How Chicanas/os Lost Their Swagger 12 12 14
Rodolfo F. Acuña
I constantly hear references to winning football teams having swagger – they play with a chip on their shoulder.
In the sixties, black youth had that swagger — after years of being taught that they should stay in their place, they adopted the mantra of “black is beautiful — don’t fuck with me.” Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans displayed a similar swagger as if to say “I am someone, I demand respect.”
The Chicano Movement was serious business. It spawned a ton of characters. You delighted in their audacity and their challenging of the man. I remember Dr. Ricardo Sanchez telling anyone who would listen that he went from a GED to PhD.
Sanchez, a high school dropout and ex-convict, wrote poems about cultural justice. He received a doctorate from the Union Institute in Cincinnati and had an academic appointment at Washington State University, teaching creative writing and Chicano studies.
He would saunter into El Paso restaurants and deliver poems “reciting not from memory but from the moment.” I remember how he and Tigre captured a Tex Mex cafe in Milwaukee.
You had those who would snicker about his doctorate. But he did not give a shit – he knew he was a doctor because he willed it and his poetry established that. Ricardo did not need to attend a Princeton or a Yale to validate himself — his swagger said it all.
Another favorite was Abelardo. Like Sanchez he was from el Chuco (El Paso). A teacher, social worker, and administrator of community service organizations he declared himself a poet, producing mountains of poetry, fiction, and essays. We both taught a summer session at the University of Utah.
He loved the sound of his name, my favorite poem was “Stupid America.”
stupid america, see that
with a big knife
on his steady hand
he doesn’t want to knife you
he wants to sit on a bench
and carve christ figures
but you won’t let him.
stupid america, hear that
shouting curses on the street
he is a poet
without paper and pencil
and since he cannot write
he will explode.
stupid america, remember
flunking math and english
he is the picasso
of your western states
but he will die
with one thousand
hanging only from his mind.”
The truth be told, a person or country is only stupid when they make the same mistakes, over and over and deny them. For example, in August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, a black youth. Two grand juries failed to indict the white police officer. The previous month Eric Garner was strangled by Staten Island, NY police officers. These incidents tapped the grief and grievance of centuries of injustices. Protests against the police killings of Brown and Garner turned violent and spread to campuses and cities throughout the country. .
On September 26, 2014, 43 Mexican students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa went missing in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. In all probability, they were assassinated and incinerated.
In the 60s, the U.S. spent millions of dollars studying the causes of urban and student rebellions — studies that were ignored. The catalyst was the 1965 Watts Rebellions that shook the nation “to its democratic foundation.” A 101-page report of December 2, 1965 titled “Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965” startled America and then went away.
Two years later the Kerner Commission, “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,’ was commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations. It warned “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal“, adding that “Unless there are sharp changes in the factors influencing Negro settlement patterns within metropolitan areas, there is little doubt that the trend toward Negro majorities will continue.” The report called unemployment a major cause of the unrest as well as the poor training of police.
Despite or because of the war on students, launched by the patron Saint of Greed, Governor Ronald Reagan, student activism escalated. The largest and most heated were at the University of California, Berkeley that along with San Francisco State was the flagship of student protests. .
Reagan’s (1967-1975) approach to solving student turmoil was to “get rid of undesirables. Those there to agitate and not to study might think twice before they pay tuition. They might think twice how much they want to pay to carry a picket sign.” It was a smoke screen for one of the biggest shifts in taxes from the rich to the poor, and the wedding of the Republican Party to the super rich.
Student protests came to a climax on May 4, 1970 when guardsmen shot down four student protesters students at Kent State, leading to nationwide campus protests. More than 450 violent and non-violent demonstrations broke out across the country. At New York University banners read, “They Can’t Kill Us All.”
Over 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., against the war and the killing of unarmed student protesters — “The city was an armed camp. The mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. This was the quote, student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war,” said a Nixon adviser. The Jackson State killings occurred on Friday, May 15, 1970, at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi. It resulted in the killings of two students and injury of twelve.
According to the Urban Institute’s national study the Kent State shooting was the single factor in the first nationwide student strike in U.S. history, as over 4 million students protested in over 900 American colleges and universities that were closed during the student strikes.
Yet another commission, “The President’s Commission On Campus Unrest,” was chaired by William W. Scranton, the Former Governor of Pennsylvania. The report gave a sense of urgency. It exhausted the available material on the subject, concluding that “Studies of activist youth reveal that in most cases students become activists through an extended process.”
Rounding off the reports was a 1979 book by Fresno State English Department Chair Kenneth Seib — The Slow Death of Fresno State: A California Campus under Reagan and Brown. The conclusion was that Black Studies and La Raza Studies programs were intentionally killed by far right senior professors in collusion with Governor Gov. Ronald Regan and CSC Chancellor Glenn Dumke. They deliberately murdered the programs.
These studies are readily available on the internet. As I have said, it is not stupid to make a mistake but is to keep on making the same mistakes. Americans are stupid not because they are Americans but because they won’t admit their mistakes and find ways to correct them.
“Stupid America.” You lost generations of geniuses. Gone is the boasting, “From GED to PhD,” giving of gritos of liberation. As a result Chicana/o lost their swagger condemning the poorest them to staring an “Y Qué” look. Part of the swagger was hope.