What is Raza Studies and What is it Good For?

A few days ago, the media reported that a mother was found dead in the hot, scorching desert, purportedly while attempting to cross into the United States. Underneath her was her dead infant.
The complaints were onerous: A series of questions this month on a social media site asked a variant of: Why should Mexican Americans care about immigration issues? The complainer, with disdain, asserted that focusing on immigration issues takes the focus away from the needs of Mexican Americans, whose needs continue to be unmet and neglected.
That the social, educational and political needs of Mexican Americans continue to be unmet and neglected by society is certainly correct, however, the other part of his formulation and his other complaints and questions were bizarre, to say the least. The complainer asserted that Mexicans don’t know Chicano culture and are not familiar with Chicanos themselves and with a tone of arrogance, posited that they are different peoples. Then, to add insult to injury, he complained about Mexicans taking over the jobs in Chicano Studies.
These complaints are reminiscent of Arizona crazy talk, both in the realm of our vicious immigration and educational battles, where we are constantly bombarded by unconstitutional laws, dehumanizing attitudes and a regime of border enforcement, which includes roaming immigration agents, walls, fences and even kangaroo courts, and lots of deaths in the desert. That the complaint was posed by a self-described “Mexican-American,” is what reminded me of why I wrote an essay in 1981-1982 called: “Who Declared War on the Word Chicano?” And even more precisely, it reminded me of why I wrote the 1997 anti-book: The X in La Raza.
For the record, I was born in Mexico, as were my grandparents, parents and all my uncles and aunts, save one. All my siblings were born in Mexico, save one and we were all raised in the United States since very young children. My youngest brother and all my nieces and nephews were born in the United States. All my cousins and their children in Kansas were born in the United States. I have some cousins in Texas that were born in Mexico. And I have lots of family that were born and still live in Mexico. You get the picture.
To answer the complaint, I would have to create definitions of what constitutes a Mexican vs. a Chicano with clear demarcations that would satisfactorily answer the complainant. By the very nature of the complaint, that seems hardly possible. I would also hate to ask what he thinks about people from Central America or South America and the Caribbean.
While attempting to answer his complaint, I found out that he was in his mid-40s. He claimed to be airing views not simply his own, but those of others who were also tired of all the media emphasis being placed on immigration-related issues. While older, he is not old enough to remember the very anti-Mexican era prior to the Chicano movement that created the discipline of Chicano Studies, Mexican-American Studies and Raza Studies. In that era, even Mexican Americans [many, not all] openly hated and despised Mexicans and even refused to speak Spanish to them. While many will deny this, this attitude was partially carried into the Chicano Movement and Chicano Studies, though I would venture to say this was a minority mindset. That was the whole point of the movement and discipline; to reject the nation’s rabid anti-Mexicanism.
While not the same, his question belongs to that era because at that time, a similar debate raged. One could not go to a major conference without the issue [of identity] coming to the fore. And I cannot ever remember the issue ever being satisfactorily resolved. In fact, I remember many conferences breaking apart as a result of such questions. Many from that era did share the complainer’s sentiments or disdain, which oftentimes included an over-emphasis by some, that Chicanos or Mexican Americans were not Mexican. There were many variants to this debate.
One could say that demographics – or mass migration from Mexico and the rest of the Americas beginning in the 1970s – took care of that question. It is rare to hear such or similar type of questions on college campuses nowadays because most families are similar to mine. That is, they are mixed. To attempt to disentangle who is and who isn’t Chicano/Chicana or Mexican-American, Raza, etc. is to invite the identity police over for dinner.
To re-engage in this debate would require going back in time at least some 30 years. For me, through my own writings, I determined that people’s identities are made up of our spirits, and spirits have no names or they have many names. Translation: fighting over what name to call oneself, especially if one attempts to impose one’s views regarding identity, is not simply a waste of time, but often, very destructive and counter-productive. What one lives for and what one fights for, is a bit more important, I posited then. Actually, pioneer journalist and columnist Ruben Salazar, addressed a similar question with his classic 1970 column: Who is a Chicano? And what is it the Chicanos want?
In today’s context, a better way to answer the complaint at the top of the column would require not establishing an identity regime or litmus test, but rather, by examining what Chicano/Chicana Studies or Mexican-American or Raza Studies is. In effect, that is the more interesting question. By answering it, I presume, his question can be answered. By answering it, which was always tied to political struggles, one will also be able to answer that complaint.
In the conflict that arose in Arizona in 2006 as a result of the attempt to eliminate Raza Studies, TUSD administrators, in effect, forced the directors of the department to change its name from Raza Studies to Mexican-American Studies. Apparently, the term Mexican-American, was deemed to be “less offensive” than Raza Studies. While the term “Raza” has definitely been demonized, by blatant supremacists, the conflict itself had little to do with the name. It was about the content, the curriculum and its very existence. The name-change did no good as MAS-TUSD was dismantled in 2012.
While others may have a different take, my involvement in this struggle leads me to believe that the primary reason the department was destroyed was not because there was anything wrong with it, but rather, because of its Indigenous or maíz -based curriculum. The person responsible for the termination of Raza Studies was then-State Schools’ superintendent, Tom Horne. He deemed the curriculum to be outside of Western civilization. That is code for: outside of civilization, itself.
Whether intentional or not, he stepped into virtually the identical debate carried on by European priests that raged in the 1500s. The debate was primarily between themselves and centered on whether Indians were human, whether they had souls and whether they could be saved. While these debates raged, all the books were burned and destroyed; all knowledge, whether medicinal, historic, educational, mathematical, astronomic or scientific, was deemed to be demonic. Today we look back on that “debate” as a product of them living in the dark ages.
Horne is harder to understand because he lives with us in this modern era and has little excuse to claim ignorance (though he does live in Arizona). He has been the motor for the criminalization and demonization of Raza Studies, though he never once posed it as a debate. Instead, he has simply asserted that it exists outside of Western civilization. His efforts culminated with HB 2281, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law in April 2010.
Two Indigenous or maíz–based concepts, which are at the philosophical core of TUSD-Raza Studies (regardless if the department is defunct or not), are key in answering both Horne, and the person who made the complaint above: In Lak Ech-Tu eres mi otro yo-You are my other me and Panche Be-buscar la raiz de la verdad-To seek the root of the truth.
In Lak Ech teaches us to treat each other with respect, regardless of race, gender, color, age or place of birth, etc. It teaches us to see ourselves in each other. While it is a Maya concept is actually a maíz -based concept and Indigenous peoples from throughout the continent have similar concepts. Just this concept alone teaches us that all the original peoples of this continent are related. Given this ethos, what can be deduced is that the notion of Mexicans taking over Chicano Studies would be a bizarre formulation, especially since Mexicans/Chicanos/Chicanas are unquestionably related.
Panche Be teaches students to go beyond the surface in search of the truth. In the academic world, including Raza Studies, this is referred to as critical thinking. Students are taught not simply to question everything, but rather, to answer everything. Students are taught to not accept no for an answer. Students are taught to research until they find the answer(s).
It is easy to see why Tom Horne and his allies would object to these concepts. The first concept is a universal precept. His problem, if we break down his Western civilization thesis, is that In Lak Ech does not emanate from the “West” – it does not emanate from Greco-Roman culture or the Bible, which to them is an unpardonable sin. The second concept, for them, is probably more problematic. Panche Be teaches the pursuit of truth, but more importantly, that pursuit necessarily leads to fighting for social justice.
Translation is required. With many disciplines, it is enough to simply arrive at truth. Raza Studies, on the other hand, has always been linked to the fight for civil and human rights and social justice. It was never meant to be simple study or observation. It was meant to be the academic wing of a political movement. This movement, first and foremost, was de-colonial in nature. It fought against different forms of oppression and people in this discipline were involved with many of the movements of that era. In effect, these movements were linked to undoing hundreds of years of colonization and dehumanization.
That scholars would partake in these movements, per the detractors of Raza Studies, is tantamount to a betrayal of “objectivity.”
During the advent of these departments, Chicano/Chicana students were the backbone of the United Farm Worker’s movement and other political movements, including the land-grant movement in New Mexico and Colorado, the creation of La Raza Unida Party, the struggle for labor rights and immigration rights movements. Many movement activists, including students, also had direct connections with the Mexican student movement or were heavily influenced by it, especially after the student massacre of hundreds in Tlatelolco, Mexico in 1968.
Also influencing this movement were the revolutions throughout the Americas, and also the repression against them, especially against the peoples of Chile, Argentina and Brazil, etc. Many thinkers, such as Paolo Freire, influenced the Chicano Movement. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s the civil wars in Central America, and the resultant mass migration of political refugees into the United States, also had a profound impact on Raza Studies and the Chicano student movement. While immigration had always been an issue central to Chicano Studies, NAFTA triggered even greater mass migrations, particularly from the southern and the more heavily Indigenous parts of the nation.
All these developments have influenced, if not changed, Chicano/Chicana Studies, Raza or Mexican American Studies. Minimally, it broadened their scope. In fact, Latino/Latina Studies, Central American Studies and Mexican Studies also emerged as a result of these developments.
There are three components of these movements that have not yet been mentioned: women’s rights, LGBT rights and Indigenous rights. The three were always present, though often silenced or outright repressed. Indigenous Studies, incidentally, is not the same as the romanticization of ancient Aztecs-Mayas, as was common in the 1960s-1970s.
All these components and all these developments are both complex and multilayered. They are mentioned here simply to acknowledge that the field of Chicano Studies is not the narrow one that the complainer alludes to. It is true that some departments perhaps are more focused or have a special emphasis in one of these areas, more so than others, but on the whole, the Chicano/Chicana studies departments of today do not resemble those of the 1960s -1970s.
The question remains what is Chicana/Chicano Studies, Raza Studies or Mexican-American studies? My perspective comes as an active participant of these movements since the 1960s, but also as a journalist and columnist since the early 1970s, and now as a professor within the discipline. Thus, my perspective may be different than others, especially that of younger scholars.
Today, especially colored by my experiences in Arizona, I see Raza Studies as a discipline that combines the concept of creation-resistance. One cannot exist without the other. Mirroring the roots of the Chicano Movement, this discipline has traditionally been viewed as being anchored in a pedagogy of resistance. When it functioned in its ideal state, the discipline was at the service of this movement and community. But it did not always function in this manner as the community often saw or perceived a disconnect, particularly when the struggles were especially heavy. And there never was one movement or one community. Thus, it would be unfair to generalize about this topic, yet I would venture to say that many scholars (scholar-activists) did engage and did actively participate in these movements.
The question is, what do these movements look like now? And are they part of Raza Studies? Let me answer in the following manner.
  • It is the early 1980s. A high school student cries because she’s tired of hearing people saying that [undocumented] immigrants do the jobs no one else wants. “I want to be a scientist!” she cries out. I categorize her as the first DREAMER, not satisfied with living in the shadows. The DREAM movement is perhaps the greatest human rights movement in this country of this century.

  • Since NAFTA, millions of migrants, particularly Indigenous peoples, have streamed north, into states traditionally not seen as immigrant-friendly. These migrants have revitalized many regions of the nation, bolstering their economies, especially in many towns that were on the verge of collapse. There of course has been a flipside. That woman and child in the desert are but two of many thousands of migrants that have perished crossing mountains, deserts and rivers since the passage of NAFTA.

  • In the 1980s, millions of Central Americans flee into the United States. To this day, many suffer permanent damage due to the traumas of war, torture and political violence. Many wait for their day in court. One result of this massive migration, aside from co-mingling and intermarriage, has been to question the role of Mexicans/Chicanos in the military… not just in the wars in Central America, but all wars.

  • At one time, racial profiling by the border patrol was limited to the U.S./Mexico border. Today, anyone who “looks Mexican” is subject to racial profiling anywhere in the country as the migra no longer operates strictly in the borderlands. The extreme manifestation of these racial profiling policies has led to the death of many innocent Mexicans/migrants all along the US-Mexico border at the hands of Border patrol agents. Just in the last two years alone more than two dozen Mexicans have been shot by the migra, on either side of the border, with no accountability. Impunity reigns.

  • Since the 1990s, there has been a massive increase in spending toward construction of walls, fences and the militarization of the US-Mexico border, Operation Streamline (Kangaroo Court), Secure Communities and 287(g) cooperation agreements between the police and the migra. All this has served to both demonize, criminalize, imprison and deport and split apart millions of Mexican/Latino families.

  • Racial profiling [by law enforcement agencies, not just the migra] directed against Mexicans/Latinos, is focused on Indigenous, not Hispanic, appearance. The more Indian one is, or looks, the more suspect one is. In part, along with the Zapatista uprising, this has helped to bring about an Indigenous [continental] consciousness within these communities, expanding the fight from civil rights to human rights to Indigenous rights. This includes examining the documents that converted Mexicans, Chicanos and Latinos into [enemy] aliens.

  • After decades of struggles to improve education for Mexican Americans/Latinos, the dropout rate continues to skyrocket and the school- to the streets (gangs)-to prison pipeline is now a permanent fixture in U.S. society. The United States is home to the largest prison population in the world; the prison system has become, in effect, for-profit warehouses for young people of color with no support for alternatives.

  • In the 1990s, California becomes host to a series of extremist anti-immigrant, anti-bilingual education, anti-labor, anti-youth an anti-voter propositions. This coordinated right-wing anti–rights movement sets the stage for Arizona’s anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic studies propositions that are quickly copied by other states.

  • Since the 1990s, these communities have organized around issues of environmental racism. This has created linkages between environmental movements, health consciousness, movements for sustainable agriculture and the fight against genetic modification and the fight to preserve original [Indigenous] seeds.

  • Gender issues, including issues of inequality, gender and domestic violence, rape, LGBT rights – have taken their rightful place in these departments as subjects of study, along with the gendered issues of poverty and lack of access to affordable health care and housing.

Many of these issues were either purposely neglected in the 1960s and 1970s, or were remanded to secondary status. Either that, or many of these issues did not yet exist [in the public consciousness]. In most Raza Studies departments, most of these issues are addressed now, along with the original subjects. They have been research topics for at least a generation. The greatest change to these departments, aside from addressing the newer issues, has been the rise of gender consciousness – across all topics – followed by a rise in Indigenousness consciousness. There are scholars and departments that have remained in the same mindset of the 1960s-1970s and at the same time, community members and students continue to consider [some-many] scholars as far-removed from their communities and movements.
For the complainer who thinks that Mexicans are taking over Chicano Studies, no doubt he also believes that the above issues do not belong in Raza Studies. It seems that in his formulation, he would require a background check on the identity of the mother and child that were found dead in the desert. If they were Mexican American, that would apparently pique his interest. If they were from Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador, perhaps (metaphorically) he would leave them in the desert, dead or alive.
Perhaps a more interesting and more relevant question, that students often ask, is, what is Raza Studies good for? Perhaps that is a different essay, however, it is akin to asking, what is English good for? Aside from acknowledging the nation’s changing demographics, the even more simple answer would be that, it is important, because knowledge itself is important. Raza studies is good and important because where it is going, it links up with not simply the continent, but the history of this continent, which has a documented history of at least 7,000 years. To know where we are (Abya Yalla, Cemanauhak or Pacha Mama), to know people’s culture and their ideas, contributes to the knowledge base of humanity. But even more importantly, Raza Studies contributes to the creation of better human beings.
It goes back to a conversation I had long ago with a friend who commented that we teach everything at universities, except how to become a good human being.
I would like to think that Raza Studies does just that.