Dolores Huerta gives a lecture at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Chicano studies at Cal State LA.J. Emilio Flores / Cal State LA

When Dolores Huerta took the stage at California State University at Los Angeles to address a room of more than 600 people at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies department on Thursday, she began with a reflection. “It was actually here in the city of Los Angeles where the Chicano movement started,” she said. That activism was the only reason she was in the room at all, the reason this Chicano studies program—the first in the nation—had come to be in the first place.

Cal State LA’s program, founded in 1968, came at the beginning of ethnic studies at American universities. It presented a different approach to teaching history by focusing on one ethnic group and its relationship to the rest of the United States, instead of the previously standard “dates and places” approach to American history. This spread across the country; now there are dozens of Latino studies programs and departments at U.S. colleges. Since the founding of Latino/Chicano studies, a similar approach has been used to develop other ethnic studies programs, such as African American studies and Asian American studies. The students who take these classes, the vast majority of whom come from the marginalized communities being studied, have the opportunity to study their own identity and political histories, often for the first time in their academic careers.

These departments offer their own courses and house their own majors; instead of focusing on Latin American politics or the history of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, students learn about what it means to be a Latino in the United States. Each differs from campus to campus, though; some are not “departments” but “programs”, meaning that faculty members are jointly appointed from other departments. The names of the departments also vary dramatically, depending on when and where they were established; for example, Chicano studies departments came along in response to the Chicano movement of the 1960s that fought for civil rights, Puerto Rican studies became popular among New York public campuses, and Latino studies departments were established to study Latinidad as a transnational identity.

This kind of scholarship wasn’t taken seriously by academia before this time, says Dolores Delgado Bernal, the chair of Cal State LA’s Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies, and it didn’t come easily. Change came along because students—both black and Latino—pushed for better curriculums at both Cal State LA and local high schools that served hundreds of Mexican American students.

Cal State LA's campus is located near one of the most pivotal events in the Chicano movement: the East L.A. school walkouts of early 1968. Mexican American students living on the east side of the city were angered by their schools’ conditions; apart from facing prejudice from teachers and administrators, the dropout rate was as high as 60 percent in some of the area’s schools, which were made up of over 75 percent Mexican American students; they were also often put into trade classes in lieu of college prep ones. Over the course of a week, 15,000 students walked out of classes en masse carrying signs that read “WE DEMAND SCHOOLS THAT TEACH” and “WE ARE NOT ‘DIRTY MEXICANS.’” They came with a list of demands: no more beatings for speaking Spanish, more Mexican American teachers and administrators, and a curriculum that included Mexican American history and bilingual education. Local Chicano college students who had helped to organize the high schoolers also called for similar additions to their curriculums.

That fall, Cal State L.A. launched the Mexican American Studies Program, which would later be renamed Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies. The program started with four interdisciplinary courses focusing on history, culture, psychology, political science, and Chicano literature, all with the express aim to combat the “negative portrayal of Americans of Mexican ancestry in U.S. literature and the media” and prepare students for careers in a variety of fields, according to their website.

For many Latino and Latina students, this was the first time they had the opportunity to study their own history; it’s something that K-12 education rarely teaches well, says James W. Loewen, the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me. In his studies of American history textbooks, Loewen has found that students often are not exposed to the histories of large swaths of the country’s population, including Latinos. Textbooks “see our past from the vantage point of New England,” he says, which ignores the fact that for much of history, the Spanish controlled a large part of what is now U.S. territory, and the indigenous people who lived there.

Even the parts of Latin American and Latino history that are taught in American textbooks, Loewen told me, have gaping omissions. For example, he says that most textbooks include some explanation of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor” foreign policy of non-intervention in Central and South America, but few mention what Loewen calls America’s “Bad Neighbor” policy—the legacy of “Manifest Destiny” and imperialism in Latin America. “In our history textbooks, that’s usually handled, if at all, in the passive voice, like ‘Troops were ordered into Haiti,’” Loewen says.

Mexican American studies wasn’t the only ethnic-studies program that Cal State LA established at the time; they also established a Pan-African studies department in 1969,  the second-oldest in the country after the one at San Francisco State University. Since then, ethnic-studies departments across the country have grown to include Asian American, Native American and Indigenous, and comparative ethnic studies.

Ethnic-studies classes, then, can be a corrective to students’ previous Eurocentric education, revealing these concealed histories. Delgado Bernal has noticed that all of her students, Latino and non-Latino, have had “lightbulb moments” in the classes that she has taught, realizing that they had never before learned about seminal events like the East L.A. walkouts in school.

Courses like these can also give Latino and Latina students the tools to understand their present experiences. At many colleges, Latino students are navigating a predominantly white environment, but even at majority-Latino schools like Cal State LA, Delgado Bernal says that these courses can help these students better understand their own lives. In one of Delgado Bernal’s courses, she spends the first half of the semester teaching theory to give her students basic concepts about race relations, class differences, and gender roles in order to make sense of history as they’re learning it. Then, she has them write personal essays about their relationships to the theories they’ve learned.

“In story after story, students say, ‘[High school] counselors told me not to take that class because I probably wouldn’t go to college anyway,’ or ‘I’m the first in my family to go to school,’” she says. “And now they have tools to understand the microaggressions they’ve experienced or the economic struggles in this society, and that they’re not the only ones.”

Since 1968, Cal State LA’s Chicana(o) and Latina(o) studies department has grown from four classes to 150. It currently has 55 students majoring in Mexican American studies, a number that has grown by nearly 40 percent over the past year, she says. Research has shown that taking just one Latino or Chicano studies course can “significantly” improve Chicano students’ self-image, improve first-generation Latino students’ sense of feeling community on campus, or increase their academic engagement.

“It opens up their minds to see their history, see themselves, see their culture,” she says. “And in the political climate that we’re in, it gives them the theoretical tools to analyze what’s happening, and to be able to have tools and skills to respond.”

At many institutions, the legacy of ethnic-studies programs has shaped the requirements that students have to fulfill for graduation. Delgado Bernal notes that many campuses now have a “diversity” course requirement, and that Cal State LA also has an even more specific “race and ethnicity” requirement, and many of those classes are housed in her department. Even if other history classes are taught from Eurocentric viewpoints, she says, all students are exposed to the ethnic-studies curriculum at some point in college.

The effects of this focus have also trickled down to the high-school level in some places; lawmakers in California are pushing to make ethnic studies a high-school graduation requirement, while the Texas State Board of Education approved an elective ethnic-studies course in April that can be taught throughout the state. Some initiatives are based in specific school districts, such as Seattle, where educators are developing a curriculum “incorporating the history, culture and literary experience” of marginalized groups.

To be sure, many people have raised critiques of these kinds of programs, some claiming it breeds racial resentment. That was the argument that led lawmakers in Arizona to ban ethnic studies programs in 2010. (A judge struck down the ban in 2017.) Others have said these classes do more advocacy than teaching. Victor Davis Hanson, a historian at the Hoover Institution, once called ethnic studies students “zealous advocates who lacked the broad education necessary to achieve their predetermined politicized ends.” In a more tongue-in-cheek way, the journalist Gustavo Arellano recently wrote that he used to “ridicule” Chicano studies as “achieving little more than inspiring third-generation Mexican Americans from Whittier to change their name to Xipe or Xochitl from Bryan or Yennifer. (He now supports the field, he writes, and has taught classes himself.)

It’s worth noting that Latino studies departments and programs, even within the few schools that house them, only have as much clout in shaping the curriculum as administrators will allow them. Cal State L.A.’s department currently has fewer than five full-time, tenure-track faculty, less than half the size of larger departments like political science or history. And having full-time faculty isn’t a given for schools where Latino studies is a "program" and not a "department."

Part of these departments’ and programs’ power, then, comes from the courses’ ability to transform students’ thinking. Delgado Bernal notes that many of the people who take the department’s courses are studying to become educators. And if this has a ripple effect—future teachers learning the histories that they can pass onto their students, who can pass them on even further—then these small departments can have a far-reaching legacy.

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