My history professors would often say that history could not be evaluated in the present tense. Events had to ferment because what is apparent today may not be the case tomorrow. This norm is less true today with instant replay and prominent historians appearing on TV to give their take on current events often creating their own myths about the past. Many historians have crossed the line and become political scientists.
The greatest adventure of my life has been writing of Occupied America, a process that has evolved over 46 years during which I have attempted to understand the story of the Chicana/o people. Because of the neglect of the field of study, the narrative has changed as my knowledge of the field has grown and I have accumulated thousands of documents. This has reinforced my belief that history books should never be static since our interpretations are constantly changing as the facts and our life experiences add to our knowledge.
I realize that some people do not want to be bothered by change. They believe that because something or someone was a certain way 50 years ago that they are the same today. They are like my grandfather who took family feuds to his grave.
The first edition of Occupied America (1972) had obvious gaps especially with my narrative of the 1950s and the omission of the 1970s. I have always liked to organize modern history by decades. My theory is that each decade has its own personality resembling good wines where a difference exists between a Chardonnay and a Merlot.
The 1920s and 1950s were decades of reaction, apathy and normalcy that were triggered by periods of war or intense political and social upheaval. The reaction, apathy and normalcy during the Bush War Years saw Wall Street accumulate vast amounts of capital and power through deregulation, war profiteering and political corruption.
While writing the second edition I was struck by the fact that the 1970s were so similar to the 1920s and 1950s. Obviously it had not yet been hypothesized by historians. I did not yet have a handle on the importance of the decade or the role that Chicana/o Studies. But I found this decade fascinating since it had more of an impact on Mexican Americans than preceding decade or decades.
The second edition was published by Harper & Row in 1981 about ten years after first edition was written. Because I tried to reorganize the book into a textbook, my focus deviated from my usual decade format. I was working on another book at the time and multi-tasking often gets in the way of concentrating on conceptualizing history.
I called the chapter on the 1970s “Born Again Democrats: The Age of the Brokers”. “By 1973 the nation returned to a reactionary period. The abandonment by white America of the civil rights movement and the loss of the war issue muted activism.” (OA 2d), By then many former civil rights leaders and educators had been coopted by large doses of federal and foundation funds as well as issues that were extremely important but nevertheless took the focus from the plight of the Chicana/o.
The gnawing question was what was the role of Chicana/o studies in expanding the middle class that made up the broker class? Education does not always make one more enlightened and subtle changes occur such as poor college students get married, more frequently with partners who are also professional. Two paychecks put them in the upper middle class thus making them visible and part of the other America.
In the 1960s Michael Harrington talks about the invisibility of the poor and the visibility of the middle class. “[T]he poor are politically invisible. It is one of the cruelest ironies of social life in advanced countries that the dispossessed at the bottom of society are unable to speak for themselves. The people of the other America do not, by far and large, belong to unions, to fraternal organizations, or to political parties. They are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized. They have no face; they have no voice . . . .”
I wrote “The rise of the Chicano broker network is tied to the Chicano population explosion during the past two decades.” This growth spurred the number of national organizations and political bureaucrats while “The Chicano community remained poor and powerless”. (OA, 2d, 1981) With the growth of numbers you had to have middle persons, aides to elected officials, public and private outreach programs, brown figureheads that gave the illusion of progress among Mexican Americans and then Latinos. Those with power had to appoint their Mexicans to justify the American delusion.
During the 1970s there were no Latinos mostly Mexicans in Los Angeles. Puerto Ricans on the East Coast and the term Latino was used only in places where various Latin Americans intersected such as in San Francisco’s Mission District and Chicago.
Chicana/o Studies was important to the formation of this broker class. Students did not attend college to take a vow of poverty and for CHS to exist; students had to have jobs once they graduated. In California as well as elsewhere the growth of Chicana/o Studies was tied to increased access to the higher education, and the growth coincided with a decline in white enrollment – the white baby boom was over and Latinos became a valuable commodity.
Unfortunately, many leading Chicana/o scholars took offense to the thesis and although most said nothing to me directly I heard about it. They felt that I was attacking the discipline, Chicana/o students and professors. In other words they took the criticism personally. The outcome was that the topic was never vetted openly and an important discussion on the effects of Chicana/o studies never took place.
Subsequent editions of Occupied America (OA, 3d, 1988) fleshed out the broker thesis specifically as to Nixon’s Latino Strategy to create Latino Republicans by promoting the interests of the middle class at the expense of the working class. It explored the celebration of success and the legitimation of a broker class (3d Ed, p. 377) and how the 70s became a “Me Decade.” With it came a tolerance of Chicano Republicans and a minimizing of the label Chicano. In the process the agendas of Latino national organizations were reshaped to cater to government, powerful foundations and Cuban Americans.
Actually the third edition should have been the second. I had recently published A Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos, East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1975 (1984) that was a history of Boyle Heights and East LA. It dealt with the 1950s thus allowing me to conceptualize the decade. I had totally missed the point of the 1950s in the first and seconf editions and called it something like a decade of defense.
I once wanted to write a book focusing on the 1950s and another on the 1970s. However, as I like to say life ran out on me. Hopefully it will be pursued by others since it is an important discussion and a stairway to learning about the muddled state of Chicana/o national organizations and politics. It has to do with our class interests and the growing income gap between the visible and the invisible.
Rodolfo Acuña can be reached at: email@example.com