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Cal State Northridge professor caught in Arizona controversy

Rodolfo Acuña's Mexican American history book, first published four decades ago, has become fuel for Arizona politicians targeting ethnic studies programs.

January 14, 2011|Hector Tobar

Rodolfo "Rudy" Acuña is an amiable, white-haired professor from Los Angeles who's having his named dragged through the mud by certain Arizona politicians.

He grew up in South L.A. and East Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s, and has fond memories of learning Latin at Loyola High School. He went on to make a career of teaching generations of young people from the Southwest some of the salient episodes of their history.

His most famous work is a Mexican American history textbook on which hundreds of future politicos, writers and PhDs cut their intellectual teeth. It's now in its seventh printing.

But to Arizona's new attorney general, Tom Horne, who's accused him of fostering "ethnic chauvinism," Acuña is a separatist and a danger to the republic.

When he was the state's top education official, Horne used Acuña's book, "Occupied America, A History of Chicanos," as Exhibit A in a successful campaign to have certain Latino studies classes shut down in Arizona schools.

"These people think you're a separatist if you want to teach and include people," Acuña told me as we sat this week in his Cal State Northridge office. "I don't want to be part of Mexico.... That's a stupid thing to argue."

Acuña is 78 now and his voice often quavers when he speaks. He seems genuinely confused and offended by his appearance in the Arizona controversy. I think he has every right to be upset — because the ban on Latino studies in Arizona is really just a crude attempt to scapegoat books, ideas and teachers in a state up in arms over illegal immigration.

"All we're trying to do is teach people that they have a history they should be proud of," Acuña said. "Everyone has a right to feel good about themselves."

"Occupied America" was one of several book used in Mexican American studies classes in Tucson high schools. Horne argued in an open letter published in a Tucson newspaper in 2007 that the classes were fostering ethnic antagonism as part of "an officially recognized, resentment-based program."

He backed a law, passed last year, that all but equated ethnic studies with treason by making it illegal for any school program to advocate the overthrow of the government, "promote resentment" toward a group of people or "advocate ethnic solidarity." It went into effect Jan. 1, and last week Horne declared that the Tucson school district's Mexican American studies classes violated its provisions.

The Tucson schools are fighting to keep the classes going. They are open to students of all ethnicities. Besides Acuña's work, the course reading list includes William Shakespeare, Sandra Cisneros (who is American, born in Chicago), and Junot Díaz, the Dominican American winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Students also read plays by the critically acclaimed and often irreverent L.A.-based theater group Culture Clash.

"In one sense, it's a badge of honor" to be on the reading list of a banned class, said Richard Montoya, a playwright and Culture Clash member. But the ban "is really quite shameful for the state of Arizona."

I'd like to ask Mr. Horne how he would teach American history without "promoting resentment" and thus breaking his new law. Is it possible to learn about the slave trade or Japanese American internment, for example, without feeling at least a fleeting sense of outrage?

"Occupied America," first published in 1972, is the defiant product of a moment of conflict in L.A. history. Students were on the streets protesting the Vietnam War and demanding better schools. Acuña had just gotten his doctorate in history. The rebellious spirit of the times filtered into his prose and the provocative title of his book.

"I have seen that people of Mexican extraction in the United States are … captives of a system that renders them second-class citizens," Acuña wrote in the first edition. He said he wanted to give those young Chicanos a history primer that would serve as a tool for their "liberation."

In a 1975 review, the American Historical Review praised the first edition of "Occupied America" as "an excellent introductory survey of the history of a particular minority group that conveys not only scholarship and information, but sincerity, concern and commitment as well."

Like "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "Occupied America" is an artifact from another era and is very often read as such. Part narrative, part polemic, it's a work that's meant to stir a love of history in people who grew up thinking they didn't have a past worth reading about.

"The idea is to use these issues of cultural identity as a way to motivate students," Acuña said.

In the pages of "Occupied America," there are lynchings, mass deportations and labor strikes that are brutally suppressed. It's often grim. A cynical reader can certainly pick out passages — as Horne did — that sound offensive when stripped of their original context.

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