June 6, 2003

A Strike for Humanity

1992’s UCLA Chicano studies strikers triggered a nationwide movement

By Roberto Rodriguez

The year is 1993. Eight UCLA students and one professor go on a prolonged hunger strike, demanding that the university create a Chicano studies department. After much resistance and many struggles, the university creates the Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies, promising it future departmental status.

The strikers didn’t simply put their lives at risk to create Chicano studies. They became Chicana and Chicano studies.

Ten years later, its supporters await a decision on its proposed departmental status.

Chicano studies was actually created nationwide in the 1960s amid similar upheaval. It was a time of social revolution, of the symbolic breaking of the bond between the peones and the patrones — the peons and the masters. It was the time worldwide of ¡Ya Basta! Enough!

Chicano or La Raza (similar to Black, Native and Asian) studies was not limited to the act of studying. It was the act of doing. It was to take part in an insurrection. And as occurred during the hunger strike, las broncas mas bravas, the most vicious fights, were internal. Many years of oppression had taken a heavy toll. Many thought it was disloyal to demand to be treated as full human beings. Some even believed it was sacrilegious to assert one’s Indian-ness -- that which Europeans had suppressed for hundreds of years and that which undergirds this ancient Mexican/Chicano culture.

Chicano studies was Ollin — it was movement — it was strikes, protests, boycotts and organizing drives. It took place in the fields, the streets and the classrooms. It was about voice and liberation; yet sometimes, it was but small acts of defiance. It also manifested in an intellectual blossoming that challenged sacred cows and triggered a powerful literary and artistic floricanto movement. It was not the study of history, but the making of much of it was written in blood.

Its initial phase was of a dismantling nature — against repressive laws and practices — but it grew to become an incredible time of creation. Indeed, much was created in this era, including a new way of thinking. Sometimes, these new ways did not reach into the home. The relationship between men and women had to change and that caused many more broncas, which is what gave rise to placing gender at the center of the discipline.

Chicana/Chicano studies is a place where knowledge is produced or recovered. It can be found in a milpa (cornfield) just assuredly as it can be found at a university. So too it can be found in an old rocking chair — in the memories of elders who remember a time when they were not supposed to remember. Perhaps it also resides on old railroad tracks and ancient trails, where old and fresh footprints can still be found in the desert, and perhaps evidence of memories left behind.

Perhaps one finds it in the movement of Aztec danzantes or in hip-hop moves aligned to the constellations. Or in a community garden, a mural, an AIDS or women’s health clinic, a union hall, a legal aid clinic, a human rights office or in a modern ball court ... or in the dignity of the workplace, where parents toil mercilessly to give their children a dream.

My wife says it exists wherever couples share the housework equally. All work equally.

Today, Chicana/Chicano studies isn’t just about “doing,” either. It is spirit. It is what one is. What one becomes. It has always been an energy bigger than the university. It exists outside its walls and definition. It can be found in East L.A. as well as San Salvador. In a sense, it begins upon graduation. It is what one does with one’s education. Its definition: To place oneself at the service of humanity. It is to build community. And to do that requires but cara y corazon, a good character and a good heart.

That’s what the strikers had in ’93. Their action, along with the death of Chavez, reinvigorated and triggered a nationwide movement that decade which saw students take to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, protesting anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, anti-bilingual and anti-youth movements. They are still taking to the streets to demand that society prioritize education — that it quit subsidizing globe-trotting corporations and their prisons and wars.

That dynamic energy guarantees that Chicana/Chicano studies will remain a place of creation, and, we hope, a place where one goes to become a good human being.

Rodriguez, along with his wife Patrisia Gonzales, is currently a Distinguished Community Scholar at UCLA’s Cesar Chavez Center. They can be reached at: XColumn@aol.com or 817-929-3805. Reprinted from LALatino.com

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