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On Arizona’s Failed Democracy: Where is Chicana and Chicano Studies?

The neoconservative backlash against civil rights and social justice is attempting to criminalize Mexican immigrants and is threatened by any form of decolonial activism or liberation movements that might have prevented the social implosion occurring in Arizona.

by Peter J. Garcia

It is a sunny afternoon in January, and I am traveling across the Sonoran desert with a brilliant and colorful Southwest sunset painted in deep orange, red, pink, and gray hues across the incredible skies over Arizona. The proud, majestic, and regal saguaro cactus stand out arms reaching upward bridging the colorful skies against the harsh and fragile desert biosphere traversing a vast area as far north as Phoenix and as far south past Hermosillo. Driving while brown through Maricopa County, I’m hoping to reach the California state border before midnight without having to stop. Looking up, I see the familiar Southwest Airlines jet airplane taking off from Sky Harbor airport--the plane with the proud Anasazi sun symbol or Pueblo Indian “Zia” emblazoned on the Spanish yellow backdrop heading east towards Nuevo Mexico. I’m heading west following the winter break and holidays spent with family in Albuquerque.

Traveling through the intercity loops and numerous freeways connecting the Valley of the Sun, I pass the tourist City of Scottsdale recognizing the local “Man in the Maze,” or popular indigenous labyrinth found on Native American arts and crafts of this region. The O’odham people are also known as Pima and Papago (desert people) among non-indigenous Arizonans who know little or nothing about the state’s many local Indian cultures and indigenous or immigrant Mexican communities. This popular Indian symbol, typically found on Native American baskets, weaving, and visual arts, is now seen marking the highway signs and freeway on and off ramps throughout Maricopa County. Watching my speed limit on the loop 101, I engage the cruise control at fifty-five miles per hour while passing the numerous photo radar cameras catching speeding motorists in this so-called “All-American” city. As I turn onto the loop 202, passing Arizona State University and the mighty Sun Devil Football Stadium built right into what is now called the A mountain on my left, I am grief-stricken thinking how could things have turned so dreadfully wrong. Passing through the neocolonial suburban city wastelands of Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler, and Gilbert, it is clear the extent to which Arizona residents must now come to terms with their lion’s share of the nation’s mortgage crisis. Numerous Arizona home owners have already “walked away,” leaving many properties vacant while many of the remaining residents will soon be facing further foreclosures and declining property values.

I am especially saddened by the recent violence that injured nineteen people including the premature death of nine year old Christina Taylor Green, the assassination of federal Judge John Roll, and of course the U.S. congresswoman left in critical condition and lamed for the remainder of her life--Gabrielle Giffords. These poor victims were all gunned down along with several others in cold blood by twenty-two-year-old mentally deranged Pima Community College student Jarod Loefner. President Obama spoke in Tucson on January 13th, a week following the tragedy and in his speech; the United States President urged the nation to honor Christina Taylor Green by “living up to the America she believed in.”

Since I also share some life history in Tucson and Tempe, I was all too familiar with the very Safeway at Ina and Oracle where the violence occurred. Having completed a graduate degree in music performance at the University of Arizona in 1989, I would later return to Arizona accepting an appointment in the emerging and promising Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Arizona State University. I had just graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 and immediately after I arrived on campus, I sensed that things were out of sorts but couldn’t quite pinpoint what was the source of the problem. Most of the senior Chicana/o and several junior Latina/o and Hispanic scholars including academic activists were leaving for more progressive institutions, cooler places, and better salaries. I left for the University of California Santa Barbara in 2005, avoiding a no-win tenure evaluation which I was neither prepared for nor willing to fight the institutional politics that were not in my favor. At the same time seeing injustice and experiencing the climate of hate first hand, I am relieved having left mostly on principle, seriously disappointed in the ineffective academic leadership and conservative direction of the university.

The shooting spree in Tucson was described by Sheriff Dupnik’s sobering comments calling Arizona a “mecca of prejudice,” and rightfully bringing attention to the “bigotry” fueled by “vitriolic rhetoric” in the extremist- right-wing, neoconservative Fox News media that influence unstable individuals with endless negativity, cynicism, paranoia, and intolerance. Sarah Palin refused to assume any responsibility or for that matter express any real feeling or compassion after featuring crosshairs on her organization’s on-line swing district map. Nor did Palin even express any remorse over her controversial metaphor “don’t retreat, reload.” Palin’s position falls into a much larger negative pattern of conservative political warfare and media terrorism waged by the extreme right led by well paid pundits like Glen Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and Ann Coulter, whose racist, homophobic, and chauvinist stances are central to fueling an increasing climate of intolerance across the United States.

When I left, I was mostly concerned regarding the serious underdevelopment of native, indigenous, and local leadership among Arizona Chicana/o, Latina/o, and Native American populations, and how the higher education system was leaving the state’s must economically destitute and politically vulnerable people ready targets of failing democracy during this unprecedented era of unstable political and economic uncertainty and the willful neglect of Arizona’s lacking intellectual leadership. The neoconservative backlash against civil rights and social justice is attempting to criminalize Mexican immigrants and is threatened by any form of decolonial activism or liberation movements that might have prevented the social implosion occurring in Arizona.

Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed a draconian act known as SB 1070 on April 23, 2010, that makes it a state misdemeanor crime for an undocumented “alien” to be in Arizona without carrying registration documents required by federal law. The law was scheduled to go into effect on July 28, 2010, but critics of the legislation including President Barack Obama recognized that it encourages racial profiling and goes against the United States Constitution. The day before SB 1070 was scheduled to go into effect, a federal judge issued an injunction blocking some of the more controversial parts of the law. However, many so-called “legal” or “documented” Hispanic or Latina/o and “native” Chicana/o citizens know first hand all too well the consequences of racial profiling laws. As soon after signing SB 1070, Brewer passed another misguided legislative and policy initiative aimed at banning ethnic studies courses in Arizona public schools. Because such programs, according to the former Public School Superintendent Tom Horne, who is now attempting to enforce this law in his elected position as Attorney General, the raza studies program “promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government, promotes resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” In an open letter to Governor Brewer dated May 28, 2010, the Modern Language Association (MLA) denounced legislation (HB 2281) explaining:

For several decades, ethnic studies curricula have provided important gateways for students to learn about the diversity of heritages in the United States, a key educational goal of the liberal arts education that is the bedrock of American higher education. The field has developed sophisticated pedagogies that stretch across the humanities and the social sciences, providing significant insights into American history and society. Students in ethnic studies classes gain an appreciation for a wealth of cultural expression in literature and the arts and a recognition of the multiple traditions that have found a home in our nation. Policies that curtail this vision will weaken the quality of education, thereby depriving students of key learning opportunities as they move on to higher education institutions.

In 2002, Arizona State University was renamed the “New American University” following the appointment and restructuring of the institution by Dr. Michael Crowe as 16th President of ASU. Soon after Crowe’s arrival, the Department of Chicana and Chicano studies soon changed its focus to transborder studies while most of the scholars actually committed to social justice left for more progressive institutions and better paying jobs. What I found so appalling about the so-called “New American University” was how it became a catchy logo or an academic euphemism for a capitalist adaptation of a top-down corporate business model to a large, urban, metropolitan university with a well-deserved and long-standing “party school” reputation and an even worse academic record especially in regards to multicultural scholarship and local or Southwest cultural studies, diversity in research and teaching, social and environmental justice, critical urban and progressive ethnic, gender, or regional studies. Chicana and Chicano Studies was only about ten years old when the Department initiated a change of research focus to transnationalism or as the department was renamed "Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies," moving away from the Department’s original mission rooted in 1990s political activism and social justice in favor of a less threatening, but no less politicized, form of propaganda that better complements the marketing, advertising, and commercial aims and academic profits of the New American University.

Compared to the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara which is over forty years old and developed directly out of 1960s civil rights struggle and El Plan de Santa Barbara, Chicana and Chicano Studies at Arizona State University came into existence as a result of 1990s economic boycotts following Arizona’s refusal to observe the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday. Arizona was boycotted and touted as a racist state, but it was not until the National Football League moved the Super Bowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, that things took a turn for the better--at least for a few years, until the nation forgot the previous injustice.

As art critic Nicholas Mirzoeff explains, “The utopian university is not the ghost in the machine but rather, as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, it is a machine. The machine produces knowledge, not information, and there is a difference. This university-machine did not die but has become dispersed into the expanded field: beyond the museum, beyond the lecture hall, and into everyday life.” Journalist Roberto Rodriguez explains, “For some, having a different philosophical center, in and of itself, constitutes a threat to this cultural and political domination. More than that, it threatens the national narrative of having tamed a wild, savage and empty continent...of having conquered, exterminated and civilized “the Indians.”

Chicana and Chicano, American Indian, Queer, Gender and Ethnic Studies, and similar progressive academic areas like ethnomusicology and folklore, have succeeded in achieving rigorous, transdisciplinary, and progressive scholarship, creative teaching, innovative research, radical art and political activism that converge into a decolonizing pedagogy and more importantly in preparing people in a more tolerant way of living. As long as we live in an unjust society like the United States empire, which is controlled by capitalist industries and exploitative corporations, we must continue to fight for and support regional, ethnic, and critical studies that are committed to social justice which truly is a liberatory pedagogy.

Unfortunately, too many critics believe that Chicana/o, Ethnic, American Indian, Queer, and Raza Studies are where the brown, angry, homosexual, and poor students learn to hate white people and reject traditional religious or Christian values, nuclear families, and heteronormative relations and marriage. Native American activist and writer Inés Hernandez-Avila asks important critical questions addressing what is taking place in ethnic, American Indian, and Chicana/o Studies. She writes, “I really believe that what we are doing in these new (relatively speaking) studies is contributing in a grand way to the healing of ourselves as a society, a global community in which humans one day will learn to coexist with each other and the rest of life, and the rest of our relations in the animal and plant worlds, the water worlds, the sky world.”

What is going on in Arizona is what Walter Mignolo describes as “the coloniality of knowledge which appropriates meaning just as the coloniality of power takes authority, appropriates land, and exploits labor.” As we find ourselves fast approaching the dreaded winter solstice of 2012 and the Mayan doomsday prophecy observing the completion of the Great Cycle of 13 baktuns, many Chicano academics like myself continue hoping for a much needed shift in consciousness to a higher and more compassionate form of being and social tolerance. Hernandez-Avila writes, “According to the Aztec oral tradition (which yes, is very much alive), we are moving into the next sun, Coatonatiuh, the Sixth Sun of Consciousness and Wisdom. We are presently in the tumultuous transition period between the old sun and the new."

In conclusion, Edward Said believes that “the hardest aspect of being an intellectual is to represent what you profess through your work and interventions, without hardening into an institution or a kind of automaton acting at the behest of a system or method.” He is right in his conclusion that “anyone who has felt the exhilaration of being successful at that and also successful at keeping alert and solid will appreciate how rare the convergence is. But the only way of ever achieving it is to keep reminding yourself that as an intellectual you are the one who can choose between actively representing the truth to the best of your ability and passively allowing a patron or an authority to direct you.” Heading back to Los Angeles, I am anxious to begin the Spring semester at California State University at Northridge. I will be directing a graduate seminar on Chicana/o and the Humanities, and I’ve learned that one of our new graduate students recently completed his B.A. from Arizona State University and he is a Chicano student activist. Finally, crossing the Maricopa County Line without being pulled over by law enforcement, I see another Southwest airplane flying just ahead of me. This one is decorated like Shamu the killer whale and heading west to San Diego

Peter J. García, Ph.D serves as an Associate Professor, Chicana and Chicano Studies, California State University in Northridge.

Copyright © Peter J. Garcia. All rights reserved.