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A Loss of Ethnic Studies Contributes to Historical Amnesia

The current political trend to undermine and cut ethnic studies programs and particularly Mexican-American studies is being done under the cloak of either preserving u201cAmericanismu201d or implementing u201cnecessaryu201d budget cuts.

The current political trend to undermine and cut ethnic studies programs and particularly Mexican-American studies is being done under the cloak of either preserving “Americanism” or implementing “necessary” budget cuts. This rollback strategy takes different forms in different states. In Texas, this assault uses the cover of requiring the teaching of American “traditional history” and so-called curriculum reform. In Arizona, the educational and cultural attack is blatant and chauvinist as an outright ban of Mexican-American books and programs has been carried out under the pretext that they are “divisive, un-American and promote hatred.”

The rationale and sugar-coated tactic that is being used by administrators within the large California State University system to reduce ethic studies programs and courses is that “uncontrollable and necessary” budget cuts and low enrollment are responsible for these classes being eliminated. This phony rationale is proceeding despite a recently proposed 4.6 billion dollar budget plan by the Cal State Board of Trustees which includes increased funding to expand student enrollment and to hire more faculty. The corporate mentality of CSU administrators is purposely creating a losing situation for these programs. First, they cut certain ethnic studies courses which subsequently reduce student enrollment and this decrease then reinforces the administrator’s position that the number of students taking these courses is declining. This strategy of slowly chipping away and undermining these ethnic studies programs does not garner a lot of negative publicity for the Cal-State University System as this destructive objective can be achieved slowly but surely without attracting much public attention nor a collective response. Other underhanded methods used in different states consist of attempting to roll ethnic studies into other departments such as sociology or Latin American studies or diluting the content of these courses by making them more abstract and therapeutic in nature which then become less appealing to students. In certain colleges this dilution tactic takes the form of submerging Mexican-American, Puerto Rican or Asian Studies programs into a broader umbrella of Latin American or Asian History departments. While the frontal assault on ethnic studies that is occurring in Arizona usually gets the headlines, the slow but incessant nibbling away at these programs in other states continues under the less publicized cloak called reallocation of resources and curriculum adjustments.

The Long History of the Americas Cannot be Discarded by a Policy of Exclusion

The documented history of the Americas began around the second millennium B.C. and this development has been a continuous process of building civilizations and making contributions to the progress of humanity. The formation of the United States and the traditional interpretation of its history and culture has been narrowly documented as a mere extension of European civilization and the experiences of immigrants from that continent. Such a Eurocentric view of “history” that promotes a policy of historical amnesia in regard to the experiences and contributions of other non-European peoples in this country is neither historically objective nor can it be considered scientifically based. An historical interpretation that is not all-sided with the inclusion and recording of all pertinent facts is a superficial and propagandist version of history. There is good work currently being done in Texas to publicize the history and contributions of the Mexican population prior to and after the territory’s annexation by the US and the history of New Mexico tends to be more widely known. In Arizona, Colorado and California, the official state government policies of historical amnesia have tended to obscure the history of Mexican-Americans in those states before the US annexation and since. California history has been hidden from most of its inhabitants who unknowingly believe the false notion that the state’s history suddenly began around 1900 without any prior historical foundation nor existence of Mexican towns, political institutions and culture. This prevailing official view of historical amnesia continues to disseminate a one-sided and reduced version of events which ignores and dismisses the three centuries of contributions made to the state by Spanish, Mexican, indigenous and other non-European ethnic groups. This shallow perspective of the state’s history has only been countered during the last 40 years by the development of ethnic studies programs whose role has been to expand the public’s outlook and understanding of the diverse histories and contributions made to the development of California by Mexican-Americans and other ethnic groups.

The Promotion of Historical Amnesia Creates Intolerance and Ethnic Conflict

There has been a powerful thread of intolerance and national white chauvinism that has been historically ingrained into our society and unfortunately this world outlook continues to exist. The majority of the white population within this country has been told for centuries by government policies, officially sanctioned textbooks and the media that national minorities have no real viable history or culture and this has resulted in negative consequences.

One of the first struggles for ethnic studies programs was waged at San Francisco State College, that national minorities have no real viable history or culture and this has resulted in negative consequences. One of the most destructive social consequences which have resulted from such propaganda and false history has been and continues to be a growth in intolerance toward any person, viewpoint or historical interpretation that is different from the officially rigid and supposedly “correct” view of our society. Such intolerance expresses itself through cultural disrespect, racial stereotypes, civil rights violations, an acceptance of inequality and even the extreme actions of racial hatred and violence. This system of historical and cultural amnesia has not been spontaneous nor has it been a mere accident that just happened to evolve. It has been consciously planned and created as a supremacist mechanism for ethnic and social control. It can also be very profitable by imposing upon ethnic minorities a system of economic inequality based upon the prevailing belief that they are “not qualified” for certain occupations or should be paid less for certain types of work. This ideological belief system which has been molded by historical amnesia has even permeated the mass media for over a century as thousands upon thousands of Eurocentric themed films, programs and characters generally ignore the struggles and lives of minority peoples. Such a systematic exclusion propagates the ignorant notion that the stories and experiences of these people are not worthy of being told nor shared as part of the American social fabric. A recent study has shown that Latinos proportionately represent one of the largest US film audiences and yet represent only 4 percent of the screen roles which are still restricted to superficial characters that portray violent male Latinos and scantily dressed Latinas. One prime example of this is the play that was written and produced by Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino titled “Valley of the Heart”. It portrays the true story and pathos of a Mexican-American family whose lives intersect with those of a Japanese-American family that is about to be imprisoned in a World War Two US internment camp. The play’s expressive and interesting depiction of cultural interchange and true California history has been totally ignored by the majority of playhouses and the mainstream media. The studio masters of the lily-white media seem to subjectively assume that the public will reject this type of story as uninteresting and unworthy of being told, and therefore it will not be profitable to produce and disseminate widely. This type of intolerance is disheartening and disgraceful particularly when compared to the avalanche of junk movies and trash television that are produced annually for public consumption.

An Expansion of Ethnic Studies Will Create More Self-awareness and Tolerance

Many people have often inquired about Mexican-American and other ethnic studies programs and courses by asking the reasonable question of why are they so important at the present time and do we really need them? The definite answer is that yes we do. The initial struggle and rationale for establishing ethnic studies programs was to expand the narrow scope and interpretation of US History and culture and make them more inclusive by documenting the lives and experiences of minority peoples and their contributions to the development of this diverse society. If this country had possessed a long and established system of ethnic and cultural equality along with a well-documented and fair history that included the achievements of all ethnic groups within our multi-national society, then, the need for ethnic studies would most likely not be necessary.

However, this is not the case and the relatively recent development and role of ethnic studies over the past 40 years has assisted in reducing the high level of intolerance and prejudiced thinking that exists within this country. Courses on Mexican-American and other ethnic histories and cultures have contributed to this by broadening out the perspective of US history and raising the social consciousness of people within our society. Such discourse and exchange of views allows people to gain mutual respect for each other’s diverse backgrounds. This type of extensive mutual understanding among ethnic groups and cultures also encourages the growth of equality based upon firm principles and therefore lessens the animosity and conflict that may exist among them. In addition to this, ethnic studies courses allow individuals to learn of their history and background and thus develop a better awareness of themselves, their families and communities. A person who does not comprehend their individual and group history is not fully aware of where they evolved from nor where they are proceeding to. As the old saying goes, you cannot know the present nor plan for the future without knowing your past. Individual and historical amnesia stifle a higher level of understanding, create frustration and impede a clear and positive road to progress. The defense and expansion of ethnic studies programs and the courses that they offer will clearly contribute to the well-being of our society by improving the level of social consciousness, understanding and compatibility of both individuals and groups. This defense and expansion need to be unified, strengthened and accelerated further.

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