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Outrage of Latino Elite: Good Sign for 21st Century : Protest: Anger on campus stirred by the new generation of Latino achievers signals political involvement. Can the mayor's office be far behind?

May 16, 1993|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the author of the forthcoming book, "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam)

SANGER, CALIF. — For Latinos in higher education, it has come to this: Our best and brightest young people are, literally, starving for attention and rioting for respect. Suddenly, as if to dispute claims by the Latino Old Guard that students today are complacent and apolitical, there is again disruption on college campuses. Yet this time it is a chaos stirred not by long-haired, serape-wearing radicals, but by a more contemporary, more elite bunch of Latino superstars.

The result is a jumble of images on the evening news of campus police leading away a new generation of affirmative-action babies. Golden babies baptized in pools of praise--those with high SATs, Ivy League acceptances and insatiable expectations.

We know them. Last year, as they were graduating from high school, we saw their pictures in the morning paper, beneath headlines that predicted great things. A Chicano valedictorian with an A in calculus accepted to the Ivy League. A Latino National Merit Scholar with glowing recommendations going to UCLA. The proud beam of Mexican-looking parents mixed with jealous accusations of "acting white" by Chicano classmates headed for McJobs.

This year, the superstar's picture is in the paper again--this time with a far different, more disturbing headline. "Chicano Students Arrested in Campus Protest; University Ponders Disciplinary Action." Mama calls the dormitory, concerned that mijo is in trouble. But she wonders: How can that be? Mijo has never been in trouble.

Last week, at UCLA, 89 students, most of them Latino, were arrested after a demonstration against the university's decision not to elevate its Chicano studies program from interdisciplinary status to that of a full department ended in violence. The controversy, brewing for years, erupted when UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young, in a classic case of bad timing, announced the decision on the eve of Cesar Chavez's funeral. An afternoon of vandalism left more than $50,000 in broken-window, tossed-chair damage to the university faculty center. It also left university officials fuming with anger and planning punishment.

The vandals picked the right target--the faculty center where students are admitted only as guests of faculty members. The center epitomizes the safe, detached distance at which the administration of the largest public university in Los Angeles views even the most urgent forms of racial crisis. If Nero had been a vice president at UCLA, then he would have fiddled in the faculty center while the city burned.

Ironically, the center has traditionally played matchmaker between the university and the stellar Latino high-school students it so breathlessly courts each spring, competing for their affection with faraway schools like Yale and Princeton. When the dean wants to impress the cream of the crop, the top 1% of Latino high-school graduates, he invites them to lunch at the faculty center. Last week, a hundred or so of the once-courted returned for a second helping of the attention. This time, instead of being served, they were arrested.

The evolution of the 1960s into the 1990s signals a natural evolution in what matters to Latinos pursuing higher education. Twenty-five years ago, when the main obstacle to progress was overt racial exclusion, the issue was simply one of access to prestigious college campuses. Mijo's acceptance to Harvard could save the family, Papa was sure.

Today, now that the obstacle has become a more subtle, mercurial sort of institutional racism, the petition is for something more primal and yet more elusive: respect. The respect that comes, for example, from an academic admission that students of American history should be taught not only about the Kansas-Nebraska Act but also about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Suddenly, Papa is worried. Mumbles over the long-distance phone line tell him that Mijo hates Harvard, feeling trapped in a race-neutral environment where well-intentioned white liberals pride themselves on ignoring racial difference as if it were an affliction of some sort. It seems that Mijo may not graduate, that the culture-shocked prodigy is thinking of leaving Cambridge and returning to the Southwest to search for respect as if for gold in a tin pan. University officials are disappointed, shocked. They do not understand and probably never will.

But, what about when the students in question happen to go to college not in Boston or Providence but in Los Angeles--the Mexican-American capital of the world? What then? What do UCLA students do for respect? They riot.

There will, of course, be some who consider the unruly to be ungrateful. After all, the argument goes, what do elite Chicano students headed for high-paying jobs and esteemed appointments really have to complain about? But strife at prestigious schools offers society the greatest hope for racial reconciliation. Because, whatever their faults, these schools produce leaders.

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