Oral History Center Documents the Founding Generation of Chicana/o Studies

The development of Chicana/o Studies is also a story that highlights another side of the civil rights movement, one where actions in the classroom, rather than those in the streets, proved the long-lasting vector of social change.

Over fifty years ago, UC Berkeley anthropologist Octavio Romano founded the publication, El Grito: A Journal of Contemporary Mexican American Thought. In many respects, it was one of many actions of the time that sought to channel the educational aims of the Mexican American civil rights movement into the corridors of higher education. And in the years that followed, scholars on campuses throughout California and the West built upon those aims, ultimately establishing the academic discipline that became known as Chicana/o Studies.

Rudy Acuňa – Chicana/o Studies Department California State University, Northridge

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, it is worth reflecting on the scholars who documented that heritage and fought for its inclusion in American classrooms and textbooks. In 2017, the UC Berkeley Oral History Center initiated a project to do just that: The Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project. This project commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Chicana/o Studies and documents the formation of the field through in-depth interviews with the first generation of scholars who shaped it. As a research unit with The Bancroft Library, the Oral History Center has long enjoyed rare access to the academy since its founding in 1953, compiling one of the richest collections on higher education and intellectual history in the country. Interviews with Nobel Laureates and university presidents fill this collection, as do those with renown poets and leading scientists. Thus, oral histories with the founding generation of scholars in the field of Chicana/o Studies certainly stood as a fitting addition. Moreover, documenting the formation of an academic field aimed at studying the Mexican American experience was a rare and special opportunity all its own.

“I’m a Tejana, I was born in Texas. There was history that we learned sitting around the table, but there was no reflection of it in the books, at all. . . . It was a lifeline to finally put together my experiences.” —Antonia Castañeda, St. Mary’s College

“It’s not just the students that need to learn Chicano Studies. It’s our colleagues that need to learn Chicano Studies.” — David Montejano, UC Berkeley

Shows Todd Holmes Interviewing Antonia Castañeda
OHC’s Todd Holmes Interviewing Antonia Castañeda (2018)

While the importance of the project was without question, the reality of executing a project of this size and complexity ushered forth a host of logistical challenges. To that end, we forged partnerships with scholars and universities across the country, establishing what could be called an unprecedented collaboration to document the history of Chicana/o Studies and celebrate the scholars who shaped it. We created an advisory council composed of recognized junior faculty in the field. Establishing the council was vital, as it not only brought a larger, community voice into decisions on the project’s scope and direction, but also seasoned expertise to the nomination process for interviewees—a procedure that likely proved much lengthier and complicated than anyone bargained for. In the end, the council developed a list of over 20 prominent and pioneering scholars to be interviewed for the project.

We are happy to announce that the result of all this hard work and collaboration will officially be released in Spring 2021. The Chicana/o Studies Oral History & Film Project will feature in-depth oral histories with over 20 scholars. These oral histories will take center stage in the two main products of this project. First, each interview will be transcribed and made available with other relevant material on the project’s dedicated website. These interviews go beyond the “published” history of the field, as the scholars themselves discuss their experiences in the academy, the institutional challenges they confronted over their career, the works that inspired them, and the discipline’s struggle to attain academic legitimacy. Second, the oral histories form the heart of a short film series, tentatively titled, Chicana/o Studies: The Legacy of A Movement and the Forging of A Discipline. Here a series of short edited videos will put the interviews into conversation around selected themes that can be used in high school and college classrooms. A short trailer for the project is below.

Taken together, this project commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Chicana/o Studies, and significantly advances our understanding of the field’s development and evolution. Yet the development of Chicana/o Studies, as captured in these interviews, is more than just the story of a discipline. It is the story of a generation of Chicana/o scholars who broke through barriers to take their place in the nation’s universities, and spent their careers documenting the history and experience of their community. It is the story of educational reform, where scholars of color demanded that America’s curriculum equally include all its citizens. In many respects, it is also a story that highlights another side of the civil rights movement, one where actions in the classroom, rather than those in the streets, proved the long-lasting vector of social change.

“That year, I would say ’69, ’70, I became Chicano. The movement created Chicano studies. Without the movement, we wouldn’t be around. It wasn’t that the Chancellor here all a sudden woke up one morning and said ‘Oh, it would be great to have Chicano Studies.’ That came as a result of protests and demonstrations.” —Mario T. García, UC Santa Barbara

David Montejano
David Montejano, UC Berkeley

This project would not have come to fruition without the collaboration we developed with universities across the country. The Oral History Center is an independent, soft-money research unit at UC Berkeley, which means the office receives very little direct support from the university. This means that we need to raise funds to cover the cost of each oral history. For the Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project, a generous consortium of Deans, Provosts, Chancellors, and Presidents stepped forward to extend support. Stanford University sponsored the first two interviews, with the University of California Office of the President raising the bar by pledging to fund all UC-related interviews. The pledge not only sought to highlight the role of UC campuses in the field, but also served as a call-to-arms for other universities in the West to follow suit. Many university administrators answered that call. Deans at UT Austin, Arizona State, and the University of Arizona pledged support, as did administrators at Loyola Marymount, Gonzaga University, and UT San Antonio. Again, highlighting the role of California in the field, the California State University system agreed to fund all CSU-related interviews for the project. The array of support behind the Chicana/o Studies Project stands as an inspiring—if not unprecedented—collaboration within the academy.

“My family was the first family out of the barrio to send someone to college. There were 44 Mexican-Americans out of, I think 28,000 students at that time. . . . Chicano Studies has allowed us to see a diversity in the American experience, where my generation growing up in public schools, had no inkling of whatsoever. ” — Albert Camarillo, Stanford University

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month this October, we at the Oral History Center are pleased to announce the forthcoming release of this important project. For more information on the Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project and Film, visit the Project Page and/or email Todd Holmes todd.holmes@berkeley.edu