- Max Benavidez, “– “The Raza’s Edge,” L.A. Weekly, January 10-16, 1986
Rudy Acuna, scholar-activist of Aztlan, sat among the stacks of books, dusty journals and yellowing student papers in his office at Cal State Northridge, dressed in his usual blue jeans and a casual cotton shirt. The lead stories in the morning paper were about Latinos. One announced that Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department had filed suit against the L.A. City Council for deliberately fragmenting Latino voting strength. The other story focused on the City Council debate over a resolution declaring Los Angeles a “City of Sanctuary.” The front-page affirmation that Latinos were news barely drew a contemptuous glance from the salt-and-pepper-haired professor.
The author of nine books, including the classic Chicano history Occupied America, Acuna is an angry man. His consciousness was forged by a father who held a strict sense of right and wrong and by the moral code of his Jesuit teachers at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.
Acuna (pronounced Ah-coon-ya) was born in the Boyle Heights district of East Los Angeles in 1933. Since those barrio days he’s been guided – some say driven – by a desire to make sure that people learn the truth about Mexicans in the United States. Along the stormy way, he’s gathered a doctorate in Latin American studies, a Rockefeller humanities fellowship and an American Council of Learned Societies Award. He’s helped build one of the largest ethnic studies programs in the country at Cal State Northridge, where he continues to live in a San Fernando Valley barrio.
L.A. Times reporter Frank del Olmo, a former Acuna student, wrote that Acuna is as known for “political activism as for his academic research into the history of the southwestern United States and the Mexican-Americans who helped build the region.” Del Olmo added that “despite his academic credentials, Acuna is also a gadfly who freely criticizes the shortcomings of the system that nurtures him. Only his reputation as a teacher and the fact that he has tenure protect him.”
It’s true. Over the last year he’s fought CSU Chancellor Dr. W. Ann Reynolds all over the map. He’s bitterly denounced her new admission requirements as “racist and elitist” because they will effectively lock out the next generation of Latino students. Reynolds’ reaction to Acuna was formulated by Dr. Ralph Bigelow, the chancellor’s chief staff officer for admissions and records, who doesn’t think all the commotion has added up to much: “We didn’t need his observations to be aware of the educational problems among Hispanics,” Bigelow sniffed coldly. “That’s a social problem that many people are aware of.”
Acuna probably knew that his efforts to stop the new rules were a long shot. Nevertheless, he stood his ground and waited outside the CSU headquarters in Long Beach with 75 Chicano and black student demonstrators on a damp, cold day in November when Reynolds and his trustees made their fateful decision. As rain clouds scudded overhead, the trustees tightened admission standards. The proposal Acuna tried so hard to stop were state university policy by the next day.
United Auto Workers organizer Eric Mann has worked with Acuna on labor-related issues, including the fight to keep the Van Nuys General Motors plant open. Acuna is an important spokesman, says Mann, because of “his moral outrage at a time when outrage is out of fashion. He’s a top-rate scholar with impeccable credentials and he’s willing to work to build a coalition.” Mann recalls that at a meeting with the president of GM, Acuna mentioned what he called a “historical affection between the Chicano and the Chevrolet” – a bond he vowed to break if GM closed down a plant where more than 50 percent of the workers are Latino.
Last spring he was honored by the progressive Liberty Hill Foundation because, as Mary Jo von Mach, the foundation’s executive director, put it, “We’ve known about Rudy for a long time.” Speaking to an audience including economist-philanthropist Stanley Sheinbaum and Ed Asner, Acuna quietly asked that they take the time to get to know his community. Although Mexicans founded this city, he said, even progressives rarely give them any thought until it’s time to hire a good housekeeper or they require the urban backdrops of the Eastside for a TV series.
All this is slowly changing. The recent election of a Mexican to the L.A. City Council, the first since 1962, growing support for the sanctuary movement and an intensifying nationwide debate over U.S. intervention in Central America will bring more attention to L.A.’s Latino community. A long piece that ran in The New York Times in December declared that a “Hispanic surge” is signaling “the coming of a new era of Hispanic political influence that will be felt beyond Los Angeles.”
This new era will bring to prominence a generation of Chicanos influenced by Acuna, who is still constantly reminding whomever will listen that there is a context that must never be forgotten: the poverty, illiteracy and history of a people who are, in his words, “a community under siege.” More and more are listening, and with unfailing precision Acuna spends his time puncturing unrealistic expectations. His prescriptions for the future are marked by an understanding of the present based on a keen study of the past. While others speak of dreams, he points to the nightmares many would prefer to ignore. While some fantasize about Hispanic power, he assesses Mexican life in L.A. circa the mid-1980s. Here are his thoughts at the beginning of 1986.
The Raza’s Edge
Benavidez: You’ve been an activist for decades. Yet, for all of your work and the work of countless others, it seems that social change has slowed. How can people who feel bogged down by this inertia get moving again?
Acuna: I’m not bogged down. I think that I was more frustrated in the ‘60s than I am today. I honestly thought changes cold be made within the system. When I look at the present structure I don’t think anything is going to change. Right now the most important thing is to be realistic. To assume that Latinos, for example, are going to gain real power is to live in a political Disneyland.
Benavidez: Why won’t Latinos gain real power?
Acuna: You have to get down to an elementary and fundamental principle. The Mexican in the U.S. today has no sense of history. The Jew, for instance, has a history, and the rest of us have incorporated that history. It’s in the Bible. It’s taught in the schools, taught to Mexicans, and it becomes part of their reality. Until recently, most Mexicans didn’t know that they’re descended from highly evolved civilizations like the Aztecs and the Mayas in Mexico.
It’s all part of building a strong self-image. But we don’t learn about this in the schools. Less than 1 percent of the high school students of Mexican extractions have ever taken a Chicano history class. Bilingual education doesn’t emphasize political or social image. Right now the common denominator for most Mexicans in the U.S., native-born or not, is oppression. What you have today are Mexicans thinking that they have equality because they’re “American.”
Benavidez: Why is it important that our community maintain a sense of history?
Acuna: I don’t think it would be as important if we didn’t have so many poor people in our community who have been traditionally poor and have the stigma attached to them. I think it’s correct to say that the poor will be poor tomorrow. The poor lose their identity. Any type of self-awareness and pride is taken away from them. They are immobilized. Mexicans, being poor, have been immobilized. This is due to lack of self-image, the lack of identification with any type of revolutionary figures. I mean, poor Zapata and Villa are fantastic figures, but besides them people don’t know about someone like Ernesto Galarza, who struggles for many years in this country. They don’t know about the Crusade for Justice, they don’t know about Jose Angel Gutierrez.
Benavidez: You say there’s this long-standing poverty within the community. And, of course, there is, but doesn’t it really boil down to a psychological dimension on the part of Latinos and others?
Acuna: It’s not psychology. It’s the structure of capitalism.
Benavidez: There are other people who face these problems and deal with them. Blacks, Jews, Koreans.
Acuna: Jews have made it? Look: In the first 100 corporations in the Fortune 500 only a minuscule fraction of corporate managers are Jews.
Benavidez: You’re saying that even with a sense of consciousness and a sense of history, people still have a lot of problems?
Acuna: Look at the Latino professionals, who, by and large, are opportunistic. They honestly believe that they help the community just by being professionals. They don’t help anyone. The only time they come back to the barrios is when they want to impress their gringo friends and eat menudo. And they come once a year. I don’t see them working with youth out there. Where are the role images? The Baldwin Hills are very close to the black ghettos, and professionals in the Baldwin Hills do work with their community. I’d like to see the Latino professional go into East Los Angeles and the other barrios, into the schools.
Benavidez: Do you think the average Jew or black knows about the people who have struggled for them?
Acuna: Yes, I do. They do have a sense of identity. I think in both cases that a sense of identity is kept intact by religion.
Benavidez: I’ve met a lot of Mexicans who have a sense of identity – through their family, their pride in their work. Sometimes they identify with their religion and with Mexico. They feel that they are struggling to make their lives better. I don’t see the difference between this sense of self and a sense of self in other oppressed groups.
Acuna: There is a difference. Look at the class relationship of Jews in this country. The overwhelming majority are middle-class. There are working-class Jews, but the bulk are middle-class. When you start to look at the census figures for Mexicans in this country you see that only one third are employed in expanding industries. That means two thirds are working in industries that may not be around in the next 20 years. They’re very vulnerable. Even the third in expanding industries are vulnerable because they are stratified in the lower segments. Poor people, in their relationship to society and those social forces that run society, are an awful lot different than people who have some social control over their environment.
Benavidez: That brings us back to the main point again: political influences and power. The Jewish community has a lot of political influences in this state. The black community is represented by the speaker of the Assembly, Willie Brown, and the mayor of Los Angeles, who is going to run for governor, is also black. But the black and Jewish populations are small compared to the Latino community.
Acuna: They see the world through a black/white perspective. They don’t see other colors. Liberal whites don’t see us. Look at the ones who sit on the CSU Board of Trustees, the system that could help make a difference for our community. It was only recently that a Chicano was appointed president at CS college, in Bakersfield, which is the smallest of all the state colleges. Until then the Cal State system had appointed only three black presidents. Blacks need these appointments. I’m not saying that they don’t. But in reality the Mexican population is considerably larger than the black population. ..
Benavidez: People are oriented towards issues like apartheid; but they do little in terms of Latino-oriented issues. Except perhaps for the sanctuary movement.
Acuna: Not even for the sanctuary movement. It hasn’t received that kind of support. The sanctuary movement has religious overtones. The other thing about the South African issue is that we’re really criticizing the South African government, not our own government.
Benavidez: Why do you think that Latino leaders, especially visible Latino politicians, don’t speak out on issues like the sanctuary movement or undocumented rights or education?
Acuna: Because I think that an awful lot of the identification with the term “Hispanic” and the movement for many Latinos is opportunistic. It’s not based on ideology or a feeling of community.
Benavidez: Would you say that Richard Alatorre [newly elected L.A. City Council member] is opportunistic?
Acuna: I’m not talking about Alatorre.
Benavidez: Are you talking about Art Torres [California Democratic state senator] or Gloria Molina [the first Latina, also a Democrat, elected to the state Assembly]?
Acuna: I’m talking about our professionals.
Benavidez: But I’m asking you about the politicians, these elected leaders of the community. What about them? They appear to avoid most controversial issues. I know a politician who shrugs his shoulders and says, “Compromise. That’s politics.”
Acuna: The more you make me think about it, I don’t know why Latino politicians haven’t come out. I think it’s a lack of courage. Compromise is one thing, but to ignore certain moral issues is wrong. The Latino legislation in the California Legislature have failed to take a strong stand against U.S. actions in Central America. So have those Latinos who sit in the U.S. Congress. Many of them will take a stand against South Africa. However, the hypocrisy of it is that they will criticize the South African government but they won’t criticize their own government, which is supporting the contras.
I’m really talking about the failure of Latino politicians. In general, they have failed to educate the Latino community regarding Central America, undocumented aliens, a whole range of issues. I’m taking about moral leadership. Many Latino elected officials are efficient politicians. But they aren’t providing more leadership.
Benavidez: You’ve often said that the term “Hispanic” is a way of Europeanizing the Chicano. Yet, you find Marxism relevant although it’s a European way of thinking. Is socialism an answer for Latinos?
Acuna: It depends on how you see the current situation. Let’s look at literacy. One third of all Americans are functionally illiterate. That means that they read below the 10th-grade level. Most of our magazines, newspapers, etc., are written at the 10th-grade level. The median level of education for Mexicans in the U.S. is below the 10th-grade level. That means that most Mexicans are illiterate. They cannot pick up a journal, they can’t pick up a newspaper and read a commentary and really get the full essence of it. These are a captive people. They are made captive by the educational system that determines class in our society.
You ask if I would want a socialist system. Well, I think the consequences for the majority of Chicanos would be much better than under the present system. By the year 2000, 70 percent of all prisoners are going to be Latino and most of those are going to be Mexican. They’re going to prison because they’re poor. Because they’re poor they don’t know how to read. Just ask, is socialism any worse when I look at Cuba and Nicaragua, which have the first- and second-highest literacy rates in Latin America.
Benavidez: L.A. is a city of brown faces. Even with the demographics it’s hard to find individuals who can speak to these issues. I don’t think the point is to put you on the spot. But who does one ask about these things?
Acuna: I think the Anglo liberals and progressives have to be put on the spot. I don’t think the liberals and progressives have done a goddamn thing to raise awareness about Chicano issues.
Benavidez: What do you want people to do? What are progressives supposed to do?
Acuna: Shoot themselves. If they don’t know what to do, why should I have to tell them? Why should I have to tell them about injustices? Why should anyone have to tell them about the problems? If progressives see so many goddamn brown faces out there on the streets, if they see so much damn poverty why don’t they do something about it?
They shouldn’t look to people like myself to take them out like little missionaries. I’ve had it with the progressive community. They haven’t done a damn thing. The Democratic Party has been one of the biggest enemies of the Mexican community.
I don’t agree with the federal suit that’s come out against Bradley and the City Council. Obviously, there are ulterior motives. Bradley is now breathing down Republican necks and they want to do him harm, using Latinos as the club. Suddenly, our reactionary attorney general, Ed Meese, got a revelation from God. That the man in the White House doesn’t give a damn about Mexicans. If they’re so concerned with Latinos, why didn’t they do something in 1982?
At the same time, I’m not absolving Bradley or the City Council. Pat Russell (council president) is one of the most devious people on the council. I think they made Art Snyder a scapegoat. I’m not carrying a brief for Snyder, but one thing about him is that he’s not a hypocrite like most of them. He’s not the one who split up the 14th District. It was the whole council, and the Mayor approved it.
Since 1962, when Ed Roybal was elected to Congress, the Democratic Party has not given a shit about Mexicans. The only reason that we now have Assembly representatives and state senators is the demographics. [There are so many of us] they can no longer cut into the barrios. At one point in the ‘60s they cut into the barrios in five ways, diluting the voting strength of Latinos. They wanted to make safe Democratic districts. You had, in effect, 10 Assembly districts cutting into the Eastside when instead we could have had two good districts and two representatives for over the last 20 years. They didn’t do that.
Benavidez: So you feel that liberals and progressives who are always lamenting the fact that Latinos are politically important have a certain responsibility to bear, that they’re hypocritical?
Acuna: Right, but most of them also have a sense of black history. The only thing they know about Mexicans is that we like mariachi music. When Hollywood made Reds, a movie about John Reed, it didn’t touch upon his experience during the Mexican Revolution. They don’t have the consciousness.
Benavidez: You recently said that you see a wave of activism in our community coming in the late ‘80s or early 1990s. In practical political terms, where do you see this activism coming from? It doesn’t seem apparent at this point in time. What do you base your prediction on?
Acuna: On demographics. One of the reasons that the ‘60s were so volatile was that most people were young. U.S. society is no longer as politically volatile because people have aged, they’re older. But, among Mexicans, we still have a very volatile situation: high unemployment – around 20 percent to 25 percent for our youth. There’s also a lot of uprooting. The forces of social control in the community have been weakened.
I remember the Zoot Suit Riots in the early ‘40s. I was only 7 years old. I remember the zoot suiters going to church, wearing the crucifix, having tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, the vato loco is no longer religious. He doesn’t go to church.
Benavidez: I think that’s a good point. It is a very young community. And there are problems being faced by these young people, such as the high dropout rate, the high pregnancy rate among Mexican girls. What are the political consequences of that for the community?
Acuna: Again, it’s social control. The family has always been an institution of social control.
Benavidez: What’s happened to the family?
Acuna: One unpublished study revealed that approximately 30 percent of the families in East L.A. are headed by females. It breaks up your myth of the Mexican family. Only folklorists and poets believe in the myth of the Mexican family. As an institution, the Mexican family ain’t what it used to be. It’s been under siege for a long time. Now we’re seeing what that long period of siege has brought about.
Ninety percent of all Chicanos in the U.S. are urbanized. In 1950, we were the least urbanized minority in the U.S. Today we are the most urbanized ethnic minority in the U.S. That’s fantastic when you stop to think about it.
Benavidez: What is happening?
Acuna: I don’t know yet. This type of urbanization created disorganization for blacks, and I think we’ll probably have a lot more disorganization in our community because of it. For example, in 1950, we were 50 percent of East Los Angeles. Roosevelt High School’s majority was white. Today, 35 years later, 95 percent of the high schools in the area are Mexican. It means that segregation hasn’t decreased; it’s increased.
Benavidez: You’re talking about the overcrowding of the schools. You also point out that 70 percent of the prisoners are going to be Latino by the year 2000. You’re painting a picture of a community that is, as the title of your latest books says, “under siege.” I know it’s hard to say what should be done. But what do you think can be done in just practical terms, say, between now and the end of the decade.
Acuna: I don’t want to be pessimistic. However, what can really be done? In the 1960s, the black community had an awful lot more force along with, for a elements of the white progressive community that was supporting them. As a result, a Voting Rights Act was passed, affirmative action became a public–policy reality, you had the Justice Department looking into denials of people’s civil rights. Today the Civil Rights Act has been used against us. Affirmative action has been destroyed.
One educator said the ‘80s is not a decade of equality but of quality. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Does that mean equal schools? No. They judge the end product. I don’t think there is anything that we can do without fundamentally changing the political and economic structure of this country. That would be the termination of capitalism.
Benavidez: Isn’t that the impossible dream?
Acuna: I’ll tell you about the impossible dream. Do you think an American public made up mostly of a generation of people going through a mid-life crisis is going to pay taxes to provide quality education? One way you could do it is to have quality schools where they’re needed. Another is to give meaningful jobs to everyone. Another way is to have a fair taxing structure. Another way is to have a cleaner environment.
Benavidez: These kinds of reformist strategy didn’t work.
Acuna: That’s what I’m saying, they’re the impossible dream. The great danger of Cuba and Nicaragua for this country is not that they threaten the security of the United States, because only a fool would say that a tiny country like Nicaragua is a threat to the greatest superpower in the world. The big lesson is that if governments really want to, they can teach people to read and write.
In many ways, I’m optimistic. I know that change is inevitable. It’s going to be rough. The most important thing is that there is a grinding away of classes. Even in the new tax proposals there is grinding away of the middle. When a person who makes $42,000 a year has to pay as much tax as someone who’s making a million dollars, something’s very wrong. The number of poor people is growing. I think society itself will provide the seeds of change.
How much longer are people going to put up with making a base salary of $800 a month and paying $600 a month for an apartment? How can a poor person pay $1,300 a year for car insurance? I have an absolute faith in people’s sense of survival and their sense of struggle. These things go in cycles.
Now we have more social control than ever before. We have think tanks where people are paid to sit around and think about ways to counter, forestall and limit these cycles.
Having Ronald Reagan in the White House doesn’t help. He’s the perfect example of the mass man, the man who can’t think. Nevertheless, given all the obstacles to change, I think people will begin to act. They will only take so much.
 Max took some liberties such as where I lived which is next to the university and hardly a barrio. The thrust of the interview was how little white society paid attention to Latino issues, which was because of the lack of knowledge on the part of white society of Mexican American history and Latino issues.