Monday, May 24, 2010

Ethnic Studies: May You Rest In Peace

I recall reading that until recently, there was no mention of the Holocaust, or the dropping of the Atom Bomb on Nagasaki or Hiroshima during World War II, in German and Japanese history books, respectively.

Imagine if our U.S. History books selectively omitted mention of Black Slavery, The Mexican-American War, or the brutality visited on Native Americans in the Winning of the West? Yet, history is mostly told by the hunter, but what would the lion have to say?

The buzz about Arizona's new get-tough immigration laws aimed at illegal Mexicans is taking on a more sinister twist: SB1108 that seeks to ban the teaching of Ethnic Studies courses in the state's public schools because they promote (get this) the overthrow of the government, foment resentment towards a specific race or class of people, and are designed for students of a specific race!

I wonder if teaching of the Holocaust promotes resentment towards Germans, the bombing of Pearl Harbor promote dislike of Japanese, or of the war between Mexico and the U.S. in 1846 promote resentment towards Americans? Resentment or not the truth ought to be told from both the hunter and the lion's point of view, shouldn't it?

I was one of these Ethnic Studies teachers. Before 1965, the only view of the world we learned about was a Western European one. No questions were asked. Gospel was gospel. Ethnic Studies was born out of labor pains, epitomized by confrontation, demands, threats and student walkouts. The massive East L.A. student walkouts in 1968 were the poster child.  Latino students, a majority in many L.A. schools, felt alienated, noting the lack of Hispanic teachers, discrimination, and absence of a curriculum which reflected the contributions of minority groups to the building of the U.S.

The Chicano Movement was inspired by the black struggle for equality, Cesar Chavez and the farm worker struggle, and community activists like "Corky" Gonzalez and his epic poem "I Am Joaquin." Mexican Americans with a college degree were rare. Brown faces as lawyer's, writers, doctors, teachers, artists, school principals, were conspicuously absent from American society.

In Stockton, students, educators and community activists demanded the inception of Ethnic Studies courses. Our own community college finally relented, and as our offerings grew and we expanded, we were granted a division with our very own Division Chair, with classes in Chicano/Mexican, Black, Filipino, and Asian studies. And yes, the courses were primarily designed for students of each specific ethnic group. No bones here, but any brave soul wanting an alternative view of the world was welcome and there were a few. I'll speak to this later.

In 1962, against all odds, I had acquired a Master's Degree in Fine Arts from a private and prominent art school in Oakland. Soon after, I enlisted for three years in the U.S. Army, and spent most of it in Germany, which allowed me to travel though Europe and see museums and works of art I had only read about and seen in slides. Unable to find a job after my discharge in 1965, I married and settled in my old barrio in South Modesto. In desperation, I set my sights on teaching art, but after dozens of rejections reading "despite your impressive qualifications we do not currently have a position for you", I gave up, became a dropout, and took a job as a florist, a secondary trade I had picked up as a student.

In 1972, I received a phone call to my place of work. "Is this Richard Rios, The Richard Rios?". The voice introduced itself as that of a Chicano Studies teacher from Delta Community College in Stockton. "You come highly recommended. My old college buddies, Jose Montoya and Esteban Villa had apparently heaped lofty accolades on me.  "How would you like to teach a courses in Chicano Studies?" "What's Chicano Studies?"  "Don't worry, I'll send you some books; read them", he said. It was about October and classes for Spring Semester would start in January! He walked me through the application process and I was hired.

I trusted that having grown up in a Mexican family, in a barrio, with parents who immigrated from Mexico would tide me over. Meanwhile, I scoured books on Mexican History, traveled to Mexico during summer breaks, visited art and history museums, historical sites both modern and Precolumbian, and took hundreds of slides.
At the time, there was no curriculum, no course of study, in any institution of higher learning where we could have gone to learn this. We had to teach ourselves, and I survived by keeping "a chapter ahead of the students." Worse, there were few books available by ethnic authors. Publishing companies were completely ignorant of an ethnic market. Later, our prodigies would have the courses, the curriculum and even majors in Minority and Ethnic Studies.

 But who was this skinny, freckled, light-complected, red-haired teacher claiming to be Chicano? Was it true?
 A Mexican college teacher? In my lectures, I through in some Spanish, some spanglish, some barrio slang. I played my guitar and sang Mexican songs for them,, the ones my family had sung at family get-togethers,  and we analyzed the traditions, the texts, the themes. We discussed art, history, literature, poverty, discrimination and education. We analyzed folk tales like La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), ones my mom had told me as a kid.  I had them write papers and research traditions in their own families. And they loved it.

But authenticity and credibility was vital to our mission. Students wanted the real McCoy, no substitutes, no facsimiles. In fact, before being hired I was summoned to a meeting with the campus M.E.Ch. A. club, presumably to determine if I was the real deal.  I must have answered their questions right. They were tired of interlopers, Anglos teaching Spanish etc. That was to be the key.

But it would be an uphill battle. Resentment and outright hostility brewed since the inception of our courses, from staff, from peers, from administrators who were probably hoping we would fail. We heard disparaging remarks about our competence as teachers.  Rumors had it that we had low student expectations, useless curricula that duplicated what students could learn in mainstream courses. That our students already knew about their history and their culture . That we passed students just because they were from our own ethnic group. That we excluded Whites. That units earned from our courses would never transfer to four-year colleges, and they were partly right about this. Students confessed to me that counselors would sometimes advise them not to take my course.

To boot, the term Chicano was suspect. I will not go into etymology here, but suffice to say that it carried a host of negative connotations. Mexicans argued that derived from the word "Chingado" (F.....r) and wondered who in their right mind would choose to call themselves that. Moreover, the term was in competition with terms like Mexican-American, which to many seemed less offensive. We argued that we wanted a term than sounded like us, who were neither completely American, nor Mexican, but part of each. Worse the term "Chicka-no" became a household name, associated to radicals, and Marijuana smoking "greniudos" (long haired), seen on the 6 O'clock news. Many would-be students avoid our classes because of the term.

Another problem was enrollment. If our courses did not reach the magical number 25 by the end of the first week, our courses would be cancelled.  In the first years, courses were packed. In later years, enrollments waned and in desperation, I even offered Richard, my shill, $5 bucks for every student he brought me!
My students, were composed of old timers who never finished high school, young dropouts, vatos from the barrio, entire families, mom, dad and daughters. I started by telling them that they were part of an incredible culture, but that most of it had been suppressed by Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1500. That Mexicans were "Meztizo", a product of Spanish father and Indian mother, an object of shame during Mexico's 300 years of colonization, but an object of pride after the War of Independence in 1810, offspring of two great cultures, European and Native American. That they were children of the great Maya, Toltec and Aztec cultures.

The pedagogy at the time was to attract minority students to the classroom with a curriculum they could identify with, entice them to read, to write papers, to ponder questions they had never dared ask. Appeal to cultural pride was the hook. The pitch. Once hooked, we would send them off with enough skills and self- esteem to enter into the mainstream courses, armed with the belief that they mattered and were just as smart as any Anglo. And for the most part, it worked, and many of my ex-students went on to get Bachelor's, Master's and Ph.D. degrees at some of our best universities. They became college deans, administrators, artists,  professors, professionals, lawyers, social workers.

While the rhetoric in my class was often heated, at no time did I ever advocate the overthrow of the country, or foment dislike of any ethnic group, though we got close with the Spaniards. While some students might have wanted to "take the country back", their notion of how to it, was pretty damned fuzzy. I mean no one in the Barrio that I knew had and tanks, bombs, or airplanes (with the exception of the Royal Chicano Air Force in Sacramento). The overthrow, if it came would be more subtle, a gradual infiltration of American culture through sheer numbers. The return to "Aztlan", a mythical birthplace of the Aztecs, became the symbol of the disenchanted, and the new society many of us fantasized about.

But getting an education would be the first step to liberation I told them. Some resisted. They had problems getting to class, turning in assignments, passing exams. For these, the classroom was a obstacle to the real business of revolution. They were dropped, or dropped out.

Some stormed out of the classroom to beat war drums that were quickly quenched by apathy and ironically, the very limitations posed by their lack of education. In fact, I often served as mediator, quenching discontent between radical groups and individuals. I was a pacifist born of the 50's and 60's. I would have made a poor General in this Revolution. I believed we could walk the narrow rope between cultural pride and outright assimilation without an overthrow. Forget your language and culture was the nativist's mantra. Be like us. We had heard that one for decades. But we could be American without sacrificing our language and our culture. And we would be the better for it, becoming bi-lingual and bi-cultural. 

Moreover, at no time did we ever discourage students of other races or cultural stripes to take our courses. I was in fact, flattered when a brave White or Black soul wandered into one of  my courses. I made extra effort to welcome them, make them comfortable and my students obliged. However, few stayed to finish the semester. Those who did, often offered a hearty handshake, and thanked me "for how much I've learned in this class." Chicanos and Mexicans (from Mexico) shook hands, and thanked me for enlightening them about their common, yet different cultures, because in spite of the myth that they already "knew" it, most were completely ignorant of their past and the role their people played in American and world history.

One brave soul I will never forget, was a Jewish student, one of the most articulate and well-read individuals I ever had. I smelled trouble the first day he arrived. After one heated discussion about the unjust treatment of Mexicans and Chicanos by White Europeans, he exploded: "All you guys do is bitch and moan about how you have been mistreated by other people! Your'e not the only ones! We Jews have also experienced it!" We were in for a hot one now. I let the students respond, as I often did. This was their baby. Hands shot up! "Ok, but we didn't say we were the only ones, did we?!" They clarified. I was the referee. And he took on the whole class by himself, becoming increasingly hot as the debate roared on.

A couple of days later, the student came to my office: "Mr. Rios, I feel very uncomfortable in your class. I feel I am being attacked. I have decided to drop it." I started by thanking him for having the courage to speak out in class. "You pointed out something that we all need to hear. If you feel alienated in my class, welcome to the club. This is what it feels like for us to be the only brown face in a roomful of White faces. It's scary, huh?"  In the end, I succeeded in convincing him to stay and encouraged him to continue to speak up, to challenge us. He did. At the end of that semester he left without even a backward glance or a "thank you." I was used to it.

Life went on and some years later, a friend of mine who was attending CSU, Stanisluas in Turlock, told me "I have a friend at college who says he was one of your ex-students and speaks very highly of you." When she told me his name, I realized it was the Jewish fellow. "Oh?"  I had concluded that his semester in my Chicano Literature course had been as complete disaster, a waste of his time. Some days later she brought me a letter penned by him. I opened it expecting him to chastise me for my course. It read "Mr. Rios how are you? Well, I hope. I just wanted to tell you that of all the classes, and the teachers I have ever had in my life, you are the best and yours was the most meaningful to me. Thanks."

That fear, misinformation, and prejudice might have resulted in non-Hispanic students never having taken one of our Ethnic Studies courses is a tragedy. We fought in vain to add our courses as requirement for any majors aimed at public service, but the best we could do is to be included as one of the many General Education transfer requirements students could choose from. I was satisfied with this.
As the years passed, some of our courses thrived, while others languished with low enrollments. In time, our Ethnic Studies division was dissolved and each Ethnic Studies instructor transplanted to his/her respective department or division, according to discipline. Since I taught Mexican/Chicano Art I now belonged to the Art Department , since I taught Chicano Theater I joined the Drama Department, and since I taught Chicano Literature, the English Department. Strange bedfellows, huh?. Though we fought the dissolution, most of us were grateful we still had a job. Unbeknown to me, this would open new opportunities for my future at the college.

I continued to teach Chicano Literature now in the English Department, and when the time came for me to be evaluated by our Division Chair, I received a glowing report: "Rich, you're a fantastic teacher, and I would love to have you in my department, but you need to go back to school to get a Master's Degree in English." My head spun. English? Me? Go back to school? Without a second thought my wife said "hazlo. I will be there to help you."  While I worked on my degree, I was allowed to teach my first English courses, English 1A and 1B. I cherished being a student again. With an M.A. in English, I was finally legitimized, no longer a bastard-child, as an "Ethnic Studies teacher".

I would tell my English students in jest "Just look at how bad things have become. You now have Mexicans teaching English!' The tables had turned. In truth I will always be grateful to this college, and all those who gave me a chance, and opportunity for my slice of the pie. I became a good teacher I think, and gave my students, who were in sore need of positive role models, the best I had to offer.

A couple of years ago, I was contacted via email by one of my ex-students, Enrique Sepulveda, inviting me to his graduation ceremony at U.C. Davis. For the life of me, I could not remember who he was or when he might have been in one of my courses. It was early June, the temperature already over 100 degrees, and the thought of me sitting through another 2-plus hour ceremony, and the 1 hour drive to Davis, gave me chills, so I decided not to go. He would not even notice my absence in the sea of faces. When I told my wife, she looked at me in dismay and commanded: "Nonsense, you are going to attend!" I reluctantly obeyed.

When I told Enrique I would attend, he was ecstatic. "I have tickets for you and your wife. Just go to the box office when you arrive to pick them up." I was not even sure what the kid looked like. Regardless, I soon discovered the tickets were for two reserved seats, in the auditorium, center section, about three rows back from the front! We sat down and waited. As we read over the program I scanned it to find Enrique's name. He was receiving his PH.D. and would be the student speaker! When the VIP's settled into their folding chairs on stage, I saw a short, brown-faced young man take his place. "That must be Enrique", I whispered, nudging my wife.

"At least it's air-conditioned in here", I thought. When Enrique rose to the podium, he told of his challenging journey, of being raised in a poor Mexican family, of not caring about school, od being ignored and dismissed by his teachers. "It all changed when I met my professor at Delta College in 1984. He showed me that I mattered, that my culture mattered, that I could go to college, and I can honestly say that I am here today because of that teacher, Mr. Richard Rios." He pointed at me and I briefly stood and waved.

The applause flooded me with tears and shame to think that I might have missed out on this special moment because of my complacency and self-indulgence. Evidently, teachers can make a difference in a student's life.

 The rest is history. I continued to teach Chicano Literature to my last day, 33 years later when I retired, convinced more than ever of the validity of Ethnic Studies. May history some day reflect it. We made a difference.

Ethnic Studies: May you Rest In Peace.


Tlakatekatl said...

I enjoyed this very much. I just received my BA in Ethnic Studies from a private institution, and I have been accepted into grad school for American History. Do not despair, our history is like El Fenix, and its resurrection will begin in Phoenix, AZ - ironic isn't it?

Tanya said...

I think this sentence has a typo:

"That fear, misinformation, and prejudice might have resulted in non-Hispanic students ever having taken one of our Ethnic Studies courses is a tragedy."

You mean "never having taken" not "ever," I think.

You can delete this when it's fixed. I'll put my real comments in another comment.

Tanya said...

I loved reading this. I especially love the history inherent in your narrative. Thank you for sharing about what it was like at the start of ethnic studies.

And yes, teachers really can make a lasting impression on their students. Never doubt that!

I hope that ethnic studies continues somehow in Arizona, perhaps through some other name. Understanding our place in history is essential. Oh, this law makes me so sad!

Rick Rivers said...

Tanya: You have just corrected the Teacher! Gracias for your comments and yes that's what I meant to write! It appears the entry is causing a stir and I've even gotten criticm about the title and my pen name, Rick Rivers!

Gracias also to Tlakatekatl. Yes, like El Fenix, I like that!

Tlakatekatl said...

Somehow, I knew you would appreciate the 'fenix' analogy, I hope you run with it and use it in your next post on this matter.

Also, to your critics, what do they know about sarcasm and humor; Rick Rivers is perfect, please do not cave - it's your artistic freedom and you should express it how you want.

Rick Rivers said...

TlK: Gracias for the support. Good Idea. Look for a future post on El Fenix! Quetzalcoatl tambien!