"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chicano Studies will celebrate 40 years this coming Tuesday, Oct. 19

Creative Writing by Migrant Farmworker, tonight
Tonight, BorderSenses will present Memorias del Silencio, the sixth in a series of books showcasing the creative writing of migrant farmworkers in the El Paso area. The presentation will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Chamizal National Memorial, 800 S. San Marcial.

The book features more than 20 stories and seven local artists who provided artwork. "Silencio No Más," a play inspired by the book series, will also be presented.

The literary organization BorderSenses and El Paso Community College's Community Education Program started the project in 2005. Information: memorias.bordersenses.com.

40 Years of UTEP Chicano Studies
1970: Students and community moved to create program
By Raymundo Eli Rojas

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the founding of Chicano Studies at UT El Paso (UTEP).

Chicanos Studies will celebrate 40 years this coming Tuesday, Oct. 19. It will include a activistas reunion and speakers: José Medina, Carmen Rodríguez, Juan Contreras, Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca and Dr. Dennis Bixler-Márquez. 6 p.m. Tomás Rivera Conference Center, Student Union Building East, Room 308. UT El Paso. For more info, call (915) 747-5462. 

As the 1960s drew to a close, a change in consciousness was in the air both in El Paso and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The late 1960s marked the evolution of many individuals from Mexican Americans into Chicanos. The Anti-Vietnam War movement was in flow, organizing was happening in El Paso Segundo Barrio, among worker at Farah, in El Paso's valley, and Abelardo Delgado did his fast for better housing -- movement was in the air.

Although UTEP (then Texas Western) had just come off of its 1966 NCAA Basketball championship, recently glorified in the movie Glory Road, the reality of racial tension on campus was a whole different story -- especially for Chicano students. Sink or swim polices. High college drop-out rates. Overt racism by faculty. No -- get that -- no Chicano(a) faculty. No courses that reflected the cultural make up of UTEP.

With these and other issues at the forefront, Chicano(a) students at UTEP began organizing. A mix of students of different background, some graduates of Bowie High School in South El Paso, others of Loretto Catholic school for girls, some members of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the Mexican American Youth Association (MAYA),  others of a short-lived Mexican American fraternity. The diverse mix of Chicano students consisted of Vietnam War veterans recently returned from Vietnam, single and married students, students from various economic classes, among others.

The movement on campus would involve such figures as poet Juan Contreras who recently read the Flor y Canto anniversary in Los Angeles; Felipe Ortego, the prominent Chicano literary scholar, Abelardo Delgado, the Poet Laureate of Aztlan; and Carlos Morton, Chicano literature's most prolific playwright; Cecelia Rodriguez, co-founder of La Mujer Obrera and head the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, USA. At the time, it was not uncommon to see op eds and letters to the editor by Mario T. Garcia and Richard A. Garcia. And these are just few who gained national and international fame.

The beginnings of the Chicano(a) student movement began with MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) predecessors like United Mexican American Students (UMAS, among its founders was Daniel Anchondo, current El Paso Democratic County Chair), New Organization of Mexican American Students (NOMAS, founded 1968), and as mention before, short-lived Mexican American fraternity called Alpha Beta (founded 1966). Others were trying to create a MAPA chapter on campus. 

Nevertheless, after some of these students attended a Chicano(a) youth conference in Santa Barbara in April 1969, a plan was formulated -- a plan for Chicano(a)s in education -- El Plan de Santa Barbara. By the time the UTEP students returned to El Paso, it was no doubt the transition from Mexican American to "Chicano" had completed and UTEP Chicano(a) students joined the national movement to create El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan or MEChA.

MEChA filed for organizational status at UTEP in the summer of 1969 with Cynthia Marquez, Patricia Roybal, Bert Hernandez, Jesus Rodriguez, and Carmen Rodriguez signing off as officers and Richard A. Garcia as sponsor. A host of events would follow, marches, rallies, cultural program, and by March 1970, Chicano students set on taking over the once White-dominated Student Association as well the student newspaper. They help run candidates Jesus Rodriguez and now prominent El Paso attorney Ray Velarde for president and vice president respectively. 

From 1967 onward a host of cultural events occurred and prominent speakers passed through campus including El Teatro Campesino, Saul Alinsky,  Rodolfo Acuna, Jessie Jackson, William Kunstler, among others.

MECHA would create the university's first tutoring program, the first new student orientation, the Special Services department, but the main issue in the minds of students was a Chicano Studies Program.

In fall 1969, a minor degree in Mexican American Studies was first offered at UTEP. However, in the spring 1970, MEChA would urge students to boycott a class focusing on Chicanos, but one that was taught by a White professor. The students urged there were many qualified Chicanos who could teach that course.

With pressure mounting, in Aug 1970, MECHA presented a proposal for a Chicano Studies and Activities Program to then UTEP president Joseph Smiley and by October, the president had approved the program. Felipe Ortego would become the program's first director.

However, UTEP was not supportive. Felipe Ortego would call the program a “paper department” in October 1971 as the deadline loomed for the university to submit a B.A. Degree proposal. At the same time, MEChA had repeated run ins with the then Vice President of Student Affairs, who had interestingly been appointed by the UT System's Board of Regents, not UTEP's president. The new VP had written his doctoral dissertation focusing on how universities can deal with student unrest.

Failures to fund the Chicano Studies Program and issues with the Vice President finally exploded in early December 1971 when MECHA students initiated a well-planned occupation of UTEP's administration building. Still, El Paso's largest act of civil disobedience to date, 30 students were arrested and over 3,000 people gathered as the university came to a complete stop.

But that's another story...

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