Cover art, "Nopal and Colibre," by Sergio Hernandez
BEWARE! The “concerted act of forgetting”
Excerpt from Assault on Mexican American CollectiveMemory, 2010–2015
By Rodolfo Acuña
Certain members of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) at its January 2018 meeting ignored expert testimony on an agenda item proposing a standardized curriculum and statewide academic standards for the teaching of Mexican American Studies (MAS) in Texas’ public schools. Instead, those SBOE members suggested the Board consider “Latino Studies,” an entirely different basis for a vote at the board’s next meeting on April 11. MAS is taught across the state, but no statewide standards exist, thus guidance is vital for both the significant number of MAS courses and for publishers to write textbooks according to these standards. In other words, the Texas SBOE could be voting on a measure that would effectively undercut MAS as an expanding field of study dating back 50 years. This is prologue to the excerpt below by a preeminent Chicano scholar, which addresses this very idea of erasing memory by renaming existing knowledge and undermining the educational development of millions of Mexican American students. —Editor’s note
By Rodolfo Acuña
In her book Captive Women: Oblivion and Memory in Argentina, Susana Rotker writes that her lack of memory left her without a sense of history. Memory, according to Rotker, represents the identity of individuals, social groups, and nations and that to “forget and to remember are not opposites; they are the very weave of representation.”1 She continues, “I have no memory of my childhood because no story was ever told of it.” Her forgetting includes Argentina’s colonial past, when genocidal wars were waged against Indians and in which Africans were used as cannon fodder. The act of erasing history is not in the distant past. During the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976–1983, about thirty thousand people were detained or disappeared—thousands more were executed by so-called security forces.2 It is not surprising that many of the Argentine plutocrats want to forget; similarly Germans denied the horror of the Holocaust. The “concerted act of forgetting” is ongoing throughout the Americas. Americans, Chileans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans all want to forget their genocides. 3 Fortunately, there are those who want to remember and search for the truth, as in the case of Guatemala and Argentina. Native Americans today are resurrecting this collective memory at Standing Rock in North Dakota. 4 Every day the erased memory of African genocides are becoming part of our consciousness. 5 Assault on Mexican American Collective Memory, 2010–2015 is about ongoing efforts to erase the memory of Mexican Americans in Arizona and California and the endeavors of Mexicans to preserve their identity. It is a struggle that is intensifying with the growing Mexican/Latino population as they attempt to construct a counter-narrative. 6 The scapegoats are Mexican American programs in Arizona, Texas, and even liberal California. 7 It is no accident that these programs and the immigrants themselves are seen as threats. Representative of the dominant narrative is the documentary Waiting for Superman premiered in 2010. Pushed by the nation’s plutocrats, it is an example of propaganda posing as fact; the documentary is reminiscent of World War II movies that demonized the enemy.8 University of Wisconsin professors Katy Swalwell and Michael W. Apple posit that “[d]ominant groups listen carefully to the language and issues that come from below,” and they then “creatively appropriate the language and issues” to fit their interests. They define the problems and the solutions interpreting the social world and designate the solution of “our” problems and who can fix them.9
Superman are the charter schools and the plutocrats that are pushing them; the villains are the unions and the teachers. In Arizona the good guys are white politicos, the snowbirds, and the Tea Party; the bad guys are the Mexicans—the aliens, that is, body snatchers. This infantile reductionism is possible because of the absence of a free and critical press that does not report or search for the truth. The rise of Donald Trump was possible because of a lack of critical commentary and a counter-narrative. The failure of critical thinking thus prevents an intelligent discussion.10 [In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. He nominated Betsy DeVos, a Republican mega-donor to lead the Education Department. DeVos, fifty-eight, chaired the American Federation for Children that aggressively pushed charter schools and school voucher programs.11] I began posting on Facebook in 2012 at the age of eighty to find a counter-narrative to test neoliberal assumptions that spewed all levels of contemporary society. I wanted to distinguish fact from fantasy by finding and exposing counter points of views. A thin line exists between what is true and what is imagined. I wanted to expand my base of knowledge, and Facebook in most cases represents oppositional viewpoints. Admittedly I also wanted to push a political agenda as well as support the Tucson Unified School District Save Ethnic Studies movement. While I definitely found the other side, I also found a lot of fake news that had to be corrected.12 The book’s first three chapters concentrate on Arizona; they are a refresher course on racism. Coming from California, I had not heard the words spic or greaser for some time. This exploration led me to ask why people want to forget and why they don’t want others to remember. One of the threads is Arizona’s sun, which can only be appreciated if you’ve spent a snowy winter on the east coast, in the Midwest, or in Western Europe. Arizona is a favorite refuge for elderly white retirees, popularly known as snowbirds. It is estimated that as many as four hundred thousand snowbirds live or visit Arizona permanently or seasonally. Drawn to the sunshine, they compete for space with large and small convention facilities across the state. Low-cost airfares also contribute to the in-migration.13 The snowbirds spend on medical care; most have health insurance and/or Medicare. Being old means they have more money than the younger Mexican population, and politicos ferry them to the polls on election days. Snowbirds vote and have money—that gives them power.14 A 2003–2004 Arizona State University study reported that during the visitor season, the snowbird population spent $1 billion; for a small state, that is considerable.15 The report also states that from January through March 2008, the peak winter-visiting season, the refugees spent $6 billion. 16 According to ex-Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, “Over the next 15 years, the average age of Arizona’s population will steadily rise. In fact, by 2020, one in four Arizonans will be over the age of 60.”17 In 2015, the population of Arizona was estimated at 6,828,065 persons, which is less than the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Blacks or African Americans were 4.8 percent; American Indian and Alaska Native, 5.3 percent; Asian, 3.4 percent; and Hispanic or Latino, 30.7 percent. The rumbling was already noticeable among the snowbirds who feared that they were losing their state to the Mexicans.18 Its size and historical presence shone a spotlight on the Mexican population, and whites panicked that they were taking over. A March 2014 study reported that the median age for whites was forty-five compared with twenty-five for Latinos, and that increased numbers of Latino voters were altering the shape of state politics.19 Whites were growing older and by 2010 the xenophobia became irrational.20 America’s Voice wrote, “Hispanic voters in Arizona have absorbed the brunt of the harsh political environment state Republicans crafted around immigration and Latino identity issues (e.g., language policy, ethnic studies, and voting rights).21 White news commentators said the anti-Mexican climate was “perfectly reasonable.” There was very little criticism of the new Supermen like the despotic Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the gun-toting beer-bellied white males who strut through the streets. Just like vampire movies scared viewers, the Mexican threat was propagated to scare the snowbirds into voting and contributing to the Republican Party. They felt that the Supermen would protect the snowbirds, who felt safe seeing white men strutting around with holstered pistols. Meanwhile, the xenophobes exaggerated the impact of immigration, and they worked to erase the community’s historical memory. The first three chapters of the book are about the struggle to remember and to preserve the community’s collective historical memory. 22 With age, the importance of a collective historical memory becomes more pressing. Memory is very personal and you remember what others have told you about history and find yourself referencing the present with what you learned about the past.23 As a historian, for instance, I remember the 1921 and 1930s’ repatriations of Mexicans and the assaults on the foreign-born in the 1960s and 1980s and reference them to today. This memory is further enhanced by talking to friends and relatives. Walks through communities give a sense of place and bring back memories.24 Remembering is important, and the value of history is the creation of a collective historical memory. 25 The purpose of the culture wars is to erase memory: “Collective memory is a product of ideological construction that can be used as a key element in the elaboration of collective identity.”26 An interactive process gives political and social significance to events. It is linked to an awareness of a collective past. In the absence of a written history, memory is preserved by the members of the community through various methods.27 The struggles of the past five or six years show how the dominant society benefits from the control or erasure of minorities’ collective historical memory. National and local ruling elites use misconceptions and misunderstandings as part of the erasure process. The erasure keeps the dominant structure intact and allows the socialization of individuals within the minority community.28 Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity writes, “[T]he oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves; mystification is one of the forms of oppression.”29 Arizona and California are no different and are riddled with collaborators of all definitions. The disaffected seek legitimacy through an unconscious and even open collaboration. This book is not written for academics; it is for students and community folk. Meta-language is great, but you may not be connecting with your intended reader. A street dude may get a lot more from graffiti images than from an elaborately constructed word puzzle. Historical photos make memories vivid; they invite the reader to break down his or her thoughts. Language is a weapon; it is used to maintain social control thus it is essential to take back a narrative closer to the truth. White radicals during the 1960s were being beaten up by gang kids in the housing projects because they believed party members were talking down to them by using terms such as “historical materialism.” If people do not understand you, it is your fault. As Rotker put it, “The mode of representing reality is usually much more important than reality itself.”30 The first chapter deals with 2010. It had been formed by the aftershocks of the George W. Bush years and the widening income inequality that further marginalized Mexican Americans and Latinas/os. America changed and for many it became a nation of lost dreams. The only ones who seemed to believe in America and its fictional dream were the immigrants who wanted in on the seduction of the American Dream and the super patriots. 31 Two themes recur: the struggle to save ethnic studies and the privatization of Arizona and higher education. The year 2006 in terms immigration was historic; like California’s Proposition 187 (1994), it produced a generation of activists. By then it was clear that the immigrant community lost fear and like other oppressed people were fighting back by mounting massive protests in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, with smaller protests throughout the nation. 32 On April 10, 2006, millions of Latinos, many of whom were immigrants, took to the streets of 140 U.S. cities. It was one of a series of marches demonstrating that immigrants were tired of being afraid, tired of being intimidated by ICE and extralegal groups such as the Tea Party and minutemen. 33 After 2006, they could not, would not, be ignored. Immigrants had formed a collective memory or consciousness—they had no choice. The immigrant, like so many repressed minorities, came out of the closet. Within the immigrant community were the Dreamers who had been raised in the United States and found it natural to make human rights demands. Moreover, the Dreamers were a high tech generation using the Internet to communicate, and they were for the most part bilingual. 2008 was a presidential election year with U.S.-born Mexicans/Latinos making up 60 percent of the Latino population growth between 2000 and 2010.34 Assault on Mexican American Collective Memory, 2010–2015 is subtitled Swimming with Sharks to underscore the viciousness of the Republican and corporate establishment that infested the political waters with sharks, 35 which muffle and confuse calls for help. These sharks are a different breed from everyday street sharks. The sharks control memory to confuse the swimmers. In order to swim with the sharks, it is vital to preserve the collective memory of those trying to survive and not to let them forget how to swim, to keep the collective memory of others who have survived alive, and to expose the myth that they can individually swim with the sharks. The author has spent three-quarters of his life in the Chicana/o movement and Chicana/o studies. His footprints resuscitate the collective memory that a community needs to defend itself from the sharks. This survival is important to me because they are the memories of my parents and their parents. I do not believe in a hereafter, so I know that I will be part of this world for as long as I am remembered. Death is being forgotten. The rich and famous preserve their memories for as long as they can remain part of the community of sharks. They carve their names and their causes into buildings. The famous and the infamous write books to embellish their images, to make them appear to be Supermen. In order for them to be the protagonists, it is essential to wipe out the memories of the poor and the viciousness of the sharks. They destroy communities to control these memories, memories that warn people about the sharks, and the lives of the poor are blown away without a trace, like dust in the desert. Within a couple of generations, it is as if they never existed. Meanwhile, the rich appear as benefactors who give endowments, have buildings named after them, and have their portraits painted. The rich thus live forever. 36 In writing about Chicanas/os I benefited by coming from a stable home; life gives me the opportunity to chisel my footprints into stone. Publications mark my journey and record my memories. Admittedly these footprints meander. When was young and idealistic, I believed that Chicana/o studies would shift public discourse through the creation of Chicano thought. I believed that I could swim alone with the sharks. In 1969, however, I realized that few paid attention to or cared about U.S. Mexicans. Consider that Mesoamerican religions are among the few major world religions that have not been preserved. The history of the Mexican American is transnational. Just like people it has no borders. Thus Mexico is always with us. The events of 2014 shook our illusions of México Lindo and it awakened us from illusions that we had a foot on each side of the border. The reality was that Mexico is a graveyard. The disappearance of the forty-three Ayotzinapa normalistas (normal school students) killed any moral authority that the Mexican state had. It also exposed American complicity in the moral decay of the Mexican state and civil society, and it highlighted the reality that México Lindo exists only in Mexican Americans’ minds. The reality is that the political process is an illusion created by political parties that “excite people” and give them hope that they can win peacefully without a revolution. Mexican Americans are the oldest and most numerous of the Latino groups. This is partially because they have had more time to evolve within the system. Moreover, they share a two-thousand-mile border with the United States. Mexico is also the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in Latin America with a population of 127 million people. Democrats and Republicans delude them into thinking that they are political players and that their population will give them a share of economic and political bounties. 37 Our historical memory is being co-opted and warped by the media that sees history through the eyes of the so-called Hispanic leaders. Without any historical reflection, they erase the terms Mexican, Mexican American, and Chicana/o and substitute non-people words such as Hispanic and Latino. Meanwhile, many Chicana/o leaders have become cheerleaders for “Hispanic Power,” chanting, “We’re Number 1.” Communities are trenches and firewalls that shield minorities from the sharks’ attempts to erase their collective memories and recollections of past struggles.38 When Mexican Americans and Latinos talk about a community, they generally refer to their barrio, their colonia. It can also refer to their nationality—their people, their paisanos/as. “To be part of a community, you have to be bonded with it and care about it. Love begins and ends with responsibility. The people in a community remember common struggles, they share memories, they remember past losses and victories, and rejoice and anguish with what went right and wrong.”39 Devon Peña often quotes Jacques Derrida: “Memory is a moral obligation, all the time.”40 Historical memory, specifically collective memory, is the subject of much of this book.41 The canons of most disciplines are similar. They center on sincerity, truthfulness, and accuracy. The problem is that professionals are human beings and many often bring their biases and their ambitions to their work. They are not impartial, they do not always tell the truth, and they do not differentiate between fact and opinion.
Rodolfo F. Acuña, a janitor and then a teacher in the Los Angeles City Schools from 1956–1965, earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California in Latin American Studies. In 1969, Acuña was the founding chair of Chicano Studies at San Fernando Valley State (today California State University Northridge), where he is now Professor Emeritus of Chicano Studies. His seminal work on Chicano history,Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, is in its 8th edition (Longman, 2015). He has also written three children’s books and, a prolific historian, always has another book in the works. Lexington Books (2017) is publisher of Assaulton MexicanAmericanCollectiveMemory,2010–2015.