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Chicano Studies Makes Comeback on Campuses

October 12, 1989|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

When he was a student at Santa Monica High School, Elias Serna's goal was to become an engineer and "make lots of money."

There had never been much of it around the Serna household. "My mom is a single mother who raised us by herself," the young man explained.

Since going to college, however, his goals have changed dramatically. Now his main interest is pursuing a career through which he can serve his community, possibly as a teacher.

Serna, 20, attributes the change to his exposure--for the first time--to Latino teachers who have served as role models, and to the study of the history and literature of Mexican-Americans through the Chicano studies program at UC Berkeley.

"I've learned a lot about being Chicano and the importance of going back to your community to help," he said. And Serna said he is not alone, that despite the trend on college campuses emphasizing careers for personal advancement, most of his Chicano friends have also developed a strong commitment to their community through the lessons of Chicano studies.

The enthusiasm of Serna and his friends for Chicano studies mirrors a rise in popularity of the programs, not only at UC Berkeley, but at universities across California and the Southwest.

Enrollment in Chicano studies programs has doubled on some campuses, and classes are drawing large numbers of non-Latino students for the first time. Beginning in 1991, UC Berkeley plans to require that all undergraduate students take an ethnic studies class, and other UC campuses are considering similar requirements.

The growing demand for the classes, coupled with increasing public attention to the state's Latino population boom, has focused renewed interest on the field of Chicano studies. The state Legislature has called for an increase in hiring of Latino and other minority faculty members, calling their representation on public university campuses "dismal."

Emboldened by these encouraging signs of change, Chicano professors are pushing for an expansion of existing programs and calling for a recommitment to the 1960s ideals that spawned the Chicano studies programs.

"Our research should address itself to the pressing problems of our community," said Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Mexican-American Studies Program at the University of Houston and a leader in the National Assn. for Chicano Studies. He added that the mission of Chicano studies remains "to challenge the status quo" and improve conditions in the Latino community.

Historian Rodolfo Acuna, founder of the Chicano studies department at Cal State Northridge and honored by the association earlier this year as a model of academic excellence and community activism, credits Chicano studies with keeping the Chicano middle-class mindful of its responsibility to the broader Latino community.

Comparing the role of Chicano studies to that of black universities and churches in nurturing a community's collective conscience, Acuna said Chicano studies "has kept our history alive."

He added that the university programs provide those who share a concern for Chicano community issues "a place where they can go and get support and where their ideas can ferment."

A legacy of the 1960s Chicano protest movement, this activist tradition began when Chicanos barged their way into American academia and insisted on staying--on their own terms.

Their insistence on looking at the world through Chicano eyes has admittedly set some of the scholars apart from the Euro-centric mainstream of academic life that emphasizes academic "objectivity." But Chicano scholars argue that the so-called objectivity of previous Anglo scholars has often misrepresented, denigrated or ignored Latinos.

"We've institutionalized our courses and wrested control over what is said about us," Mindiola said. "It used to be all in the hands of Anglo scholars; now the majority of research on Chicanos is done by Chicanos."

Most of the work of Chicano scholars has been in the social sciences, but increasingly there are contributions coming out of the humanities, in such fields as literary criticism and theory, according to some scholars.

Others point to a blossoming of literary works and of research by Chicanas about women. The area of public policy research is another expanding field, with such work as UCLA Prof. David E. Hayes-Bautista's book, "The Burden of Support," which deals with the state's changing demographics and their economic implications.

The Chicano studies resurgence of recent years followed a decade of retrenchment, marked by dwindling enrollment, budget cuts and denial of tenure.

A Times telephone survey of a dozen universities in California shows that enrollments at most of the campuses fell to their lowest points during the late 1970s and early 1980s, beginning their recovery only in recent years.

Loyola Marymount University is typical in this regard. It had 229 students in the 1975-76 school year, but enrollment dropped to 91 by 1984-85. Last year, more students than ever, 288, took Chicano studies.

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