By Dennis J. Bernstein, January 20, 2012
Dr. Carlos Muñoz is one of the key pioneers in Ethnic Studies and Chicano Studies in the country. Dr. Muñoz was the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Department in the nation in 1968, at the California State University at Los Angeles. He’s also the founding chair of the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies. He’s the author of numerous pioneering works on the Mexican American political experience and on African American and Latino political coalitions. His book “Youth, Identify, Power, the Chicano Movement” won the Gustavus Myers Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Study of Human Rights in the United States.
Dennis J. Bernstein: Dr. Carlos Muñoz, let me get your initial response to what happened in Tucson with the banning of Mexican American Studies and the books on that curriculum.
Carlos Muñoz: I don’t have the words to express my anger at what’s taken place in Tucson, Arizona. It’s just simply unbelievable. I mean, never did I expect such a thing at this point in time in history, after over forty years of scholarship on the Chicano experience in the United States, where scholars of Mexican American background and other scholars of color have collectively made a profound, profound contribution to the body of knowledge of people of color in this country. People have to take to the streets, as they are doing in Tucson. This is an issue that has become, I think, very, very critical and deserves the support of all Americans, regardless of race and ethnic backgrounds. It is just ridiculous.
Dennis J. Bernstein: We were speaking with teachers and students in Tucson who told us that the Mexican American Studies program was incredibly effective, that students were succeeding, students who were dropping out before were now staying in school and going on to higher education. Could you talk about how that happens, why it’s so important for these students and the school system, which is 61 percent Mexican American?
Carlos Muñoz: If you’re a student and you don’t hear about people like yourself in the making of history in this nation, you are bound to feel somewhat inferior. I’ve gone through that when I was a kid. My God, it’s all white history, and all the heroes were white. And you never heard about the good things that were done by folks of color in our society, in the building of this nation. Prior to the emergence of Ethnic Studies and
Chicano Studies in the universities there were no books about the Chicano experience. All we heard about Mexicans was they are criminals, they are drunkards, the women are whores. There were all these racist, negative stereotypes that were promoted in the movies, on television, and in the newspapers. So the consequence of that, historically, was what I call the colonization of the mind, where young people of Mexican descent were pushed into thinking they were inferior.
Now, what’s happened in Tucson, has been a remarkable, remarkable process of decolonization, where teachers, staff members, and the school district had the courage to develop a program of
Mexican American Studies. The first by the way, the only one in the whole country, at the public school level.
And the consequences have been remarkable. The Mexican American Studies program has resulted in a radical turnabout in terms of young people becoming proud of their heritage, becoming proud of the fact that they learned that they come from ancestors who have made contributions, profound contributions, to civilizations throughout the Americas. That fact alone is incredible—an intangible contribution to boosting the feeling of being worthy as human beings. And that kind of feeling is very, very important to have in order for young people to succeed in life, beyond public school.
So now these white politicians want to return to the days of the 1950s, previous to the Chicano movement and other civil rights movements in this country, to try to “Americanize” and recolonize the minds of young people in the state of Arizona.
Dennis J. Bernstein: You get the strong feeling that they really don’t want these students to succeed, that they want to keep these kids down.
Carlos Muñoz: I agree. I wholeheartedly agree. Arizona has become even more “Mexican” than ever. And these white politicians envision that out of all these young people developing a critical thinking capacity and proud identity that they are going to become the future politicians of Arizona, and that’s a scary thing for these guys. “My God, man, we’ll not only have undocumented workers; we’re going to have people now who are getting into powerful positions in the future that are going to take away what belongs to ‘us.’ ”
And so I think that’s the bottom line here. They want to put a stop to this process of producing young leaders that are going to speak truth to power, and are going to make a difference in the future in terms of turning the tide against racism.
Dennis J. Bernstein: I’m thinking about the books that were just banned: “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire, “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” by Rodolfo Acuña, a good friend of yours. Talk about what white politicians might be afraid of that’s inside these beautiful books.
Carlos Muñoz: Well, they are afraid of the truth. You know, the truth hurts. Rodolfo Acuna’s incredible path-breaking book put out a history, a true history of America, in a sense that he documents, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the nature of our society and how, in fact, Mexican Americans in particular have struggled for social justice throughout the history here of this country. And it is just remarkable that all this knowledge that “Occupied America” represents—they don’t want to acknowledge it.
So basically it’s an ideological struggle, it’s a cultural war, in Arizona between those who espouse the racist framework that maintains that white Eurocentric thought should be predominant in public education versus those of us who have struggled against that and have created a more truthful history of our society, and who have gone out of our way collectively to push forth a more visionary process of education that is inclusive of all people, not just Mexican Americans.
Dennis J. Bernstein: It’s troubling that this comes in the context of the new civil rights movement for immigrant workers—the workers who do the hardest work in this country that we all depend on. And it’s sort of a way to build the borders higher even for those who are citizens in this country: building walls around their lives and condemning their kids to a life less than they deserve.
Carlos Muñoz: Yeah, there’s an effort definitely to put down Mexican Americans in Arizona there, to criminalize them, to make them into social outcasts, not worthy of being “American” unless, of course, they take the path of assimilation into the dominant culture, which, by the way, won’t be so dominant pretty soon. Whether some white people like it or not, we’re going to be the majority in this country. But the point here is not so much to romanticize that people of color are going to take “power.” The point is to recognize that when we honor this diversity of American culture, there will come about a more humanistic society that is going to place its emphasis on social justice and peace, and not war and violence.
This is an edited version of the interview Dennis J. Bernstein did with Carlos Muñoz on KPFA’s “Flashpoints.” Bernstein’s book of poems, Special Ed, Voices from a Hidden Classroom will be released in February.