Chicano Studies at U is small, but growing

Joe Carlson

For 25 years now, the Chicano Studies department has survived several different challenges, ranging from possible shutdown to poor faculty retention to low funding. However, through it all, Chicano Studies has continually grown and made itself a bigger voice in the University community.
And it will celebrate its consistency and growth with events on today and Monday.
Formed in 1972 as a direct result of student activism, the department of two full-time faculty members and five graduate teaching assistants has had changing roles in its 25 years.
Susan Green, a graduate student instructor in the department, said evidence of the department’s success is shown in “the tremendous amount of students that we’ve turned out that have done tremendous things in the world,” as lawyers and educators.
In recognition of the anniversary, the department is sponsoring a panel discussion this afternoon at 12:15 in room 154 of Coffman Memorial Union, titled “A Historical Overview of the Chicano Studies Department at the U of M.” A former chairman of the department, as well as the current chairman and a professor will be on the discussion panel.
The event is also part of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations going on today and Monday in and around Coffman Memorial Union. The events are organized by the La Raza Student Cultural Center and the Ceviche Committee.
One of the things that has kept the department alive in the face of difficulties is its uniqueness. The Chicano Studies department is not part of the traditional sphere of academic teaching and research in American universities, said Guillermo Rojas, chairman of the department.
“It is not part of the hegemonic structure,” Rojas said.
The department came about as a result of a concerted effort by Chicano students in Minnesota who pursued the establishment of a Chicano studies department in the Midwest. After a gathering in 1970 of 180 students, a faculty committee was formed at the University. Before long, the committee was granted $10,000 to begin forming a new department.
It was important, however, that the department was formed not as a reconciliation for past oppression, but rather as a bona fide field of academic pursuit, Rojas said. The students and faculty members who formed the department succeeded in this respect.
“It’s a very vital academic discourse,” Green said.
“It’s very important for everybody to learn about Chicano studies,” she said, “because it’s part of the American experience.”
She said Chicano studies is something most American students don’t get from high school and sometimes even college educations.
Chicano studies instructors, such as Michael Lopez, have recognized this need and say filling it is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching. Lopez, who taught in the department for one year, has since become the associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.
He said teaching in Chicano studies provided “the opportunity to reach a community of Chicano students who were interested in learning about their cultural history.”
“At the same time,” Lopez said, “it was an opportunity to interact with (Anglo) students who were interested in expanding their experience,” with Chicano culture.
At that time Chicano students were actually a minority in Chicano studies courses, a situation that is still not uncommon in classes today.
Department faculty members are facing many issues, not the least of which is limited funding. Currently, the department supports two full-time professors, one of which is also the chairman of the department.
“In a small department, you have to do a little bit of everything,” said Rojas, who has been a teacher, administrator and researcher since he was hired years ago.
In the future, planners in the department hope to set up a master’s degree program.
“We’re just beginning to develop a graduate program, and the University is hopefully going to support us, because there’s tremendous demand,” Green said. Currently, more than 30 graduate students are working for degrees in other departments with an emphasis on Chicano studies.
Whatever the outcome, Rojas said the department must keep fueling interest in Chicano studies.
“The most important thing that needs to be done,” Rojas said, “is that we need to prepare the young people of today to pick up the flag when we are gone.”