This past week, we started our fall classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As I have done for the last several years, I am teaching our large Introduction to Chicano Studies class with over 500 students. This class is focused on the history of Chicanos/Latinos in the United States. The great majority of students in this lower-division class are new freshman of which about 70 percent are Chicanos/Latinos.
I always arrive early for the initial class in order to stand outside the lecture hall and introduce myself to the students and to learn who they are and where they are from. I feel like a politician running for office. I’m always excited about this fall class and about the energy that I sense from our new students who are just starting out their college careers. I feel a great responsibility to put my best foot forward for them.
For the students, it is for many the first time in a classroom setting that they hear and learn about the history and presence of Chicanos/Latinos within the United States that is a very deep one despite the lingering stereotype that they are more recent additions to the country. Some Mexican Americans, for example, can trace their ancestry to the early Spanish settlements in locations such as New Mexico. This long history, as I told my students the first day of class, is why they are attending school in a place called Santa Barbara and why many of them come from places such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento. These place names, I add, did not come with the Mayflower.
It is important that we understand and learn about the significant Chicano/Latino presence and experience in the U.S. for two basis reasons.
One is practical. As the largest race minority in the country at about 46 million people making up about 16% of the total population and estimated to become 25% before 2050, we need to know who these people are, what their history and experience in the U.S. has been, and how they have adjusted. This is important, I tell my students, because all of them whether they become teachers, doctors, lawyers, business people, or whatever other profession they seek will have to deal with this significant and growing Latino population. Knowing who they are beyond stereotypes will determine much of the future of our country.
The second reason, I note, is more intellectual.
We cannot fully know or appreciate the history and culture of the U.S. if we don’t incorporate all groups who have contributed to the American experience. For too long, we have only provided our students part of that history and now given the changing demographics, it is even more important to in a more inclusive way present American history by including previously excluded groups such as Chicanos/Latinos.
Later after my class, I couldn’t help but reflect on how this more expansive and inclusive view of American history and culture is still resisted by many. Arizona recently adopted a law through their state legislature outlawing the teaching of Chicano Studies in the high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools of that state under the argument that such classes encourage separatism and hatred of whites. This is total nonsense and tells us more about the supporters of such legislation who fear change than the proponents of such curriculum.
I think of how privileged our students at UC Santa Barbara are that they can take classes such as mine where they can learn more about the full history of the U.S. and a history that is also the future of the country. Let us hope this future is built on knowledge and reason rather than fear, stereotyping, and scapegoating.