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Education Tops Chicano Group's Political Agenda : Echoes of '60s Activism at La Raza Youth Conference

March 05, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Mike Wyma is a Toluca Lake free - lance writer

For teachers Jorge Garcia and Ramiro Rosillo, veterans of the Chicano movement that flourished and then faded more than a decade ago, the daylong La Raza Youth Conference at Los Angeles Valley College last week was a hopeful but faint echo of a more promising time.

For the three Segura sisters, however, this was the genuine thing. This was grass-roots activism pushing society to the brink of change. Sara, 17, Esther, 16, and Judy, 15, all students at Pomona High School, were excited to be in the San Fernando Valley, where they met other Mexican-American students, heard speeches and took part in workshops.

"It's very eye-opening," said Sara, a senior who is considering a career in politics. "I learned about issues, like the one about names."

The girls had just listened to several speakers say that Chicanos--people with roots in Aztlan, meaning Mexico and the U.S. Southwest--have been oppressed by whites and must preserve their identity. In a rousing conclusion, Veronica Arrequin, student body president of Valley College, urged her audience of junior and senior high school students to reject the labels "Hispanic" and "Latino."

"Hispanic and Latino are words given to us by the Caucasians, by the Americans, to lump us together with all brown-skinned people," said Arrequin, 20. "It is for their convenience. But we can choose our own name, and we choose to call ourselves Chicanos. Let's hear it."

The group followed her in a shout of "Chicano, Chicano, Chicano," everyone punctuating the chant by jabbing a fist into the air.

"This is to build us up, to motivate us," Judy Segura said later. "We're not saying we're better than anyone, only that we're just as good. We're not trying to gain domination. We're trying to gain equality."

Third Conference in 3 Years

Last week's conference was the third put on at Valley College in as many years by La Raza Youth Committee, a small, loose-knit group made up mainly of San Fernando Valley teachers along with student members of MEChA chapters at Valley, California State University, Northridge and UCLA.

MEChA stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, the Chicano student movement of the Southwest. Organizers said about 530 junior and senior high students took part in this year's conference.

"The goal is higher education," said Arrequin. "We want these kids to finish high school first of all, and second, go to college."

That task is not an easy one, according to Rosillo, 45, professor of counseling and guidance at Valley College. Rosillo, who joined the faculty in 1972, said gains made in Mexican-American enrollment have proved fleeting.

"The number of Chicano students at Valley has dropped from 5,000 when I came here to only 3,000 now," he said. "Just as bad is the fact that Chicanos make up less than 1% of the faculty. And there are no Chicano administrators."

Sam Mayo, assistant dean of admissions at Valley College, charged that Rosillo's figures paint an unfairly low picture of the enrollment of Latino students at the school.

Drop in Enrollment

"You can say that the number of Spanish-surname students is down, but hell, there's been a big drop in the entire enrollment," he said. "The truth is that, in relation to the total picture, there has been an increase."

Mayo's figures show the enrollment of Spanish-surname students at Valley College rising steadily from 7.9% of the school's total in 1972 to 16% in 1984, then staying at that level in the years since. Meanwhile, the number of students at the school has dropped from a high of about 24,000 in the 1970s to about 16,000 now. The statistics measure Spanish-surname enrollment and do not distinguish between Chicanos and other Latinos.

According to a U.S. Census estimate, 16.3% of the Valley's population is of "Spanish or Hispanic" background.

At CSUN, officials said that persons identifying themselves as Hispanic made up 6.8% of the student body in 1979, the first year such figures were kept, compared to 8.2% in the fall of last year.

Garcia, 43, a professor of Chicano studies at CSUN who spoke on self-esteem at the youth conference, said afterward that the Chicano movement largely has fallen into a state of inertia.

"Part of it is because people are concerned about other things and about bettering themselves as individuals," Garcia said. "But there's almost a feeling that things did not get better like we expected them to.

"For a small number, it did get better. But there are more Chicanos today living in racial isolation than ever before. There are more living in poverty. There are more working for sub-minimum wage and more unemployed.

"There's a large tendency to forget that group. There's a strong sense among many that they've paid their dues and now they can enjoy what they've gained."

Resurgence Seen

Nevertheless, Garcia sees the possibility of a resurgence in the Chicano movement.

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