Refusing to Disappear

Refusing to Disappear
By Irene Sanchez
Xicana Ph.D. 

How many of us have heard these sayings in the U.S.?
“America is a melting pot…” 
“The national fabric is a diverse tapestry…”
“America is united as one…”

People who offer assimilationist snippets of what they believe “America” is fail to say that the dominant Euro American group often demands that “others” give up their history and culture in order to fit in to this national fabric or must melt their culture until it is no longer recognizable or treated as token at best, but what is also left unsaid is that even if people do give up their history or culture they will still be treated as second class citizens. The fictitious melting pot is just that “fictitious” because no matter how much one desires or is demanded to “fit in”, U.S. history has shown us that especially for Mexicans/Latinos in history, this doesn’t happen. “America” in the classes I teach doesn’t exist in this context, since the Americas are a continent, but my students need to be aware of these ideas in order to know how to challenge them. 

I remember the first time I read an assimilationist text in community college. It was the book Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. I was troubled by it when I read it as an 18 year old college student and wrote about it. I recently revisited a portion of Rodriguez’s book in another book I read also in community college, The Latina/o Condition edited by CRT legal scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic. This is a book that my students now read in the classes I teach at the three high schools I work at. In Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez writes about how he was a scholarship boy and how this separated him from his family, “A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing and separating me from my life and I enjoyed becoming a student.” I thought of this book over the years, often writing about how people can’t assimilate as much as they may try to, it is impossible. I also believe that when one attempts to assimilate that one loses much more than they gain. I recognize as a second generation Mexican American/Chicana that I write from a different perspective as in my home growing up, Spanish wasn’t spoken once we moved from East LA to Jurupa Valley in the Inland Empire of California. My mother later said she had a legitimate fear that me and my siblings would be treated differently and given the history of what happened to Mexicans in schools in the early to mid part of the 1900s, something I now teach about as well, I completely understand why she made the decision. I also understand it didn’t protect us, which is why as an adult I made a decision to reclaim the language that was lost for me and historically denied and beaten out of other Mexicans who went to school in the early/mid 1900’s. Chicanx/Latinx history is something all should learn in schools, whether they are a 5th generation Chicano, a Puerto Rican whose people were made into citizens through the Jones Act in the 1920s due to the U.S. colonization of the island or someone who is a more recent immigrant. All should know this history so that they may better understand what the Latinx/Mexican experience has been historically and to understand what conditions the community faces currently.

My father, a Chicano, didn’t really learn Spanish from my grandparents as they experienced different challenges in the U.S. having arrived from Northern Mexico earlier than my mothers family who came from Jalisco in the 1950s. My fathers family arrived post the Mexican Revolution (1910) like millions of other Mexicans who also made that move north during this time. They first settled in El Paso, Texas before moving to East LA in the late 1940s to the Aliso Village Housing Projects. When I looked back at my father’s family history I realized through my education that they arrived to El Paso, TX during the period of gassing Mexicans at the border on the Santa Fe Bridge, the ongoing violence and lynchings of Mexicans in the Southwest, Americanization programs and segregated schools or “Mexican schools” which demanded Mexicans speak only English. I also learned that once the family moved to East LA, they witnessed things like the attacks on Zoot Suiters in the 1940s and experienced more discrimination along with police brutality. My father now in his elder years recalls more of these stories of getting beat up by the police and being thrown in jail at age 14 (he was released the next day). From these stories and experiences, I further confirm my feelings of discomfort with Rodriguez text and it is that assimilation is a lie that is told for us to lose ourselves to fit into a fictitious “America” that never existed for us. Assimilation did not do what my grandfather perhaps thought it would and it did not protect my father, in fact, I doubt it protects anyone. 

My Paternal Grandparents
El Paso, TX
My father (center) with some of his siblings.
Aliso Village Housing Projects.
Los Angeles, CA

It is only through school that I was able to confirm these things, but to do this was no easy task. I barely graduated high school and was almost sent to continuation school my senior year. I then went on to community college, like most Latinos who enter higher education in the United States. Most of us who do enter through that route unfortunately still do not transfer. I was one of the lucky ones who did despite being placed on academic probation/dismissal my first year of college. I had always known I was not a “scholarship girl” and experiences throughout graduate school reminded me. I then went on to become one of few Chicanas (less than a half a percent) in this country who earn a Ph.D. I completed both my masters and Ph.D. at one of the top ten education schools in the country.

Becoming a student to me has been a lifelong process as I feel an urge to always keep learning and unlike Rodriguez becoming a student through school didn’t separate me from my life, it brought me closer to history and to recovering my culture. It has given me the tools to become more of myself and share those tools and stories with others who don’t have the privilege to access higher education. That process of reclaiming and holding on to culture also came with struggle and a refusal to accept the status quo of what others defined as success. My schooling experiences are the reason my dissertation is called “Testimonios of Transformation: The Experiences of Chicana/o and Latina/o Students in Washington State Redefining Achievement and Success.” We must redefine success in the United States and especially for Chicanx and Latinx young people that success in school or anywhere else doesn’t equal giving up who you are and where you come from. 

I teach Chicano/Latino Studies or rather the U.S. history that is left untaught often in our public schools. I have seen how U.S. history is often told from east to west, just like the expansion of the U.S. happened through manifest destiny as white colonizers believed that it was their “God given right to expand”. These stories are often repeated in some U.S. history texts as if there was nothing here in the Southwest prior to the land being violently acquired by the United States in 1848 following the unjust Mexican American War Prior to Mexico staking claim to this land though, one must remember all of the land in the Americas from North to South was/is indigenous. 

Mexicans/Chicanos on this land called the U.S. have been colonized doubly. As many are indigenous people or descendants of indigenous people, the first violations of colonization occurred when the Spanish arrived to the Americas. The next violations occurred in the time before, during and after the Mexican American War. This violence that Chicanos and Latinos have faced in more recent times, including in the place my father’s family first settled in during the early 1900s, El Paso, Texas, with the massacre that occurred in 2019, (as I have previously written on), is a continuation of the racial/ethnic violence Mexican people have experienced historically in the U.S. for refusing to assimilate or to “go back to where they came from”, but I also know that it is a refusal to disappear. Now with the passage of Ethnic Studies as a high school graduation requirement in California, it is my hope that more students will have the opportunity to become more whole, something schooling in the U.S. has not been for Latinx students, all while learning a fuller history of the U.S. and the contributions of our diverse communities. I also hope this shift in formal schooling presents more opportunities for students to remember who they are and where they come from and to share these stories and dialogue with their families and each other. That would be the real success for all those who refused to assimilate before us and those of us who honor them by refusing to disappear now.

My late mentor and East LA walkout leader, Bobby Lee Verdugo presenting to youth at West High School in Denver, CO 2016
Photo: Irene Sanchez

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