The Next Generation of Activism: CSUN’s Chicana/o Studies Celebrates 50 Years and Counting

  • Chicana/o Studies students go on a hunger strike in 1970.

    Chicana/o Studies students go on a hunger strike in 1970, at what was then San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN). Photo courtesy of professor Rodolfo Acuña.

  • Members of Teatro Aztlan in 1970.

    Members of Teatro Aztlan in 1970 at what was then San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN). Photo courtesy of professor Rodolfo Acuña.

  • Professor Teri Orozco, circa 1970.

    Professor Teri Orozco, circa 1970.

  • Professor Rodolfo Acuña with members of the Chicana/o Studies faculty in 1970.

    Professor Rodolfo Acuña (far right) with members of the Chicana/o studies faculty in 1970. Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Acuña.

  • A Chicano/a Studies event in 2013.

    A Chicano/a studies event on campus in 2013. Photo courtesy of professor Rodolfo Acuña.

At the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, university students across the country rallied for the creation of ethnic studies programs. Through education, they believed, their voices could be amplified.

Established in 1969 as Mexican American Studies, CSUN’s own Department of Chicana/o Studies will commemorate its 50th anniversary with “Freedom and Voice: Celebrating Chicana/o Studies Faculty and Student Scholarship and Activism,” a one-day research symposium.

The event is scheduled to take place from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8,  at the University Student Union Northridge Center. It will feature a series of three panels led by Chicana/o studies faculty and students, who will discuss topics including history, activism, movements, languages and cultures.

The department also will present a screening of the film “Unrest: Founding of the Cal State Northridge Chicana/o Studies Department,” from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Downtown L.A. This event is free and open to the public.

The department has seen enormous growth over the past five decades. In its first year, founding chair Rodolfo Acuña developed 45 courses leading up to the department’s establishment. As of fall 2018, with 25 full-time and 35 part-time professors teaching between 160 and 170 class sections each semester, the department has grown into the largest of its kind in the United States.

“We’re growing because of the colleagues that I have here, and because we’re doing work that is connected to communities around CSUN and beyond,” said professor Denise Sandoval ’95 (M.A., Chicana/o Studies).

The upcoming symposium, “Freedom and Voice,” aims to celebrate the work done by the department’s faculty, students and alumni for the Chicano community in Los Angeles and beyond — not only in research, but also activism through education.

“The theme is liberation, which is what we fight for,” said professor Ana Sánchez-Muñoz, who co-organized the event with Sandoval. “In the struggle for freedom, we really need our voice. We don’t have a voice without education, without knowledge. So, that’s what we do in Chicano studies — we give the voice to those that have been traditionally silenced in history books. Once you have that voice, then you can really make a dent in getting that freedom.”

The flourishing of Chicana/o studies at CSUN has come hand-in-hand with the growth of other departments, such as Africana studies (also established in 1969 as Afro-American studies). These departments within the College of Humanities also have pushed other traditional courses to be more inclusive and integrate diverse voices in the material taught in classrooms, Sandoval said.

“Yes, our department has grown, but we cannot take that growth for granted,” Sandoval said. “The struggle still continues. We still have to change the discourse in society, still fight for our space in academia.”

La lucha continua, translated as “the struggle continues,” is more than just a Chicana/o studies mantra. As the current political climate poses new challenges, Sandoval and Sánchez-Muñoz said, faculty and students in the department see the significance of its role in educating and passing the torch to the next generation.

“We’ve always wanted our students to see [themselves] as part of the solution for creating a more socially just world,” Sandoval said. “Chicano studies gives you a mirror to see yourself in a more empowered and affirming way that validates your culture and your identity. The idea is that you’re realizing you’re a part of this history, but also, you’re part of the next generation of activism.”

In addition to serving as a well of cultural knowledge, department faculty and staff said mentorship plays a critical role, with faculty supporting students as they adopt leadership roles on campus and in the community.

“There are a lot of alumni from our department that are doing really important work in L.A. politics, education, the private sector, social work and art,” Sandoval said. “For example, [L.A. City Council member] Nury Martinez ’96 (Political Science), a rep for the Valley, took Chicano studies classes.”

“The professors I’ve encountered care about the students — they want us to succeed and not be viewed as a statistic,” said Andrew Reyes, a film production student who works as a writing tutor in the Chicana/o studies department. “They give us that inspiration and bit of success to pass down to the incoming students.”

The department also can play a part in advancing change on issues concerning other minority groups, Sánchez-Muñoz said.

“It’s not just, ‘This is the Chicano movement, and this is what we’ve accomplished,'” she said. “But where are we now? We have different issues like environmental justice, queer spaces, spaces for people of color.”

Sánchez-Muñoz said the “Freedom and Voice” symposium aims to generate a space where people from all ethnic and academic backgrounds can learn from one another.

The program is open to the public, and a number of local high schools expect to participate.

“We’re lucky here at CSUN, having that open space for community and high school students,” Sandoval said. “We’re doing [the symposium] to celebrate our 50th year at CSUN for our students, but it’s also open to whoever wants to come.”

“It’s relevant for everybody from all ethnic backgrounds,” Sánchez-Muñoz added. “It’s an inclusive space, a space for dialogue.”

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