Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

An Ethnic Studies EVOLUTION

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

An Ethnic Studies EVOLUTION

Article excerpt

A new generation of Mexican and Mexican-American students is turning the tide of Chicana/o studies programs in unexpected new directions.

As a student in the Chicana/o studies program at the University of Texas at El Paso, Jesse S. Arrieta decided that her classroom instruction about the culture and history of people of Mexican origin wasn't enough.

"For me, what I was studying and reading never truly resonated until I went into the community," says Arrieta, 27, who graduated from UTEP in 2002 before earning a master's in American history from the University of California, Irvine. As part of her undergraduate honors thesis, Arrieta interviewed Mexican-American women who had been involved in labor organizing in the 1960s and beyond. She did nearly the same thing after moving on to graduate school in California. There she talked to Mexican-American women who were active in the Bus Riders Union, a group dedicated to promoting public transportation for low-income people in the Los Angeles area. That project would ultimately become her master's thesis.

Arrieta, now teaching U.S. history in UTEP's Chicana/o studies program, says her goal was twofold in both cases. She wanted to "find a place for such stories within the larger context of Chicano studies," while also doing what she could to "alter perceptions that these types of programs are mostly masculine in their focus."

Her scholarship has centered on real people involved in real struggles, which has been one of the honored traditions of Chicana/o studies programs.

"The idea from the start was to be politically active," says Dr. Felipe B. Gonzalez, a former student coordinator for the University of New Mexico's Chicana/o studies program, and now chair of sociology at UNM. "But also there was a tremendous emphasis on being involved in the community, bringing something back to it or trying to understand it and using that to inform your scholarship."

The programs have been emphasizing social issues since they first appeared on campuses in the 1960s and '70s. But Arrieta's decision to challenge the gender-based issues associated with some programs illustrates that the field remains open to change. It is a sign of academic fluidity that many educators believe is absolutely necessary if such programs expect to be relevant to a new generation of students, especially those who are emigrating from Mexico.

"We absolutely cannot remain static, particularly when so many things in this area are changing all around us," says Dr. Louis G. Mendoza, chairman of the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. Its program, founded in 1972, is one of the oldest of its kind in the Midwest.

At no time has that change been more obvious or full of potential upheaval than with the immigration protests earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, the vast majority of them in their teens, took to the streets to protest proposed immigration reform measures. The nationwide demonstrations have presented Chicana/o studies programs with a close look at the new and, some may say, bewildering constituency of the future.

"There is no doubt about it, the immigration movement and the young people that we associate with it have helped to raise the question of just what exactly our relationship should be, not only to them, but to other Latino groups in general," says Mendoza. "They very clearly are a new part of the equation that not only symbolizes change, but also the challenge of making programs like ours relevant to a new generation of Chicanes and Latinos."

The Question of Relevancy

That change is particularly pronounced in El Paso, where thousands of Mexican students, many crossing the border daily, study at UTEP. Their presence on campus has prompted additions to the curriculum that school officials hope are more responsive to their needs and academic interests.

"We have very much tried to make our program more conducive to the demands of the labor market that the students are going to be facing," says Dr. …

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