By: Karen Bonilla
The significance and influence of Latino studies can be seen in the struggles that led up to its creation. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the ways in which the significance of Latino studies can be seen in the student and community activism during the 1960s, and to analyze the influence of Latino studies then and now. Latino studies is important because it breaks the widely accepted misconceptions that surround Latinos, it gives Latinos an important sense of pride in their own culture, and it influences people to fight for the equal treatment of Latinos.
At the university level, student and community activism were the main factors that brought Latino studies into existence as a field in the 1960s. The biggest group at Rutgers University that rallied together for the creation of Latino studies were young Puerto Rican students who felt it was important for reasons such as culture, history, challenging institutional racism, and increasing diversity and knowledge. According to Kenya O’Neil, a Rutgers student and writer for the Daily Targum, “The [Latino studies] department was created by the students and for the students” as a field that would “cater to their culture and history”. The reason for the creation of Latino studies is still relevant in the 21st century because we see clearly that the media is stereotyping Latinos, and this negatively affects the way people view us as a group. Since Latino studies was created to challenge racism and increase diversity and knowledge, we can see how it is still very necessary to this day.
To begin, one of the major reasons Latino studies is important is because it breaks the harmful misconceptions that surround Latinos. For example, one particularly disturbing misconception about Mexicans is that they are a foreign group coming to the United States, therefore they are treated hostilely as aliens and as “others” that do not belong here. The reality is that Mexicans were in the United States before Americans were. The United States pushed Mexicans out of the US during the California Gold Rush even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, made during the Mexican-American War, promised that the land of the natives would be honored. The treaty was not honored and Mexicans were pushed out of their own land in an effort to obtain gold from the West. These perceptions that Mexicans were foreigners to the US allowed for the mass mistreatment of them to occur before, during, and after the 1960s, and this was seen especially in the educational system of the time. Take East LA schools with a majority of the population being Mexican. These schools were known as “Mexican schools”, and were described by Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro in Blowout! as “not only segregated, but they were inferior… The children received a limited education with a stress on vocational education”. They were segregated because Mexicans were seen and accepted only as foreigners, and they did not get the proper resources because of the stereotype that Mexicans were only good for manual work as seen by the stress on vocational education. This misconception that Mexicans are new to this land is actually still prominent today, but Latino studies is an important step in the right direction to countering false information like that and increasing knowledge about the contributions of Mexicans and other Latinos in this country.
Latino studies is also important because it gives Latinos a sense of pride in their culture, and with that pride they fight for equal treatment. Castro, an important figure in the fight for educational justice for Mexicans in the 1960s, taught his students about the “history and contributions of Mexicans”, and he “set out to build up the self-esteem” of his students. Previously, I mentioned that “Mexican schools” were inferior because of the misconceptions and stereotypes that surrounded Mexicans. Sal Castro helped his students to see that Mexicans were not only the original group in the western US, but also that they were worthy of better opportunities than what they were being presented at the time. In the movie Walkout, we see that a small group of students rally together after being exposed to the realities of their unfair mistreatment and rise up to protest for better schools for Mexicans. After once feeling ashamed of their culture they were later taught about the good aspects of Mexican history, felt pride, and went out and fought for equal rights. The same process can be seen within Puerto Rican communities during the 1960s. According to Juan Gonzales, who wrote Harvest of Empire, in the 1960s Puerto Ricans “went off to fight in the Vietnam War, only to return… to a country that still misunderstood them and mistrusted them as foreigners”. Puerto Ricans would accept this identity as foreigners until they were educated otherwise. In Rutgers, Puerto Rican student activism led to the creation of Latino studies, and this focused on “consciousness, and political, cultural, and identity empowerment”. With their newly found empowerment, they fought for the creation of the field and the rights of Latinos on campus. This was not unlike Mexican American students in East LA.
Finally, although Latino studies influenced the perception of Latinos for the better, there are still many perceptions that are widely accepted. Gonzales states that during the 1850s, when the US was pushing Mexicans out of their own land, “Mexicans who dared challenge the Anglo encroachment were often branded as bandits and outlaws”. Latino studies presents the other side of the story where Mexicans are not criminals. They are just human beings who were trying to defend themselves against the Americans who wanted their land for the gold. Although Latino studies attempts to counter the misconceptions about Mexicans and Latinos in general, there are still many misconceptions about Latinos. For example, 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump labeled all Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, and he proposed that he would send them all back to where they came from. There are many things wrong with his statements, but the fact of the matter is that he has many followers who agree with him. The reason for this, as outlined in the movie Latinos Beyond Reel, is because Mexicans and other Latinos in the media have been stereotyped as the foreigners, the criminals, the housekeepers, and the manual workers incapable of reaching greater heights. Latino studies is countering these damaging stereotypes, and that is why it is so important.
In conclusion, Latino studies is important because it helps Latinos to be empowered and have the knowledge to fight for better treatment and representation while also allowing other people that may not be Latino to see the truth about our culture and history. Although I was born in the United States, my family is from El Salvador. To me, Latino studies is a means of learning about my cultural roots in order to become more conscious of my place in society. In the words of Iris Morales and Denise Oliver-Velez, “If you don’t know your history, you cannot assess where you are today, and where you are going in the future”. In order to make a difference for the future, you have to have a good understanding of the past and present, which is exactly what Latino studies does and should continue to do.
Bañales, Samuel. Class lecture, Intro to Latino Studies.
Enck-Wanzer, Darrel, editor. The Young Lords: A Reader. New York and London: New York University Press.
Garcia, Mario T. and Sal Castro. Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. The University of North Carolina Press.
Gonzales Juan. Harvest of Empire- Revised Edition. Penguin Books, 2011.
Latinos Beyond Reel: Challenging a Media Stereotype. Film. Directed by Miguel Picker and Chyng Sun. 2013.
O’Neil, Kenya. “U. LHSC department needed to enlighten, teach students”. The Daily Targum. April 29, 2015.
Walkout. Film. Directed by Edward James Olmos. 2006.