Ruben Salazar and the Indigenous Imperative
by Marcos Aguilar
“The anniversary of Salazar’s assassination and the Chicano Moratorium, remind us of how far we have yet to go to achieve the basic levels of autonomy and self-determination Chicanismo imagined almost fifty years ago.”
Assassinated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during the historic Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War protest rally in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, journalist Ruben Salazar has become an enigmatic symbol of a low point in the crimes against the Chicano communities of Los Angeles. This date marks the anniversary of the killing of four people by police forces as civilians were targeted as enemies of state. With outrage over police violence echoing to this day across the United States, Salazar reported on the injustices protested by Chicano students and teachers in East Los Angeles high schools and had witnessed the massacre of students by CIA coordinated Mexican government forces in Mexico City. These experiences challenged Salazar to contribute to the struggle for civil rights through the media, instead of covering it up. Upon his return from witnessing the student massacre at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, Salazar reportedly stated, “Manito como han cambiado las cosas…”. Certainly, given the state of affairs we face with militarized police forces and continued systemic educational failure, the social causes the Chicano Movement stood for remain relevant to this day.
Understanding the Chicano Movement has been both personal and transformational to me. Born in 1970, I only came to understand Chicanismo in college while attending UCLA. As a committed student and community organizer, I eventually led the call for a UCLA Faculty Center takeover and a hunger strike in 1993 that led to the establishment of the UCLA Cesar Chavez Chicana and Chicano Studies Department. Two score and four years ago, basic proposals of the Movement such as Chicano Studies, had only started to take root in the university. Recent research projects have documented Salazar’s insightful writings about Chicanismo. “Mexican-Americans, though indigenous to the Southwest, are on the lowest rung scholastically, economically, socially, and politically. Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now.” Clearly, Salazar echoes the voice of the Plan de Aztlan and Plan de Santa Barbara, seminal documents of the Chicano student movement. Once again, this anniversary serves to remind our community of the importance of expanding access to quality Chicana and Chicano Studies for our youth as indigenous peoples. This change is needed not in the sterile environment of a conference, but in every public, charter or private classroom, school and college our youth pay to attend.
Forty-five years after Salazar’s exacting words, Los Angeles, California still stands as the largest historically Mexican city in the United States. Of Los Angeles’ school district’s almost 500,000 students identified as ‘Latinos’ (about 75% of all LAUSD students). Around 200,000 LAUSD students are Spanish speakers classified as ‘English Learners’ - most certainly a euphemism for the District’s massive Mexican-origin student demographic majority. Yet, even as a majority, the Mexican community is timid in its demand for the effective implementation of research validated, community generated models of culturally relevant college preparatory curriculum and programs. Schools like magnets, charters and the recently expanded IB programs in LAUSD are great for the few who attend them but what about the roughly 80% of indigenous Mexican and Central American students who graduate ineligible to attend a UC or CSU, or the at least 40% of students who are pushed out every year and don’t even graduate at all. In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights of the U. S. Department of Education again documented the systemic educational discrimination prevalent for ‘English Learners’ in the LAUSD – but what has really changed? Accessible, required and well-designed Chicana and Chicano Studies courses in our high schools could change how poorly public schools engage our youth in a very short time. In education, inspiration is priceless and prescient. Chicana and Chicano Studies is above all else, a methodical, strategic and informed curriculum designed to empower and inspire our youth based upon culturally rooted values and inquiry into their own human condition. It is time to lay Salazar’s spirit to rest and demand more of public education in the spirit of the Plan de Santa Barbara, a seminal declaration of the Chicana/o student movement, “At this moment, we do not come to work for the university, but to demand that the university work for us.” Otherwise, Indigenous students will continue to ‘turn off and tune out.’
My daughter, a top graduate of Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory in East Los Angeles, just recently started UCLA as well. I am proud to think that students of my generation organized and sacrificed to successfully open the doors a little wider and make the university serve our community more effectively. My daughter is excited to take her first university level Chicana/o Studies course in the fall and I am hopeful that the experience will be true to the movement that birthed it.
While Salazar’s assassination most certainly deserves our respect, the injustices that plague us continue to demand our attention, now. It is our future, our Semillas, which ought to command our disciplined passion to regenerate as Indigenous Peoples and renew our own humanity in our ways. Ought we continue to operate as the minority demographic in our minds, or command the effective right to a public education we merit? To be sure, the clearest example of human autonomy and self-determination must be witnessed in the raising of our children. Shall we give them up to others, with contradictory values and imposed languages and then wonder in our old age why our progeny no longer sing our songs or worse yet, die for a city street name or in some foreign legion? We believe that Chicana and Chicano Studies today is as much about defending our access, “to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination,” as called for by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as it is a struggle for our own spirit, our very existence.
The anniversary of Salazar’s assassination and the Chicano Moratorium, remind us of how far we have yet to go to achieve the basic levels of autonomy and self-determination Chicanismo imagined almost fifty years ago. Mandated access to community-based pedagogy and curriculum, such as Chicana and Chicano Studies is one essential step towards closing the achievement gap and better serving the Indigenous youth LAUSD and other school systems struggle to retain. Sterile top-down standards-based exams will continue to do nothing to address the needs and potential of our most vulnerable youth.
“Chicanos will tell you that their culture predates that of the Pilgrims,” once wrote Salazar. I will tell you that this is still true, but how many of our youth today understand this? The imperative today is to remember our roots in order to bring about a world where many worlds fit.
Originally posted at Radical Regeneration
Marcos Aguilar has been an educational leader for over two decades, first as a prominent student activist in the nineties, then as a history teacher in LAUSD and finally as a traditional Aztec dancer and community organizer.
For interesting insights into the work of Ruben Salazar, please visit the Ruben Salazar Project