Chicano Studies: Held in Trust

Chicana Studies MutualistaA simple definition of trust is “one in which confidence is placed” in someone or something else. It can be extended to products and/or future behavior. For example, I have often heard friends say, “Our relationship is founded on mutual love and trust.” The term is common to most languages.

It is embedded in Mexican culture in the choice of a padrino or madrina (godparent) for our children or a best man or woman at our weddings. At one time, the words carried the sense that it established a familial tie, and if something happened to you, they would take care of your family.

Euro-Americans are much more practical; they are called witnesses and do not necessarily form familial bonds. For instances, white people don’t go around referring to each other as padrino or madrina. Of course, the custom varies from religion to religion.

In our complex society, there are legal trusts that establish a relationship between parties. This has become more formal as society becomes more complex and more property is involved. No longer do we trust a person based on a handshake.

In legal trusts you have a trustee or fiduciary that has the power to manage property for the beneficiary who is to receive the benefits from that property. The trusts can be used for the benefit of individuals or charitable gifts. In essence, you are saying that you trust the trustee to be honest—to act like family.

I guess I am ambivalent about the word trust, and I believe in the old adage that says not to trust anyone who says “trust me.” That is why I liked the godfather’s advice of “keeping your friends close but your enemies closer.”

In Texas, they used to say “Never trust a Mexican smoking a cigar or a Gringo speaking Spanish!” In other words, never trust a politician, or in my case, never trust the system. All these sayings address the betrayal of a trust.

However, in the last analysis you have to trust someone or get involved in pursuits that that do not involve trusting others – which brings me to why we build institutions. When you put so much energy into building an institution, you do so because it has a mission. You are forced to rely on the good faith of those who take over after you because you have no control over the trust once you pass it on.

It is the same as when you make out a living trust to protect your family. When Mexicans migrated to the United States, although they had once owned it, they were “Strangers in the Land.” They formed mutualistas, mutual aid societies, to protect their families. They trusted the other members to give the benefits to their family.

When I got involved in Chicana/o studies I figuratively joined a mutualista. I did not have to like everyone involved but I had to trust them. Sure there would be betrayals, but we trusted that that we all had the same goal and that we were forging through the sacrifice of students and our own careers something that was lasting. What we were doing was putting Chicana/o studies in trust for the community. The goal was to not only seed a generation of Chicana/o students but to instill in them a cultural bond that went beyond “me.”

Chicana Studies MutualistaWhy would we stay in Chicana/o studies if it had no meaning? I got paid more as a community college instructor than I did as a state college professor, and with three K-12 texts in publication and two book contracts with a university press, all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and wait. But, I guess I never grew up, and I had to answer, why am I here? Why did I get a Ph.D.?

We were fortunate at California State University Northridge (AKA San Fernando Valley State). We had a great bunch of students, many of whom shared the vision of the “we.” Because of them, we offer 166 sections per semester and have close to 70 full time and part time instructors. So what am I ruminating about?

My fear is that over the years both faculty and students have lost the sense that they owe the past and are holding Chicana/o studies in trust for future generations.

The truth be told, faculty members have changed in the perception of their trust. Their interests are not necessarily governed by the “we” and often border on the “me” – more office space, too many students in my classes, and complaints over the lack of preparation of students. The feeling that they are there to serve the people has become secondary to their careers.

In many some ways, we daily betray our trust. Many advocated for what amounts to a two day work schedule, although they knew damn well that 50 minute classes are more conducive to learning than 90 minutes sessions. The bottom line is 50 minute classes force them to be on campus five days a week. Professors parachute into campus, avoiding student functions, selectively catering to students, and building their individual bubbles.

I have often said that the challenge of Chicana/o studies is not to administer it. Once established it grows through its own momentum; the challenge is to grow Chicana/o studies. The history of labor unions shows the dangers of going to bed with management. You end up eating dinner with executives and playing golf with them. I guess that I just believe that in order to grow, it has to be “them and us!”

There are so many ways that we are collaborating in the demise of Chicana/o studies: approving joint offerings of our course titles without insisting on conditions; the lack of holding the administration accountable for affirmative action; the lack of an aggressive strategy for growing the department. At CSUN, programs have been eliminated such as the social science waiver in education, and we have acquiesced.

It is difficult to jam someone who you play golf with or socialize with, or you call padrino.

As of late I have been disappointed with students. Their main function hypothetically is to enforce the “trust.” When I took the job of putting together Chicana/o studies in 1969, I pledged that if MEChA gave me a vote of non-confidence that I would resign. It was a sign of how much trust that I had in the power and idealism of students.

Today, students do not have this sense of duty. They complain about the faculty but they won’t do much about it. The “me” trumps the “we.”

My main concern is that many students have forgotten that they are holding what others earned in struggle in trust, and it is not theirs to do as they please. They can destroy the department, for example, but that is a betrayal of trust. They can ignore the laziness of faculty members, which is also a betrayal of a trust.

Recently MEChA voted to go along with the dean and faculty members in what amounts to giving away half the Chicana/o House to other groups. I have no problem with the other groups – they are deserving. What I am objecting to is acquiescing with the dean who took the easy way out by taking from Chicana/o studies.

My point is that we should have joined them in pressuring the administration to find space for them. We should not have taken the easy way and bailed out the administration. (It is easy to be generous with what is not yours).

When we gave up a total of four positions to help students establish Central American students, we did not do it because the administration was ordering us. We merely recognized that Central American students had reached an impasse. The administration was not about to give them a program, and student leaders such as Siris Barrios were deserving.

After this, administrators took credit for Central American Studies, but kept coming back to the department to furnish office space, clerical assistance and the like. It is not that we begrudged the support but it was the institutions’ duty to furnish resources. Central American and Native American studies are two areas that the administration has neglected. Native Americans made the bid for a house forty years ago, and they were ignored. Native American studies should be show cased instead they are treated like step children.

rodolfo acuna

A trust often means saying “no.” When it involves other groups, it means entering into struggle with them instead of converting political space into social space. We should never acquiesce so the administration will not be inconvenienced.

Just ruminating.

Rodolfo F. Acuña

Sunday, 14 July 2013


  1. Jan B. Tucker says

    As one of Rudy’s students (took him five times and got five “A’s” off him) I can attest that what he is thinking and as he puts it, ruminating about, is on many of our minds as old Mechistas. Just today these issues were topics with some young Mechistas attending the National Chicano Moratorium Committee planning meeting at Ruben Salazar Park. Take heart though Rudy, some of us old timers (youngsters to you of course) like Miguel Perez, Jaime Cruz and I were there to give them the guidance they need to reinvigorate Mecha or to take their own activist paths independent of the existing Mechas, some of whom have degenerated into hip Chicano frats…..

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