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Chicano students find community in times of struggle
STANFORD -- Cinco de Mayo. For Mexicans and Chicanos alike, the historic battle of May 5, 1862 -- in which a small Mexican army led by Benito Juarez defeated invading French colonial troops -- continues to be a cause for celebration.
Stanford and its Chicano community have much to celebrate this month. Though still underrepresented at the University level, the number of Chicano and Latino students on campus has risen steadily since the first handful observed the holiday here more than 20 years ago.
There are now 640 Hispanic undergraduates and 375 graduate students at Stanford, composing about 10 percent of the undergraduate population and 6 percent of the graduate student population.
Within that group is internal diversity.
"The Latino community at Stanford consists of international students from Latin America, as well as students from Texas and New Mexico, Los Angeles and Chicago, first-generation and fifth-generation Chicanos," wrote senior Delia Ibarra in a recent column for the Stanford Daily. "All bring with them their own conceptions of what it means to be Latino, Chicano, Hispanic or whatever they call themselves."
A visitor to El Centro Chicano, the campus center for Chicano/Latino student organizations, can feel the energia. At least 25 groups currently meet there, ranging from pre-professional societies to the student improvisational group Teatro Xicano.
Public service organizations such as Barrio Assistance and Si Se Puede reach out to local schoolchildren and teens, while the Stanford Literacy Improvement Project pairs student tutors with Stanford employees who need help with on-the-job language skills.
The Chicano theme house, Casa Zapata, with its brilliantly painted murals and busy social calendar, brings Chicano culture alive for its 96 residents. Latin music plays on the campus radio station, and courses in Chicano literature, history and culture have become regular entries in the University curriculum.
Yet the past two years also have been difficult for Chicano students at Stanford.
In 1988-89, they were badly split over demands for the resignation of the former part-time director of El Centro. Last December, the University decided to close Stanford's Office of Mexican-American Affairs and lay off its assistant provost, Fernando de Necochea, as part of a $1.25 million cut in the offices of the President and Provost and the Office of Planning and Management.
El Centro and Vice Provost Ray Bacchetti's office are now working to ensure that the programs formerly overseen by de Necochea's office will continue under other areas of the University.
"Basically the focus has shifted from saving the Office of Mexican-American Affairs to working with the present situation," said junior Bill Candelaria, budget coordinator for El Centro.
"Bacchetti's office has been very supportive of El Centro, trying to help us find bookshelves, desks and computers, so in that limited sense it has worked out."
Recently, the Chicano Graduate Student Association has voiced rising concern over the amount of fellowship money allocated for individual minority graduate students in the School of Humanities and Sciences.
The latest blow came at the end of April, when a special fee request for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), the University's oldest Chicano student organization, failed by 1 percent of the needed student body votes.
The student group depends on the annual MEChA fee assessment to fund a wide variety of cultural programs, including the annual Cinco de Mayo activities, Ballet Folklorico's Concierto de la Primavera and Casa Zapata's annual Zoot Suit Week. History of struggle
The timing of the events has been particularly discouraging, coming just two years after the University's much publicized report from the University Committee on Minority Issues (UCMI).
That report showed that minority graduate students and faculty have not made substantial gains in representation at Stanford over the past two decades. The numbers and status of minority staff, and curricular and program issues also were addressed with recommendations for change.
Frances Morales, assistant dean of student affairs and director of El Centro for the past 16 months, expresses the disappointment.
"I look back to the history of struggle in the late 1960s, when Chicano students had to fight for ethnic studies and improved admissions policies, and I see that some of the concerns are still the same," said Morales, who holds a doctorate in education from Stanford.
"The percentage of Chicano students on campus has really increased, though not in proportion to the number of Chicanos in the state. But in terms of the numbers of Chicanos on the staff being available to work with the students -- the resources in the community are still lagging behind.
"People like Cecilia Burciaga (associate dean in the Office for Student Resources and the highest ranking Chicana administrator at Stanford) are just constantly over-extended."
One particular area of concern to students is the growing shortage of faculty to teach Chicano studies courses. A key professor in the field -- Tomas Ybarra-Frausto -- is currently on a leave of absence from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Historian Luis Arroyo, visiting professor and director of the Chicano Fellows Program -- which oversees many of the Chicano studies classes taught on campus -- will be leaving next year.
The most painful loss of all came in February, with the death of Arturo Islas, professor of English and novelist, who taught the popular course "Chicano Literature: Creative Writing for Bilingual Students." That course has yet to be rescheduled.
"The mood in the community is that nobody really knows what's going on with Chicano studies," Candelaria said. "We don't see any commitment to establishing Chicano studies as a cogent part of the curriculum, and that frustrates a lot of the students."
Another frustration is in the area of new Chicano student recruitment. Because the Office of Undergraduate Admissions is temporarily lacking an assistant director with special responsibility for Chicano/Mexican American recruitment and enrollment, Dean Jean Fetter asked students last fall for help in reaching out to high schools in their own hometowns.
"Many people volunteered to help in the admissions process -- it was the natural thing to do, and I think we had a significant impact on keeping the number of Chicano applicants high this year," Candelaria said. "But at the same time, many of us were frustrated that we had to be doing that.
"A friend of mine said it best. He said most of us who come to Stanford want to spend time exploring academic questions, but instead we are forced to become political activists."
Despite the difficulties of the past two years, many describe the current mood in the Chicano community as one of healing and reconciliation. Much of the credit goes to El Centro director Morales, who has made a special effort to welcome students of differing nationalities and political temperaments.
"I see this period as a growth period," says sophomore Maria Peters, a student program coordinator at El Centro. "People are starting to get involved again around issues that need to be addressed. With all the changes going on, it's an opportunity for us to gather our thoughts together and make some decisions."
Hector Cuevas, director of the Academic Advising Center and an active participant in the Chicano community, is particularly heartened by the heightened sense of community among Stanford Chicanos.
"From time to time, different aspects of the community have held viewpoints that they felt were the most important," he says. "Now people have dialogues. I see more respect for personal, social and political differences within the community."
For Alejandro Martinez, director of psychological services at the Cowell Student Health Center, one of the most positive developments has been the establishment this year of El Centro Chicano's guiding Concilio, a nine-member elected body of students, staff and faculty that meets weekly to address issues concerning the Chicano/Latino community.
Recently, the Concilio has been playing a major role in the appointment of the new assistant director of undergraduate admissions, who will be responsible for Chicano/Latino student recruitment.
"El Centro has been going through a reorganization process for the last two years, and it now has a very solid structure," says Martinez. "We now have a place where people can come to talk and bring up issues that concern them."
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