By Todd Holmes Project Director, Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project
In April 1969, over a hundred students, faculty, and staff from California’s colleges descended on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. For an era known for campus activism, the event was anything but uncommon. Its focus, however, certainly was. The aim of the gathering was to develop a master plan for the inclusion of the Chicano community within the curriculum and infrastructure of higher education. Ultimately, the 155-page document that resulted, titled El Plan de Santa Bárbara, proved one of the most important works of the civil rights era.
El Plan demanded the inclusion of the Chicano community within the state’s education system, and provided a roadmap for its incorporation within college teaching and research. Above all, it forged a bridge between civil rights activism and classroom curricula, creating the foundation for the academic field known as Chicana/o studies. As Mario T. García, who later became a professor at UC Santa Barbara, remembered it, “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 of 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.”
In commemoration of the 54th anniversary of this historic event, the UC Berkeley Oral History Center is releasing the Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project, which examines the formation and evolution of this academic discipline through in-depth oral histories with the first generation of scholars who shaped it. These interviews offer a rare, firsthand look at the development of Chicana/o studies over the last fifty years, as well as unique insight into the lives and careers of the pioneering scholars involved. To be sure, that journey was marked by struggle, which makes the stature enjoyed today by both the discipline and its scholars even more noteworthy.
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.
Most of the founding faculty entered the halls of academia in similar fashion. They were first generation students drawn to the developing field of Chicana/o Studies out of the desire to know their history and make sense of the gap between the stories told at home and those taught in the classroom.
“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
“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 University
To simply say their academic path was a rough climb could be deemed an understatement. Support was in short supply; barriers and naysayers certainly were not. From the start, racial stereotypes had them automatically placed in vocational classes by administrators, just as teachers often met their academic achievements with more surprise than praise. As Vicki Ruiz remembered, “I went to community college, for many reasons, but one of the reasons was, I was told by a counselor Mrs. Callahan that I was probably not college material.” Decades later, Ruiz would become the first Latina historian to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The graduate experience did not prove any easier. Older faculty, firmly situated within the orthodoxy of their respective disciplines, afforded little latitude for the research agendas of the new Chicana and Chicano students. Patience and understanding was offered even less. In such an environment, many struggled with feelings of homesickness, resentment, and an isolation that blurred the lines between graduate student and outsider. To cope, they built networks and interdisciplinary groups such as El Comité at Yale, the Chicano Political Economy Collective (ChPEC) and Chicana Colectiva at Berkeley, and Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS).
“At Berkeley, Winthrop Jordan (of Mayflower lineage) asked me how long my family had been in the country. I told him, ‘My dad’s family has been here since 1598. My mother’s, I don’t know 25,000 years, whatever the anthropologists finally determined.’” – Deena González, Gonzaga University
“On campus itself, we had a graduate student group. We called ourselves The Committee, or El Comité, because there were only ten of us. This included the law school. This is across the board.” – David Montejano, UC Berkeley
Even as university professors, the founding generation of Chicana/o Studies continued to struggle for legitimacy. Many stepped into faculty positions only to find their programs underfunded and facilities relegated to outskirts of campus – a not-so-subtle reminder that while a PhD may open the door, it did not guarantee an equal seat at the table. Undeterred, they developed the Chicana/o Studies curriculum from scratch, with material so scant as to hardly fill a single bookshelf in the early days. They organized student events, fostered community partnerships, founded innovative teaching and research programs, and created collaborative networks with universities throughout the West, all under the skeptical eye of university administrators and rival departments anxious to protect their academic turf. Moreover, they worked diligently to expand the selection of published works in the field from one bookshelf to many. Most academic careers are spent in the pursuit of contributing to a respective discipline. This generation did not merely contribute to Chicana/o Studies, they built it.
“Oh yeah, there was an awful lot of resentment… [They thought] the students were disrespectful. They were bringing in a lot of color, you see. And so consequently, yeah, they were very resentful.” – Rudy Acuña, CSU Northridge
“It was hard to put together a reading list because there was so little…today, the challenge is, what do I use, because there’s so much that has been produced since I first had to deal with that challenge in the fall of 1969.” – Mario T. García, UC Santa Barbara
“For a long time, the idea was, you know, Chicana history, why is that important? Why are Chicanas important? Why are these women important? I just feel very privileged, because I’ve had the opportunity to interview so many people, so many women whose quiet courage made a difference, not just in their lives, in their families’ lives, but in their communities.” – Vicki Ruiz, UC Irvine
Much has certainly changed since those early decades. What began a half-century ago as a fledgling academic field now stands as a vibrant mainstay on college campuses across the United States, just as the young professors who built the field came to be celebrated as some of the most distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences. University presidents and National Humanities Medal winners are listed within their ranks, as are Guggenheim Fellows, award-winning authors, and nationally recognized educators. They came to head national organizations, create innovative programs, conduct groundbreaking research, and take their place within the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In short, their teaching and scholarship fulfilled the very mission espoused in the 1969 El Plan: the creation of an American curriculum that includes all its people.
In this respect, the Chicana/o Studies Oral History Project serves as a model for the distinctive contributions oral history can make to the documentation and study of intellectual history. The interviews, which are ongoing, will take center stage in the two main products of this project. First, each interview is transcribed and made available with other relevant material on the project’s dedicated website. To date, the project features well over 100 hours of recordings with 22 of the most distinguished scholars in the field; sixteen of these interviews are available now; the others are forthcoming. 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 for use in high school and college classrooms. A short trailer for the film series is below.
Today, we commemorate over 50 years of Chicana/o Studies and the pioneering scholars who built it. It is hoped, however, that this project gives as much a nod to the future as it does the past. For as each scholar makes clear in their interview, the development of Chicana/o Studies has just begun.
“I think that there’s still so much to do….I believe in the young generation. I watch them. I really think they can teach us so much, because they come with freshness and eagerness and new ideas. And I just want them to know their history.” – Emma Pérez, University of Arizona
About the Oral History Center
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has interviews on just about every topic imaginable. You can find the interviews mentioned here and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. We preserve voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public