Roberto Rodriguez. As America's Latino diaspora evolves, so does the field

Roberto Rodriguez
As America’s Latino diaspora evolves, so does the field

Founded some 30 years ago and at one time believed to be on the verge of extinction, the field of Chicano studies is constantly expanding. As Puerto Rican and Cuban communities grew in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, so did the demand for fields of study particular to those populations. Now, add to that: Dominican and Central American studies. Peruvian and Colombian studies.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 35 million Latinos in the country, including the island of Puerto Rico. While approximately 60 percent of all Latinos now living within U.S. borders are of Mexican descent, the immense growth of other Latinos in the country has created large populations of Central Americans — including Dominicans, Colombians and Peruvians — so that this group is now the second-largest Latino population in the country.

But do these different ethnic groups constitute one larger national group — Latinos — or should they continue to be classified as individual regional groups? Should the study of all these groups be housed under Latino or Chicano studies? Or should each group foster its own field of study?

As long as the new fields do not subsume the older disciplines and it is not an either/or situation, this expansion is welcome, say many scholars.

However, others worry more about the ability of Latino scholars — and the scholarship they engage in — to make a real connection with the communities they were created to study, let alone the ability to generate more social action. And as many of the charter members of the Chicano studies field begin to retire, the younger scholars are expanding the definition of Latino studies, not distilling it, which could exacerbate the problem.

THE CRITICS

The growth and unprecedented expansion of Chicano studies has not silenced critics who accuse many of the new disciplines not only of ethnic cheerleading, but of arousing ethnic and racial hatred and self-segregation.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, critic Gregory Rodriguez accused Chicano/Latino scholars of being stuck in a 30-year time warp in which everything White is bad and everything of color is good. Rodriguez, who is a Fellow with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute, asserts that most scholars are left-leaning activists and that the communities they come from are basically conservative and non-activist.

He concludes his review by stating: “A healthier, less ideologically driven and less defensive vision of the Latino past, present and future is desperately needed. But it won’t happen until a new generation of writers and scholars has the courage to tear down what has become a worn-out intellectual framework, born of a movement that has long since lost its relevance.”

Dr. Reynaldo F. Macias, director of the Cesar E. Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, says that Rodriguez’ criticism “would have been fine 20 years ago. He ignores changes in the 1980s and 1990s. He makes no mention of the development of Chicana studies in the 1980s or Latino critical studies of the 1990s.”

Macias adds that the notion of Chicano/Chicana studies having only one point of view is “ludicrous. There has never been a single paradigm,” he says.

The one point Macias does cede to Rodriguez is Chicano studies’ lack of commitment to social action. That, however, is not unlike many other disciplines that are committed to applied research, he says.

One of the many things that Chicano studies successfully achieved in its infancy was to correct the distorted views — the myths about the Chicano community — perpetrated by mainstream scholars, Macias says. The trend today is to internationalize the discipline’s focus. Under that rubric is a study of a globalization, immigration, border issues, indigenous issues and “mestizaje,” or ethnic mix. Macias says that the Chicano studies field is no longer restricted by geography or time. It’s not limited to the study of the United States after 1836 or 1848.

Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Central American studies do not necessarily have to be in competition with Latino or ethnic studies, Macias says, adding that each has its place.

CONNECTING WITH THE LATINO DIASPORA

Dr. Sheila Contreras, professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says that one of the major trends of Chicano studies will be to better connect with its indigenous roots.

“I would like to see Chicano studies make solid connections with native history. And those connections should be hemispheric and political and grounded in materiality rather than myths,” Contreras says.

She adds that the discipline must reconnect with its community.

“We have to understand that we are citizens of the United States, the most powerful and aggressive bully in the world. We cannot deny that,” Contreras says, adding that Chicano scholars have the responsibility to learn from the rest of the world. “At the same time, we have a responsibility not to become confused and speak for the dispossessed.”

Universities have gradually begun to recognize the diversity of the Latino population. At San Francisco State University, Dr. Carlos B. Cordova has headed the Central American Research Institute within La Raza Studies for six years. Long before the migrations of the 1980s, which were caused by wars in Central America, the San Francisco Bay area was already home to a large Central American population. So it seems appropriate that the La Raza program was the first in the nation.

The La Raza program was far ahead of other departments around country. Its very name — La Raza, or The People — arose from the diversity of the San Francisco Bay area population. In addition, Cordova first taught a course on Central America and the Caribbean in 1974.

Cordova, who helped establish the Central American studies program at California State University-Northridge, is trying to establish similar programs in cities such as New York, Washington, Houston, Dallas, San Diego and Fresno, Calif.

“It’s a great opportunity right now to study the migration, history, culture and humanities of Central Americans,” he says. “With Central Americans, it’s not simply important to study our issues. A special effort has to be made to prevent (children) from dropping out of middle school and high school.” The level of dropouts within the Central American community is extremely high, especially in cities such as Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, Cordova says.

Cordova is hopeful that other Chicano studies programs around the country will follow in the footsteps of California State University-Northridge, a department he credits with assisting in the development of San Francisco State’s Central American Studies Program.

NOT ETHNIC STUDIES

Dr. Roberto Lovato, director of the Central American Studies program at California State University-Northridge, credits Chicano studies and Chicano administrators with paving the way and facilitating the program at Northridge. The program, which is several years old, has six faculty members. The university also has the largest number of Central American students at any campus nationwide — more than 2,000. The objective of the program, he says, is to create a research institute.

Lovato, however, does not see Central American Studies as being a part of ethnic studies — partly because University of California Regent Ward Connerly has vowed to eliminate ethnic studies, but also because Whites are no longer the majority in the state of California.

“Whites have gotten away with not being ethnic for too long,” Lovato says. Additionally, Lovato views the program as transnational. “It’s not part of the Latin American studies nor Chicano studies. We’re neither, yet we’re both.”

Prior to the creation of the program, there were courses in Central American studies within Chicano studies. Currently CSUN has an independent minor, a program, faculty, resources, courses and a student organization.

The main purpose of the program, Lovato says, “is to create research that serves a purpose.” On top of creating a program, he says the objective is to create a nationwide model, create relationships with universities in Central America and understanding the economic power of Central Americans in the United States. “They want political clout to go along with the economic clout.”

ENCOURAGING COMPARATIVE STUDIES

Dr. Deborah Santana, assistant professor of ethnic studies at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., teaches Latin American and Caribbean studies and says that teaching such courses does not subsume the individual disciplines of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Chicano or Central American studies. Rather, it gives her the opportunity to teach students a broader view of the Americas and encourages comparative studies.

Santana says that many of the scholars she knows compare groups such as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Part of the usefulness of doing such comparisons has to do with demographics, she says. In some parts of the country, there may be one particular Latino group. However, in most large cities, there are several different Latino groups from all parts of the Americas. The challenge for each college, Santana says, is to reflect its local and regional population. Santana says one thing she finds that virtually all people of color have in common is their histories of diasporas — which lends themselves to comparative studies, she says.

Dr. Felix Matos-Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, says that in addition to the emerging fields of Central American and Dominican studies, the trend within Latino studies is the issue of generations. For example, in New York, English-speaking Latinos that have been there for several generations have issues that are different from those of recent immigrants. The issues of migration are different for the different subgroups, as well as issues of bilingual education.

Additionally, many of the scholars who created the Puerto Rican studies programs are close to retirement. “Through walkouts and sit-ins, they created the academic space.” That means the younger scholars can go straight into graduate programs without the same worries, Matos-Rodriguez says.

“The base-building has been done. The task of the first generation was to understand a basic history of conquest and colonization. They created a structure for archives and created some of the themes for the discipline,” Matos-Rodriguez says. “There was a sense of responsibility to erase myths and to erase racism. The next generation has to take it to the next level. Now we’re in an era of globalization, and the new scholars are questioning the nation-state.”

Refugio Rochin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives who recently edited the book Voices of a New Chicana/o History, says there is a dynamic between junior and senior scholars. “The junior scholars are reviewing our epic from different points of view.”

Rochin also notes that one of the things differentiating the senior scholars from the junior ones is that the senior ones actively took part in civil rights struggles and took part in picket lines with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. As such, he says, “We assert our authenticity. The new Chicana/o history being taught is not civil rights history. It’s post-civil rights.” He also says that the younger scholars are expanding the view of Chicano literature.

Within Latino studies, scholars do not study, teach or write about groups in isolation, Matos-Rodriguez says. “You cannot analyze one group without analyzing the others.” The demographic changes in New York and the rest of the country have enriched Puerto Rican, Chicano, Latino and related studies.

Matos-Rodriguez says that there are not just more Latino groups, but they are intermarrying. What that bodes for the future is not necessarily conflicting identities, but rather, multiple ones. People may politically organize as Latinos — because this country respects numbers — but will still culturally remain Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian, etc.

Matos-Rodriguez says that each college within each region should decide how to proceed in expanding or creating new Latino programs or fields of study. “The important thing is that we cannot render new immigrants to the same invisibility that we were subjected to. For example, here we helped create Dominican studies. It’s not a turf battle, but about `colegas’ – (creating more) colleagues.”

CUBAN CONNECTIONS

Dr. Max Castro, a researcher at the Dante B. Fascell North-South Center at the University of Miami, says that the field of Cuban or Cuban American Studies is still mired in the Cold War. Many of the Cuban American studies programs insist on no contact with Cuba. “It’s a very right-wing position. One part of the rules of the game is that you can’t go to Cuba.”

Castro, who has been to Cuba several times to participate in conferences, says he’s not part of the Cuban American Studies program at his campus because he doesn’t find it attractive. “I have not been invited to be part of it nor have I found it persuasive to join it. I don’t find it broad enough,” he says.

Regarding contacts with the island, he says that a majority of Cuban American scholars want the freedom to travel to Cuba and for Cuban scholars to come here. “We’re not naive,” Castro says. “We know there are connections between the government and universities, but we still want the opportunity for contacts.”

On this subject, he sees a definite generational divide. Those trained in Cuban universities generally want nothing to do with Cuba. Those educated at American universities want contact.

“That’s not to say that those who want contact are not critical of Cuba,” he says. “They are, especially of the lack of political pluralism and the absence of political space. I just think that in order to have Cuban and Cuban American Studies, you need contact with the island.”

Many of the traditional intellectual pursuits of Cuban American scholars, says Castro, are in the realm of a post-Fidel Castro scenario. Nowadays, with the fall of the former Soviet Union, much of the study has to do with migration, borders, hemispheric free trade and issues of culture.

“Ultimately, this nation still faces a cultural question,” Max Castro says. “`Are Americans willing to accept Latin Americans as equals?'”

At least on the cultural front, Cuban Americans don’t have it so bad, he says. Despite the right political leanings of the Cuban American community, anti-Latino issues, such as the anti-bilingual movement, are failing to take hold in southern Florida — at the universities and in the community. With the Latino population accounting for 57 percent of Miami-Dade County, it’s not easy to promote that politically, Castro says.

GEOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES

Dr. Antonio Rios-Bustamante, director of Chicano studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, says the Chicano studies field faces a geographic challenge. As the Latino population has exploded nationwide, such studies are no longer limited to certain parts of the country. Along with the demographic changes, the methods used in Chicano studies have greatly expanded, he says. In the 1960s, the study of Mexicans in terms of folklore or social problems was relegated to the past, as was the notion that Mexican Americans are not connected to Mexico. In the 1980s, there was a tremendous explosion in the field, with issues such as health, history, culture and gender added to the mix. The 1990s represented a maturation of the field.

Although the discipline has greatly expanded, research support has not necessarily kept pace, Rios-Bustamante says. Funding has to increase if it is to keep up with the discipline. Also, people of Mexican descent are now in places that people do not normally associate with Mexicans: North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, Hawaii, Alaska and even in various Canadian provinces. If history is a predictor, there will soon be Chicano/Chicana studies in Canada, he says.

The needs of Mexican-origin or Latino people in these other regions, Rios-Bustamante says, are sometimes different than populations accustomed to Latinos. For example, the Chicano studies department at the University of Wyoming is working with the community to obtain a Spanish language license for “Radio Montanesa” from the Federal Communications Commission.

“Most of the state has no Spanish-language media,” he says, adding that this is the case in many parts the country. “The existence of such media helps reinforce language and culture. Without such a medium, there is currently no information regarding health and education reaching this community.”

And Latino scholars, indeed the research of the entire movement, can play a vital role in this, Rios-Bustamante says.

“As to where it evolves from here,” he says, “greater equality and respect among all groups … and peace in the world. Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and all Latinos need to play a positive role in this.”