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What's Right (and Wrong) With Chicano Studies: An Exchange

September 10, 2000

To the Editor:

It is disappointing that Book Review chose a reviewer who makes unqualified assumptions about Chicano history (Book Review, Aug. 20). For starters, Gregory Rodriguez does not understand that history differs from other social sciences. It bases its assumptions on documents, and it is not theory-driven. History, however, has accepted canons, which do not always keep pace with the times. A synthesis is reached by documentary challenges to mainstream paradigms such as Cold War views of the world. This is nothing new, and the reviewer should read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" for an understanding of the dialectic.

His assertion that "[t]he study of America's Latinos has been thoroughly dominated by activist scholars and writers who either once participated in or who still emulate the ethnic campus politics of a generation ago" is simply not true. The field has changed tremendously in the last two decades, and his static analysis, regurgitating reviews written in the late 1970s, does a disservice to the field.

Further, Rodriguez's Red-baiting the field of Chicano history is unforgivable. Simply, Marxists have made very valuable intellectual contributions to Chicano studies, as they have to U.S. history overall. Ironically, even the culture warriors are today using the works of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Another example of his Red-baiting shows when he accuses anyone who disagrees with his assimilationist model of being from the "good guys-versus-bad guys" school of history. The truth is that "good guys-versus-bad guys" model is not particular to Chicanos. I recommend that Rodriguez read Peter Novick's "That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession" for a better understanding of the discipline.

He singles me out among those "less concerned with telling the story of Mexican Americans (the good guys) than they were with highlighting Chicano oppression at the hands of Anglo Americans (the bad guys)." I have written other books. "Occupied America" is in its fourth edition. Each subsequent edition since 1972 is totally different from the first and, in each case, the documents alter the story. Aside from "Occupied America," I have written numerous works, among them "Community Under Siege," "Anything But Mexican" and "Sometimes There Is No Other Side." If he read these works, he would know that Mexican Americans are not always the "good guys" in my works and that I am very critical of Chicanos like him.

Rodriguez writes that "[a]ctivist historians ingeniously--if not disingenuously--managed to portray contemporary Mexican Americans as a conquered people, 'an internal colony' whose ancient ethnic homeland, the American Southwest, was being occupied by invading Anglos" and who rallied behind the specious notion that "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." Again, Rodriguez distorts the facts. First, the internal model was discarded in the mid-1970s. Second, the internal colonial model dealt with relationships with the majority society and outside control of the barrio--how people saw themselves as a result of the subordination--not the war. As for the conquest, the accepted truth is that the United States invaded Mexico; if he doesn't agree, he has the burden to prove otherwise.

He accuses me of being "perhaps among the first to openly declare that Mexicans did not come to the United States in order to improve their economic prospects" and that Mexicans "were brought here by economic forces over which they had little control." Really, I was hardly the first scholar to talk about these forces or the impact of uprooting on the uprooted. Even the conservative historian Oscar Handlin concedes this long before "Occupied America" in his classic, "The Uprooted." The works of Ernesto Galarza and Manuel Gamio also speak of these economic forces. Finally, the musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," dramatizes these tensions.

Rodriguez again Red-baits an entire field: "The Marxist leanings of so many of the first generation of Chicano studies professors made it even more difficult for them to admit that millions of Mexicans have come to the United States hoping to one day finally place their families into the middle class." I have interviewed thousands of immigrants, and very few say that they wanted to come to the United States to be middle class. Some came for political reasons; others to escape poverty; still others to maintain their middle-class status. Being a Marxist or not being a Marxist has little to do with being able "to consider the myriad hopes, dreams and fears that motivate them."

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