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Why Chicana/o Studies Matters...Or Does It?

Given the vertical nature of our system of government, reading and writing are important and thinking critically is even more vi

By Rodolfo F. Acuña
Published on LatinoLA: June 25, 2012


Why Chicana/o Studies Matters...Or Does It?


A friend made a comment on my latest piece on Sisyphus where he raises a fair question: "Con mucho respecto pero, what the hell is so virtuous about pushing Chicana/o Studies to the top of that damn Capitalist hill? I expected never to make their grade--defined by their stupid, racist, exploitive notion of who we are. Why not stop trying to make horizontal democracy out of vertical Capitalistism?"

My response is similar to when I was asked in the 1980s, "Why are you supporting so and so Chicano candidate for City Council, he is no better than the gringo?"

I responded that may be true but all I knew is that before we were represented on the Los Angeles Board of Education, we had considerably fewer Chicano teachers, principals and administrators. Granted the system was still racist but at least we had more visibility so the staff had to think twice before implementing racist policies.

As for the election of a Chicano city councilman, my concerns were similar. At the time a minority of the municipal workforce was Mexican, although we comprised over 30 percent of LA. We lacked representation even among the custodians, the groundskeepers and the clerical staff – let alone managerial positions.

All that mattered to me was that these were steady jobs where workers earned more than the minimum wage and had health insurance and other material benefits that I enjoyed.

That meant that their children were protected by health insurance and lived in decent homes. That job meant the difference between their kids going to college or prison.

History shows that the advances that African Americans made in great part were the result of civil service employment, which is being dismantled as I write.

I do have any illusions about the system, you cannot make it horizontal but that is no reason that we should not educate as many students as possible. The lack of an education increases the prospect of students going to college or finding gainful employment – of leading fuller lives or entering the underclass.

Mexican American Studies is a metaphor for education. In Arizona, for example, it is clear that the educational system is set up for failure. I have no illusions that MAS will make the system horizontal – I am not delusional. But I do believe that just like getting more city jobs improves the prospects of more people leading productive lives, MAS motivates students to learn and thing critically.

Quite frankly, if someone would sign a contract that would guarantee all Latino children would read at a 12th grade level and think critically on condition that MAS were eliminated, I would think about it. Nevertheless, I would want an iron clad contract that if the politicos did not live up to their bargain, their properties and those of their family would be confiscated.

It is not the objective of CHS, at least not by my definition, to make students super-Mexicans.

It reminds me of an incident at an immigration forum during the early 1980s. One of the Chicano activists got up and indignantly called out the moderators demanding that the proceedings be in Spanish.

Naturally everyone was put on the defensive until an organizer, I believe with the United Electrical Workers, one of the more progressive unions in LA, said that his members did not speak English but that they wanted the proceedings in English because the union did not want to make the workers dependent on organizers to for their information. They had to live in an English-speaking environment. He called for a simultaneous translation, which has become more or less the norm.

Given the vertical nature of our system of government, reading and writing are important and thinking critically is even more vital.

The fight over Mexican American Studies is over issues such as censorship, the singling out of a particular group for disparate treatment (which is unconstitutional), the right to implement programs that motivate students and teach them to think critically and finally to respect one's own culture but also the cultures of others.

In pushing Sisyphus' rock up the hill, it is important not to think solely about macro solutions but also to think about solutions at the micro level.

An article that I wrote in 1981 is included. It is about my cousin and addresses one of my concerns:

English version: "Oscar Was No Superman." "Oscar no era ningun Superman," La Opinión [Los Angeles, Calif] 26 Aug 2001: b1.

The whole debate about stem cell research brings back disturbing memories and unanswered questions. One side of the debate says that we should not use embryos for this sort of research because it is immoral, and that the embryos are alive. They invoke a higher force to which they or some other intermediary is supposed to have talked. The other side claims that the embryos are not yet alive and that the embryos are vital to medical research that will help cure the living.

Frankly neither argument overwhelms me. First, I am too busy worrying about the living to worry about cells that have not yet taken a human form that do not breathe nor think. On the other hand, I have always believed that we should set priorities for medical research and that way too much money is spent keeping the old alive (a belief that life is testing as my hair grows whiter). Moreover, it is difficult to get excited about research that my reason tells me will principally benefit the rich and incidentally the poor.

Several years ago, a 23 year old drunk driver ran a stop signal and crashed into my cousin Oscar Rodriguez's car. It was across the street from St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank. The accident left Oscar a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. It was about the same time that a freak horse riding accident immobilized Christopher Reeves.

Naturally, society rooted for Reeves. He was after all Superman.

The truth be told, what Superman did in real life was much more heroic than his exploits on the silver screen. Through hard work and the support of his wife, he has become productive, and does more than exist. Superman had hope.

In real life Oscar had been like Superman. He regularly went to the YMCA. Lifted weights till the moment that the 23-year-old woman ended his existence. However, from the beginning, outside a small circle of friends and family, few people cared. The doctors did not have hope, after all Oscar was no Superman. He was a displaced welder who had once earned a substantial salary in the aerospace industry. The reality was that he was now in his sixties and had minimal insurance.

From the beginning the medical establishment made it clear that he had a spinal cord injury, and more than once the doctors told us that his options were limited. Perhaps when he reached a magic age he could get Medicare and get "some" therapy. Until then he would have to be patient. Of course, it would be too late when he would be eligible for Medicare, his muscles would be beyond revival.

As I mentioned, Oscar had been in great shape; the doctors kept telling us that if he had not been great shape he would have died. They took Oscar to Rancho Los Amigos, a world class operation until the LA County supervisors began to dismantle it. They gave him the customary limited residence. However, he developed bed sores that limited the therapy he received. Never really given a chance they shipped him out to a convalescent home, which the system did not design to take care of spinal cord patients.

There administrators reminded us that it would be better when he got Medicare. Yet it was evident to all of us who still cared that Oscar was no Superman and that he had fallen through the cracks.

We hoped Oscar would get an insurance settlement and he could afford therapy sessions. But poor people like Oscar are commodities. Lawyers have formulae and a single sixty year old with no children has limited value. Thus, the system absolved the young woman, and her insurance company settled for $25,000, a deal made by his anxious attorney who did not want to waste his time with someone who was no Superman.

For the next several years, they warehoused Oscar in convalescent homes where society stores its aged. These homes do their best but they do not equip them for the spinal cord patient. The operators of these homes are in business to make a profit. Administrators are forced to take spinal cord patients; profit margins are slim. The best that you can expect is that the facilities are clean. They do not require them to put ratings on their windows as restaurants do.

Oscar now lay hopeless in a bed, afraid that someone would assault him at night. One night his worse fears came true and a fellow patient beat him up. Fear consumed this once robust human being whom society had abandoned. Terrified he spent every available cent to pay for a sitter during the evening hours when others slept.

Unlike Superman my cousin Oscar Rodriguez soon gave up hope. His days and nights were made bearable only by the kindness and humanity of a minimum wage workforce, comprised largely of Mexicans and Central Americans, who also because of a lack resident status are regularly dismissed. I heard more than one person comment that life was made more pleasant by the smiling brown faced attendants who did what their families were unwilling to do.

My cousin Oscar fought til the last. However, unlike Christopher Reeves, who is after all Superman, Oscar's case hardly proves that the system works. Happy endings are for the silver screen where people care.

When I was a child, I went to the movies to see the action serials with Tarzan, Superman and even the Lone Ranger. (The only hero of color was the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto). It was heaven, and I even got a free Baby Ruth bar. It always seemed that the survival and the fate of the universe depended on these supermen. (None of them were women). It was a time when we believed in heroes, and believed that they could solve our problems. Still, you know what, life is different from the motion pictures. Medicine is a business. People like my cousin Oscar are not Superman, so in the end they'll have to wait in the warehouses society provides for them.

The above essay will be published in a book in progress called "My Journey out of Purgatory"

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