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ANALYSIS : UCLA Strikers Kept Alive Cesar Chavez's Flame

June 24, 1993|FRANK O. SOTOMAYOR | NUESTRO TIEMPO EDITOR

Galvanized by a dramatic 14-day hunger strike, an unusual campus-community alliance succeeded last month in strengthening Chicano studies at UCLA. But beyond the importance of the Chicano studies center that will be established, participants said, the struggle won the respect for Chicanos that had become a life-and-death goal for the hunger strikers.

The student and faculty hunger strikers said they had found inspiration in the example of Cesar Chavez, the farm worker leader who had recently died. In addition, the strikers gave credit to the support they had received from a wide spectrum of the Latino community--from family members, students, labor leaders, elected officials and the public.

"As our bodies got weaker, thousands of people walked for us . . . thousands of voices spoke for us . . . thousands of arms held us up," said assistant professor Jorge Mancillas, one of the hunger strikers.

Marcos Aguilar, a student striker, agreed: "Students alone have limitations to their power. . . . . But when students work with community people, the university can't reckon with the power that is released."

Aguilar, 23, said the campus dispute had turned into "an issue of respect (for Chicanos) and today we have that respect."

Under the settlement, the Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies will have a core faculty and other powers of a traditional academic department.

UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young insisted that he had not caved in to the students' demands. He contended that the settlement gave little more than the administration would have been willing to provide without the fast.

Originated in 1960s

The concept of Chicano studies was developed during the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. Cal State Northridge opened the first Chicano studies department in 1969. Although the focus of Chicano studies curricula is on Mexican-Americans, other Latino groups are also covered.

At UCLA, Chicano studies has been one of several ethnic studies programs that draw on faculty from traditional departments to teach courses. Young had said that this arrangement provided a rich mix of expert instructors.

Activists, however, argued that this structure gave Chicano studies second-class status because the program had no permanent faculty and its budget was limited.

"Courses in Chicano studies must be organized, staffed and taught by a specific department," Mancillas said during the hunger strike. "Existing departments have shown very little interest in the subject. Those who volunteer to teach in the (existing Chicano studies) program find their efforts perceived as a sort of volunteerism or community service, not as part of their academic responsibilities. Their home departments see it as a time away from their 'real responsibilities.' "

Such an arrangement, the activists argued, was not acceptable for the largest public university in the nation's largest Mexican-American population center.

An open letter to Young, signed by dozens of prominent Latinos, stated the case for Chicano studies: "We believe that the study of the history, language, culture and demographics of Southern California's Latino population, the largest single ethnic group in this state, is not just for Latinos. It is an essential element in preparing emerging professionals who will eventually teach, practice law, medicine, do business with, or otherwise engage in professions interfacing" with Latinos.

The latest chapter in the campus controversy began April 28, when Young announced his refusal to establish a Chicano studies department. Young opted to keep Chicano studies as an interdisciplinary program. His decision, after three years of university studies and protests, came on the eve of Chavez's funeral. This timing was taken as lack of respect for a Chicano hero by many students and community activists.

Escalation of Dispute

From there, the dispute escalated:

* State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) threatened to have state funds earmarked for UCLA withheld. Later, the state Assembly passed a resolution urging UCLA to set up a Chicano studies department.

* Authorities arrested more than 90 protesters May 11, after a forced entry at the Faculty Center, where windows were broken and computers and artwork were damaged. The incident occurred after a peaceful demonstration in support of a Chicano studies department by Conscious Students of Color.

* The hunger strike began May 25, with the nine strikers vowing not to eat solid food until formation of a Chicano studies department was authorized. Striker Cindy Montanez said: "We tried a lot of demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins. We were pushed to do the hunger strike. Chancellor Young told us to forget it, that he had made up his mind."

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