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Declining Interest In ‘Chicano Studies’ Reflects A Latino Identify Shift

San Diego State University Chicano Studies Professor Isidro Ortiz said many young Mexican-Americans no longer identify with the term 'Chicano.'

Aired 3/6/13 on KPBS News.

For the second semester in a row, San Diego State University's Chicano Studies department has fallen short of enrollment targets, despite a record number of Latinos on campus.

— On the campus of San Diego State University recently, Sandy Chavez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said, without hesitation, that she thinks of herself primarily as American.

Yes, she is Latina, of Mexican heritage. She’s visited family in Mexico, and on weekends as a child she woke up to her parents playing Mexican music on the stereo. But she’s never described herself principally as Mexican or Latina, much less Chicana, a term preferred by many young Mexican-Americans in the 1960s and 70s.

“A lot of people say Latina, Chicana. I don’t even really know the distinction between them,” Chavez said.

By official projections, next year, Latinos will surpass whites as California’s largest ethnic group. This is due in large part to young people like Chavez, the children of immigrants from Mexico, who are also landing on college campuses in record numbers.

But these students see themselves differently than earlier generations of Mexican-Americans.

And on campuses like San Diego State University and others, that shifting sense of identity is posing a recruitment challenge to Chicano Studies programs that grew out of the Chicano political movement of the Civil Rights era.

Last semester marked a milestone at San Diego State University. The Chicano Studies Department failed to meet its enrollment target. It’s falling short this semester, too, having enrolled just two-thirds of its target of roughly 1,300 students.

“It’s a small crisis, in terms of the department’s history,” said Isidro Ortiz, a longtime professor of Chicano Studies.

Ironically, the drop in enrollment coincides with record numbers of Latino students on campus, a large proportion Mexican-American. Last year the university was recognized as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the federal government, a designation that qualifies it for grant funding because its undergraduate student body is at least 25 percent Latino.

Professors and administrators are trying to figure out why the record number of Latinos on campus hasn’t translated into more interest in Chicano Studies courses. One theory is that a growing number of them think of themselves like Sandy Chavez does.

“Students in many cases don’t identify as Chicanos, as did the generation that created this department,” Ortiz said. Many more identify as Mexican, Mexican-American, or simply American.

Chicano Studies departments at San Diego State and across the West grew out of the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Its members rejected the term Mexican-American and instead adopted the term “Chicano,” which is thought to derive from the indigenous pronunciation of Mexicano.

Identifying as Chicano symbolized solidarity with a proud, sometimes even militant, struggle against second-class status — a struggle by Mexican-Americans to be recognized by politicians, employers, and by academia.

That led a group of Chicano academics to call a summit at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1969. There, they drafted a plan to begin establishing university Chicano Studies curricula and departments. Within a few years, they were established at universities in California, Arizona, and Texas.

At San Diego State University, the department flourished well into the 1990s, and even the last decade. But in recent years, Ortiz said, the declining enrollment became apparent, and last year, the missed target. That has forced a conversation within the department about how relevant the term Chicano — with its political, even radical, connotations — is to young Mexican-Americans today.

Continued, even unprecedented, civic engagement by Latinos suggests it’s not mere apathy driving them away from an interest in studying the Mexican-American community in an academic context. Take the ongoing movement in support of immigration reform, driven in large part by young Mexican-Americans, and voter turnout in the last election.

“But maybe that term,” – Chicano – “is not what’s appropriate for unifying a mobilization of young people in 2013,” said Jorge Mariscal, a professor of Chicano arts and humanities at UC San Diego.

He said understanding the community’s demographic evolution is key. The Latinos on university campuses today are the children of the large wave of immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s, well after the Chicano movement’s heyday.

“It means that many of these young people don’t know what the term Chicano means in the U.S. context,” Mariscal said. “So it’s really the demographic change, and the culture that those new young people bring, that is slowly moving off center stage the term Chicano, and therefore Chicano Studies.”

Unlike the Chicano generation, which saw itself outside the mainstream and was clearly a minority, today’s young Mexican-Americans increasingly are the mainstream. Many are voting, participating in the political system from within. The four-decade-old Chicano movement is increasingly a vague memory, the term imbued with nebulous meaning.

“I don’t know, when I think of a Chicano I think of somebody who grew up in the streets of East LA,” said Ernesto Limón, an undergraduate at San Diego State.

The declining enrollment is not true everywhere. At San Diego City College, a community college, the Chicano Studies department is requesting more capacity for its courses because of saturation, professor Elva Salinas said in an email.

Mariscal, of UC San Diego, said the decline in interest tends to magnify as an institution becomes more selective and elite. There is even less interest in Chicano Studies among students at UC San Diego than at San Diego State, he said.

At San Diego State, Ortiz said Chicano Studies faculty recently held a first meeting to discuss the decline in enrollment and how the department might address it. Chicano Studies departments at other universities have retooled the curriculum to include classes reflective of the greater diversity within Latino communities.

Several university departments have changed their names to include "Latino" or "Hispanic," in an effort to give the department broader appeal among the large and still growing Latino student population.

“We should be in a position to be able to capitalize on those numbers,” Ortiz said. “And I think we will be able to, provided we can solve this puzzle.”

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Avatar for user 'jgutierrezpr'

jgutierrezpr | March 6, 2013 at 4:19 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Well, what can you do with a degree in Chicano/Chicana Studies? I appreciate and hold my heritage in high regard, but majoring in it won't reimburse the investment in my education nor will it provide me with a dependable job that survives such a wayward economy.

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Avatar for user 'San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery'

San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery | March 6, 2013 at 8:53 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Our Chicano classes at San Diego Mesa College are thriving. I teach Chicano Art and it fills up every semester, we actually offered two sessions this Spring. Based on our experience, the interest is there, and I have not only Chicano students enrolling in classes but students from other ethnic backgrounds who are also interested in the topic. Through these courses students reach a historical and social understanding of the Chicano Movement but also the challenges of the Latino communities today. Whether they call themselves, Chicano, or Mexican, or Latino, they seem to identify and understand the struggle. Some students are Dream activists and have an important role bringing attention to issues of immigration and education. Maybe a broader study of what is happening at other colleges and universities would provide a more nuanced picture. Alessandra Moctezuma, Professor, San Diego Mesa College.

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Avatar for user 'heavymountain'

heavymountain | March 6, 2013 at 11:27 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Although I enjoy learning once-in-a-while my heritage and culture, I could do so with a library card, internet, a trip to the museum, etc. College courses are expensive and I don't see myself studying Chicano _____ unless I want to enter academia; finding a job within academia is masochistic these days. I rather put in time and money into something that will translate into a stable career in the future. Mathematics, software engineering, and things of that nature.

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Avatar for user 'beto911'

beto911 | March 7, 2013 at 2:13 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

People identifying with the term Chicano and taking chicano study courses are too distinct topics. It is my understanding that during the 60s the self-identified Chicano students opposed the traditional Mexican-American label that was embraced by most of the elders. Similarly, this generation is choosing to identify with other labels - in general, moving away from a nationalist identity that is rooted in the struggle to challenge the overt institutional racism of the time. This generation has stronger ties to Latin America than the student protestors of the 60s - this has contributed to other student activism; the Dreamers have managed to gain more national attention in the last 5 years than MEChA the previous 25 years. I once heard a community college professor argue that Central Americans were automatically chicanos because Central America was part of Mesoamerica, the students resisted and he insisted - the discussion led to a lot of unhealthy tension.

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Avatar for user 'al_mac_62'

al_mac_62 | March 7, 2013 at 6:21 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Your mom and dad can teach you about your culture. Learn engineering or science in school, it pays better, and you actually contribute to society by building something besides a pathetic grievance culture. Orale!

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 7, 2013 at 8:08 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Didn't SDSU change that to "Chicano/Chicana" a few years ago?

As to the enrollment, that is just one campus.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 7, 2013 at 8:09 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Al Mac, yeah, but one's parents can't teach much about history or political science.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 7, 2013 at 9:24 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

jgutierrez, heavymountain, and al_mac_62 you all have the right idea. Maybe people are finally starting to wake up and realize that it is a hard cold world and as much as we would like to, we can't just do whatever we want and expect to get paid for it.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | March 7, 2013 at 1:34 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

From a slightly different perspective, are we seeing a change in the demand signal for graduates of this curriculum? Is there a shortage of people who can do whatever it is that this program prepares them for?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 7, 2013 at 2:08 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

It was a termporary term, I never personally liked it. What was wrong with just "Mexican-American"??? Yes, it was a product of its time. Not relevant any longer.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 7, 2013 at 2:22 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I can't really think of any career a degree in Chicano studies would prepare someone for. Can someone please enlighten me?

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | March 7, 2013 at 2:41 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I believe it could be useful if you wanted to be a lobbyist for immigration reform or some sort of protestor who believes that those who break the law and come here illegally are entitled to the privilege of citizenship.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | March 7, 2013 at 3:46 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I see more interest in Mexican and Latin American Studies in the near future. The day will come when enhanced knowledge of your Mexican or Latin American trading partner or prospective client will come in handy. I don't mean to offend any of the regular posters, but that enhanced knowledge is in short supply on this portal (except for M.A., who's got something on the ball in that area).

To the naysayers, was there a similar outcry when Japanese Studies was all the rage in the 80's?

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Avatar for user 'bgulino'

bgulino | March 8, 2013 at 9:04 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

What a confusing piece. I still don't know what a Chicano is. I have Mexican-American friends who don't care for the term. The unquestioning conflation of political positions on immigration also confused. Can you be Chicano but be against illegal immigration? Vote for Mitt Romney? Can anybody major in Chicano studies?

If you can't admit to this kind of diversity in your department, then, yes, I imagine that interest in the department will decline.

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Avatar for user 'chuco13'

chuco13 | March 8, 2013 at 11:38 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I think that the lack of students in SDSU Chicana/Chicano studies program may be not a lack of interest on the part of students rather a lack of faculty connection with the student body. Who many of the faculty are CHICANA/O?

The term Chicano means that you are proud of Mexican roots (indigenous, mestizo, African, Asian etc.) and you are a critical thinker when it comes to our reality in the U.S. It means that you are politically aware and ACTIVE in creating change for our gente. You can be Mexicano, Mexican-America, Latino, Salvadorian, Apache, etc. and still be a CHICANO.

Aztlan is not as the 1970's activists would say "the land stolen from Mexico"..... because quite frankly that land was stolen by Spain, England, France, etc. from the indigenous people who were hear already for over 50,000 years.

So to a modern 21st century CHICANO, where ever there are Mexcoehuani (Nahuatl for those that have arisen from Mexico) AZTLAN is there.

..."Can you be Chicano but be against illegal immigration? Vote for Mitt Romney? Can anybody major in Chicano studies?..." If you are a Chicano, you will see the deep historical and economic reality of "illegal immigrantion" a reality that goes far beyond the hateful 5 second soundbits of Fox News. If you are a Chicano you will see that the true effects of the Mitt Romney world is anti-poor and anti-diversity, so you would not be voting for that, and ANYONE can major in CHICANA/O studies!!!! :)

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | March 9, 2013 at 11:30 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago


What would you call a white person who is proud of their European roots? A person who has become politically active in creating positive change for those of European descent in America? Would you say wherever there are whites, Europe is there? If you are white would you naturally see the "true effects" of Obama and thus voting for him would be impossible?

Without a doubt, Chicano studies serve to reinforce ethnocentrism and clearly SDSU is accepting of it. But is it a bad thing in our modern society? Is it now ok for a white person to similarly study and express the same activism for their own culture?

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Avatar for user 'DesdeLaLogan'

DesdeLaLogan | March 9, 2013 at 11:59 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I refuse the premise of this story. Chicanos don't know they are Chicanos until they take a Chicano Studies course. I know. I was one of them. Chicano Studies is thriving at City College and my alma mater, Mesa College, where I became a Chicano. This week Mesa College's Chicano Studies Department received an $80,000 endowment from Gracia Molina de Pick. A sign that Chicano Studies is here to stay.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | March 10, 2013 at 3:22 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

'JeanMarc | March 7, 2013 at 2:22 p.m. ― 2 days, 12 hours ago
I can't really think of any career a degree in Chicano studies would prepare someone for. Can someone please enlighten me?"

I can think of many. Careers in public health, for example. Health disparities exist in many communities, and someone with a dual public health/Chicano studies degree is important to addressing these issues in the Latino community.

Journalism and political science are two others that come to mind.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | March 10, 2013 at 3:29 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I really enjoy Adrian Florido's reporting. He is such a cute young man, but his journalistic skills are those of someone with years of experience. When I'm up in LA the PBS station there runs his stories having to do with border issues. Keep up the great work, when I hear your name I know it's going to be a balanced, reliable piece.

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Avatar for user 'DesdeLaLogan'

DesdeLaLogan | March 11, 2013 at 9:27 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

My SDFP column on Mesa College Chicano Studies:

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