Why we still need Chicanx/Latinx Studies
By Irene Sanchez
A student last year in my Latinx Studies class wrote, “If I am not myself, who will I be?”
I asked myself when I read it:
Who would I be?
Would I be bowed head, eyes lowered, and ashamed?
Would I be neither here nor there?
Would I just accept what people told me about who I am and where I come from?
Our students need these classes, Ethnic Studies and more specifically if you work where I do, Chicanx/Latinx Studies.
I was a student in the first Chicano Studies class at Rubidoux High School in 1996. Rubidoux High School is located in Jurupa Valley, CA. This class was the result of struggle, a long struggle, that like most struggles started before I was born. I talked about it a couple years ago when there was a state wide push for Ethnic Studies as a high school requirement (there still is). This particular event that made the class I was in available when I got to high school were protests around the passage of Prop 187 by California voters. This proposition would’ve made it so that undocumented people would be ineligible for public services such as health care or education, in addition, health care, educational, and other professionals would have the power under this law to report people and children to immigration.
There was much fear during this time, I felt it, mainly because it was everywhere. There were some people who felt it way more directly than me of course, but as a 12 year old during the time of the campaign to pass it, seeing the commercials in addition to watching on TV as police chased down workers on the side of a freeway, one can’t deny feelings of unbelonging no matter how long your family was in the U.S. History has shown, by being Mexican you are a target.
This proposition was pushed strong by then governor Pete Wilson in CA who was afraid of losing his campaign for re-election to governor. Much like Donald Trump, or rather Donald Trump acted like Pete Wilson, won a campaign based on racist, white supremacist, anti-Mexican rhetoric. Pete Wilson released racist ads to push the proposition such as this one. Fast forward to today, Pete Wilson told the LA times in 2017, he’d do it again.
Yes like previous generations, we walked out, why did I being a middle schooler though? I understood this law to be one where they didn’t like us, Mexicans. I didn’t know exactly what racism was or other terms I’ve since learned as an Ethnic Studies (US history) educator, but not knowing terms, doesn’t mean impact or feelings do not exist or impact.
I remember my mother, a bilingual aide for over 20 years coming home talking about how the children she served as well as their families were afraid to come to school. Parents packed up their kids and left to where, she didn’t always know.
I am a child of parents who were born and raised in East LA, parents who are Mexican. I was raised by them to be proud of who I am and where I come from and that some of the most important things in life is respect and dignity for all peoples.
This comes as no surprise my parents instilled this in me since back in their days growing up in East LA you could get hit for speaking Spanish in schools, students were tracked and didn’t go to college, which also still happens to this day. I remember taking the old books they had in the house, one on Mexico history, another called The Underdogs and a favorite of mine still, Bless me Ultima to help clue me in as to why my father had an Aztec calendar hanging in our home since before I was born (he made it in his 20s) and give me a sense of who they were, after all they read these books when they were in school.
But I learned early on and along my journey through schools thereafter, there are some things you can’t learn from schools (For example: my Chicano Studies class in High School was taught by a white history teacher whose qualifications were his wife was “Latina”). As I went to college, I learned again there are things you can’t learn from a “higher” education system that has systematically kept our students out of its gates and continues to make policies that negatively impacted poor/working class students of color.
There are things you can’t learn in schools, but I learned from father. He was the one who told me stories of how he marched in Chicano Moratorium as a curious middle schooler and almost got hit by a tear gas canister. I remember him telling me about Ruben Salazar and almost crying saying “they” killed him. I remember how he told me of the protests at the Third Street jail due to the murders of Chicano activists, murders that the police called “suicides”. I recall painfully still how he recently told me during the holidays a story he kept for so long, I heard his voice crack as he recalled how he had been brutalized by the LA Sheriffs as a child of no more than 14 years old. I’m thankful he lived to tell these stories, because it could’ve easily not been the case. So when I remember how my father asked us (four children at the time) with urgency in his voice to watch with him the series on PBS Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, during my middle school years, I did. Little did I know in that the moment I decided to dedicate my life to Chicano Studies and empowerment through education, but that story was already written long before I was born.
I remember my grandmother, my mothers mom, who passed away in 2005, who decided when she came to the US to not speak Spanish. I later learned she knew it, she just didn’t want to speak it. As a young child, I recall the frustration of not knowing enough to carry on a conversation back then and perhaps some frustration with my parents for not teaching us it, but then recalling how schools were in East La when they grew up and how they had moved us to the Inland Empire where confederate flags were proudly flown on the back of pick up trucks (they still are), I do understand. I learned Spanish more in my late teens and early 20s years and was happy to speak to my grandmother more before she passed away and I left Southern CA to transfer to a University. In a way her resistance to keep Spanish helped her pass on and keep something the US had taken from Mexicans in previous generations.
Long before my mother’s family came to the US, in the 1920s Americanization programs implemented by the US government pushed English only policies. County education officials sent in teachers to find parents and teach them English. In places like the Inland Empire, where I grew up, people are celebrated in Riverside like Ira C. Landis (who an old auditorium at my community college is named for). He actively pushed for these Americanization programs in Riverside County and throughout the state. In an article called “Aliens Take Up Beginners Lessons in English” from the Riverside Daily Press, January 10, 1917, Landis spoke about his pleasure that “aliens” had being (majority Mexican) excited to take these courses at the Casa Blanca School.
Our communities resistance to racism has long been present because as long as there has been land, there is history/stories it holds, and the resistance is rooted to it. As the battle against segregation of Mexican children in US schools continued into the 20s, 30s, & 40s, people in the Southwest were simultaneously still battling with anti-Mexican violence and lynchings that had started before the Mexican American War. In regards to education and segregation of schools, the White ruling class argued that separate schools were necessary for Mexican children throughout the Southwest:
In Carpinteria in 1930, a favorable decision was won by the school district to segregate Mexican children on the basis they are “Indian”:
“The average Mexican child is less adept to learning than his white brother of corresponding age, and when enough Mexicans in any one grade to warrant forming a class exclusively of Mexicans, this is done”. (Lompoc Review, January 28, 1930)
In another article titled “American Children First” published by the Calexico Chronicle in April 1923 their arguments against Mexican children in schools included that they didn’t have the “legal or moral right to attend them”
And finally in the La Habra Star in June 1928, an article titled “Mexican Child Problems Increase” stated,
“It is a problem that must be solved if the state is interested in the character of its Mexican population two or three generations hence”.
The resistance started even before this time period I highlighted and it continued to this day.
It was a battle for me to get through college as a student who like many aren’t expected to go. I barely graduated high school. I went on to community college where I was placed on academic probation and dismissal my first year, then I remembered where I come from is a long legacy of resistance as I spent my year off school (kicked out for bad grades) as a tutor and poetry teacher at the middle school I walked out of during Prop 187. I saw the conditions of the school, how students were criminalized, how they were tracked, and I knew I had to find a way to go back to college. I transferred after five years to UC Santa Cruz where I was majored in Latin American/Latino Studies and Sociology. As a Xicana this major was important to me to keep learning about our relatives across the land and the struggles that took place in the land that is now (inaccurately) called the “Americas”. Throughout my education, but mostly through activism and community involvement past and present, I learned the meaning of solidarity, consciousness, and where true learning takes place.
After completing my Ph.D., I came back to Southern CA, to my community, I ended up being forced to leave the job I thought I was supposed to do, I moved and unexpectedly am now fulfilling a different/previous life goal of teaching high school. I teach Latinx Studies in the San Gabriel Valley (Tongva land) at three high schools every day. Myself and my students are bombarded with anti-Mexican and Latinx sentiment constantly whether it comes from the school system, from the media, or larger society we live in. Information is much more accessible during this time as one of the assignments requires them to pay attention to news, but in information being much more abundant, I have seen also abundant is the mis-information. Progress has been made, but we have a much longer way to go as demonstrated by the increase of Latino hate crimes in CA and the nation since the election of Trump to the highest office in the US. We have a long way to go in terms of building bridges of solidarity and understanding in order to bring about change on a grander scale.
Although there is a lot of work to be done, I remain hopeful because we are part of a legacy of resistance that began long before I was born, one that will remain after I pass on, but hopefully will leave the world a better place for my son (Xicana, Guatemalan-Maya) and all the children who will come next.
The struggle starts now. It started already. Two years ago in 2017, before I started teaching, I returned to my old high school on a rainy day. I returned to the place where I first took Chicano Studies in a school setting (outside my parents). I went to be in solidarity with students who walked out to protest racist comments by teachers following the students participation in a day without immigrants. Rubidoux High School is now 90 plus percent Latinx students, most of those of are of Mexican decent and I see how that is similar in numbers to the population of students in the 3 high schools I teach in today where students still struggle with some teachers underestimating them for college, making racial comments about their “intelligence” that remind me of comments historically made of Mexican children during the Mexican School period as well as teachers reprimanding students for speaking Spanish by giving them referrals for doing so.
I remind the students I teach that It took 46 years after Azusa students walked out of schools where I teach to get the Latino Studies class implemented. We have to ask why, but we also must ensure that classes like these can be taken in high school because they not only change lives, they teach truth and in a world full of misinformation, truth about ourselves and the world is what we need to empower and inspire. That is what AB 331 will do for California, make it necessary to take these classes in order to graduate from high school and in a diverse society we need to know more about ourselves and each other, but this bill will also do so much more.
We still need these classes, I know, I took them, I teach them, and there are still people we encounter on a daily basis that would rather us bow our heads, lower our eyes and wish us never to exist, just like our history in the U.S. has shown, but there is no more denying it.
We can not take a step backwards.
There is too much at stake.
Our dignity and respect.
Our collective humanity.
For if I am not myself who would I be?
Well right now I can’t imagine being anything else then who I became, who I am, and I owe that to my ancestors, to my parents, to the movement, to resistance, to history that we are now making in this moment.
Irene Sanchez is proudly a Xicana, Quetzal’s mama, educator, poet/writer and the author of Xicana Ph.D. Born in Southeast Los Angeles and raised in the Inland Empire, she now resides in the SGV of Los Angeles County. For more information see http://www.irenesanchezphd.com
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