Speakers from differing walks of academic and social-political life gathered at CSUN May 12 and 13 to pay homage to Rodolfo Acuna and his pivotal role in the Chicano/a Studies Department at CSUN.
Acuna helped create a Chicano/a Studies Department on campus, has written several academic Chicano books and articles and has been involved in social activism.
The event, “Symposium On The Works of Rodolfo F. Acuna,” focused on two themes, with Thursday’s conference, “Rodolfo F. Acuna and Community Scholarship,” primarily highlighting Acuna’s academic literature, including “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” considered by many to be the premiere Chicano history book.
About 200 people attended Thursday’s panel discussion moderated by Gabriel Gutierrez of the Chicano Studies Department in the Oviatt Library Presentation Room.
Chicana political activist Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, said she has worked for 22 years as an activist for Central Americans fleeing civil war in their countries to seek asylum in the United States. She has also spoken out in opposition of U.S. involvement in those conflicts.
Sanbrano said that during the early 1980s, Chicanos had little knowledge about Central American issues, or even “where El Salvador was.” She said some Chicanos criticized her for not focusing on local Chicano activism.
“There’s a connection between all these issues,” Sanbrano said she told her critics.
Acuna needed no convincing, Sanbrano said. He supported her efforts from the start, and with his help and others, by the mid-1980s, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan was one of the biggest supporters of her efforts.
Acuna said he went to El Salvador in 1991 and was moved by what he saw.
“I learned more in El Salvador than in any library (because) I could see faces,” Acuna said after Sanbrano spoke.
Acuna recounted that while he was in El Salvador, he witnessed a church bombing. Acuna went inside and saw about 30 people inside the sanctuary praying for God to save them.
“I thought, ‘This is not right,'” Acuna said. “The U.S. purchased the bombs, and we are acquiescing (by not protesting).”
Acuna said “death squads” had a contract out to kill Sanbrano, but that it did not deter her from her activism.
“We all need heroes,” Acuna said. “Angela is my hero.”
Acuna said he named his daughter after Sanbrano because he wanted his daughter to have a strong role model.
“I’m really proud that I (did),” he said.
Eric Mann, from the Labor Community Strategy Center, spoke about sharing Acuna’s commitment to the community instead of consumption.
“My family had been through the Holocaust,” Mann said. “What did I hear? Racial remarks against blacks (and other ethnic groups).”
Relatives told him to forget about the Holocaust and concentrate on making money.
“Ethical evil based on consumption,” Mann said.
Mann spoke about his days as a Chicano/a studies professor at CSUN, when his friends thought “it would be good to have a Jew around.” He also spoke of battling General Motors alongside Acuna and leaders from the black community to keep GM auto plants open, and hundreds of working-class people employed.
Mann said these were important times, but Acuna is still a force for change today.
“Rudy Acuna is not living in the past,” Mann said. He continues to reinvent himself for the benefit of humanity.”
Jorge Garcia, Chicano/a Studies Department professor, and Dr. Mary Pardo, department chair, said that in the early days of the department, there was little to no published academic literature on Chicanos, nor were Chicano disciplines recognized by the academic community.
Garcia, who Gabriel Gutierrez described as the unsung hero of the Chicano Studies Department, said Acuna changed the idea historians had when they said, “‘There is no Chicano history. It doesn’t exist.’ Rudy assigned us a lot of bad books.”
Then, Acuna wrote “Occupied America, A History of Chicanos.”
“I’ll use the metaphor again,” Garcia said. “This thing hit us like a tsunami.”
Garcia said the five editions of “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” need to be read individually, because each edition is different then the last. Garcia, who some describe as the most-well read intellectual in the Chicano Studies Department, said he has dissected versions of the book and checked the footnote references.
Unlike other academic books, which come up short scholastically, “it’s all there” in Acuna’s book, Garcia said.
He also spoke of the pre-computer days in the department’s beginnings when Acuna created roughly 46 course proposals in two weeks time, a phenomenal achievement, according to Garcia.
“This is an incredible work of Rudy Acuna,” Garcia said.
Acuna said Garcia wrote 100 percent of the course proposals that Acuna could not.
“Jorge is the one guy I couldn’t have done it without,” Acuna said. “Jorge was always there, and I’m very proud to have worked with him. I’m very proud he’s my colleague.”
Pardo remarked how satisfying it was for her as a student and beginning academic to see the transformation of Acuna as somebody who responded to the criticism of Chicanas that Chicano men were not including them in the movement, and that Acuna was not including them in the early editions of his books.
Pardo cited the bibliography of the first edition of “Occupied America,” in which she said women were not an included category and received little notice, and the fifth edition, in which Acuna uses Chicano/a to include women, and where there are hundreds of references to women and chapters dedicated to Chicanas.
“(Comparing) the first through fifth edition(s) (is) a great barometer,” Pardo said. “It tells you a lot about the author. What it means to be passionately dedicated to the field.”