June 9, 2000
By Rodolfo F. Acuña
A by product of affirmative action programs such as Educational Opportunities Program and the creation of Chicano studies in the 1960s was the dramatic expansion of a Chicano middle-class.
For example, EOP ballooned the base of Mexican American students in our colleges throughout the United States. Unlikely places like California State University at Northridge had only about 100 Mexican American students in 1969. This number has jumped to about 9,000 Latino students by the 1990s.
Theoretically, the new Chicano Studies programs were supposed to politicize students, and help bond them to the community. Indeed, thousands of Chicano students graduated from such programs in the past 30 years, dramatically widening the bulk of the Chicano/Latino middle class in the Los Angeles area. While at the university, many of these graduates were student activists, participating in Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlan (MECHA).
Activists at the time hoped that exposure to Chicano Studies would politically educate professionals who would work in the community, offering leadership and helping nurture a political culture. Unfortunately, human nature does not work that way.
As in the case of students throughout the world, most former student activists settled back, formed families, and reaped the harvest of the entitlements of the middle-class. It cannot, however, be concluded that the Chicano/Latino middle-class does not care about educational and social issues affecting the barrio. It is just that they become less aware of injustices because they are often separated from the barrio spatially.
The opportunity for political discourse also diminishes over time. And Chicano professionals become increasingly dependent on what they read in the papers or hear on the news about politics. The lack of exposure to ideas outside the popular paradigm as well as social issues thwart their political development, and, consequently, they remain what I like to call "political pochos."
I use the analogy of a pocho because when many of us entered the public schools we spoke fluent Spanish. In fact, it was often our only language.
But unable to learn more Spanish in school, our development in the language stalled at a primary school level and never advanced enough to enable us to read Spanish-language literature. For most of us, English became our primary language. Only in high school were we allowed to take Spanish classes, where we repeated, like parrots, "¿HOLA PACO, QUE TAL? ¿COMO ESTAS?
Many former Chicano activists, due to a lack of political maintenance, have become political pochos. They learned the basics of Chicano studies, its language, but have not advanced beyond a basic cultural level. They identify with the apparent culture, but not the more profound political dimensions of culture.
Over time, they begin to think about the barrio as a justification for their entitlements. Notions such as the transformation of the barrio become alien to their political vocabulary.
This lack of a political development was painfully evident during the Ramparts Police scandal in Los Angeles, which in many ways represented the most blatant violation of civil rights in the City of the Angel's history. Yet, the silence of Chicano/Latino elected officials and our community's middle-class leaders was deafening. It was as if we had no political leaders.
Perhaps it is not fair to draw comparisons, but we can recall the reactions of African American politicos and leaders during the Rodney King upheaval; of New York Puerto Rican elected officials over the situation on Vieques, including the arrests of Puerto Rican Members of Congress involved in acts of civil disobedience.
Is it too much to expect the same level of commitment from Chicano elected officials? After all they are the beneficiaries of the dramatic growth of not only a Mexican but Central American population.
Is it too much to expect some sense of outrage from the Chicano
middle class? After all they are the recipient of the sacrifices
and the common historical memories of the 1960s. It seems as if
they did not understand the
significance of civil rights or how it protects them.
Indeed, the protection of civil rights has been a centerpiece of the struggle of Jewish Americans, African Americans and Mexican American organizations, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum. Why then the silence? And, what is the political price?
To put it more succinctly, what is the duty of the Chicano middle class to the barrios in matters concerning civil rights? Have we grown too complacent? Have we come to believe that equality and justice can be gotten solely through the election of Mexican American elected officials?
Or, even more cynically: Is our contribution to the barrio measured by our individual success? Don't we have a duty to others once we make it?
The lack of response by the Chicano middle-class has consequences. It delivers the message to the public at large and to all elected officials that we simply don't care.
(Acuña is a professor of Chicana/o Studies, California State University, Northridge. His books included "Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles" (Verso, 1996); "Sometimes There is No Other Side: Chicanos and the Myth of Equality" (Notre Dame, 1998); Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (Longman, Dec. 1999).)