Interview | On Being a Chicano Intellectual

Rudy acuna 1992I just got back from Denver. So this week I am posting a copy of an interview that was taken last week. It will be published in a book by a New Mexico State university professor in yet another form.  The answers are candid and not acceptable in what we normally call intellectual discourse. My feeling is, however, when you strain something too much you often take the pulp out of the juice.

Questions for Professor Acuña

1-    Let me begin by pointing that that the main focus of the book is social justice. With that said, let me ask you the following question: How has social justice, broadly defined, informed your scholarly and activist work?

I have developed an intolerance of injustice and am easily moved to moral outrage. As a kid I would often root for the underdog. I came into the movement because of racism not because I was a Mexican — it was not just. Although I am an atheist I was educated by the Jesuits and have strong ideas of right and wrong. There is also right and wrong in history and it is wrong for a person to be born with millions of dollars while another is born with a crack habit. If you know something is wrong, you have a duty (not an obligation) to do something about it. A person should not separate his or her scholarship from his life – it is not intellectually honest.

2-    For the last 45 years or more, you have spoken and written extensively about a wide range of issues, such as structural racism, colonialism, neocolonialism, xenophobia, to which Chicano (as) and other historically marginalized groups have been subjected. How do you see your socio-political and intellectual activism, including your stance against these forms of oppression mentioned here, connected to social justice?

I am an activist and take the role of the praxis seriously. As a scholar I have the duty to do something about correcting society. The above topics were part of the activist/scholarly dialogue of the times and thus I addressed them. But going back in time – in studying theology I learned that if something is imperfect, it was logical to make it more perfect – indeed you have a moral duty to do so.

3-    All forms of oppression intersect. In your judgment, how do see these various forms of oppression interconnect noted above? Would you provide some concrete examples to illuminate such a connection?

Like Martin Luther King said injustice any place is injustice everywhere. World events and imperialism make that oppression pretty universal. It all comes down to domination and it is hard not to discuss the Palestinian cause along with what is happening to Mexican and Central American immigrants. Race is used to keep that oppression and system in place. From there you can go on and on. Right now the privatization of higher education, public education and the prisons is a good example of interconnection.  Also take the lives of average human beings and break them down to its lowest common denominator: you see cases of child abuse, spousal abuse, gender inequality and so on. There is an element of privilege, domination and inequality at every level. Carry this to the schools.

4-    In what ways and to what degree have US imperialism and white supremacy affected the educational, socioeconomic, and political conditions of Chicano (a) s and other minoritized groups here in the United States and abroad?

I was once criticized for using the internal colonial model. My reading has informed me and I have learned to digest works on imperialism.  When I read Camus I liked him, but found Frantz Fanon seemed to be speaking to the Chicana/o experience. The colonialization of the oppressed is not only physical but mental and that is what happens to minorities. It is a way to keep the middle class in line and thinking that at least they have it better than the spics. It is vicious and there are different levels of oppression. The problem for Chicanas/os is that until recently there was not an organized corpus of knowledge to fully appreciate that colonial relationship.  We’re now more fully able to make comparisons and draw on the rich literature on African Americans and colonized people throughout the world. Unfortunately Chicana/o and other scholars have not yet discovered a methodology, and they avoid thinking about issues such as neoliberalism that are at the crux of all oppression.

5-    What do you think needs to happen in order for social justice to become a reality for historically marginalized groups in society, including those who have been unfairly incarcerated?

I am a cynic: nothing will change as long as the present political structure is in place. Social justice necessitates a leveling of society and as long as the Kochs have billions of dollars to buy people it won’t happen. Life for activists in America and in the world is like Sisyphus rolling that fucking boulder up the hill. We have to understand that incarceration is part of the game. Prisons are big business and big business is rarely fair. In order for prisons to thrive you have to have make people “illegal” –that is why undocumented workers are a boon to the prison industry. You always have to have more clients so you maintain a decrepit school system that produces perspective clients.

6-    You’re one of highly regarded and respected intellectuals who have critically and steadfastly addressed in your scholarly and activist work the conditions of historically subjugated groups in the Americas, particularly Chicano (a) s and Mexicans in the United States. In your opinion, what does it mean to be a Chicano (a) in the 21st century of the United States America?

First being a Chicano means that I have to keep pushing that fucking ball up the hill although it futile. Second, I don’t consider myself an intellectual; I don’t have respect for them. They keep on inventing theories when the problems and solutions are obvious. They avoid doing anything about the problems. When I received my PhD my father asked me si eres doctor que curas? If you are a doctor what do you cure? My strategy has always been to take my cause of the moment to the edge of the cliff and be prepared to go over the cliff if necessary. Most so-called intellectuals look at this as irrational — for me it is necessary if I am to remain intellectually honest.

7-    Given the level of unemployment and lack of adequate healthcare and quality education Mexicans and Mexican Americans, particularly the poor and the undocumented ones, will it be accurate to state that they have been treated as the wretched of the earth, if I may borrow Frantz Fanon’s phrase?

It is ridiculous and it underscores the futility of doing something through the system. Logically health care should have become one big Medicare system. However, just like the prisons everyone has to get their cut down to the congressmen.  Fortunately a goodly number of white people are joining this oppressed class, and realizing that they are one paycheck away from being a Mexican and they too are the wretched of the earth. Unfortunately, many of them still think they are Horatio Alger.

8-    Given your expertise and decades of experience dealing with and writing about US imperialism, neocolonialism, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy, what would you propose be done to effectively fight against this matrix of oppression?

Educate people and target illusions such as the American Dream and “the illusion of inclusion.” Unite causes around the world. I criticize U.S. imperialism in the Middle East but I also criticize the oppressive role of religion in oppression that creates a colonial mentality. I prefer to judge all religion as oppressive especially those of the oppressed. Be consistent.

9-    What role should public intellectuals play in helping construct a society that is just?

Get active and don’t act like intellectuals.

10-       Let me end this interview with this question: What has sustained you in the struggle against the matrix of oppression mentioned earlier? What would you like to be remembered for?

I really don’t know. I have tried my best. I hope that others will look after my family, there is no hereafter but I am still concerned and my love for them will not cease. I don’t believe in god, I am a big boy so I am not afraid of the dark. But I care. I want people to read my works because without a historical memory we are vulnerable and can be more easily exploited. Much of my work is centered on preserving historical memory. Without a common memory we allow the oppressors to define our reality.