reports that the number of Chicano/a undergraduates remains steady at 8%.

Jorge Mariscal is Professor of Literature and Director of the Chicano/a~Latino/a Arts and Humanities Minor Program at UC San Diego.

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