Rodolfo Acuna, a man many describe as the
fearless “godfather” of Chicano scholars and the author of the legendary history book “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos” does one thing: retirement.
Although technically semi-retired, Acuna continues to teach classes in the CSUN Chicano/a Studies Department he helped establish, as he has for more than 35 years, while simultaneously working on his latest book and articles for scholarly publications.
He has no plans to quit any time soon.
“I think I’d shoot myself if the only thing I had to look forward to is an RV or to hit a little white ball,” Acuna said. “To me, it would tell me I’m useless, and I don’t want that.”
Acuna has received many awards and citations, including recognition by the Black Issues In Higher Education as one of the “100 Most Influential Educators of the 20th Century.”
During his office hours, Acuna can be found sitting in a small office in Jerome Richfield Hall, typing away on his laptop. Acuna has the ability to type and carry on a conversation without missing a beat.
It appears that what others say about him is true: He is motivated by the work at hand.
Acuna first came to San Fernando Valley State College (which later became CSUN) in 1969, at the urging of students as the school was in the grips of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
At the time, Chicano and African American students were underrepresented in all aspects on campus, Acuna said. The catalyst for change was when African American students took over the administration building and demanded a more diverse university and departments.
“We Chicanos (and) Latinos owe (African American students) a tremendous debt,” Acuna said. “They broke it open.”
Acuna was invited to start a Chicano/a Studies Department by the students, including current Chicano/a Studies Professor Everto Ruiz and Political Science Professor Henry Lopez. The students knew Acuna had the academic credentials to establish a department.
“There was a lot of resistance (from the university),” Acuna said. “They thought we were going to fail and go away, and when we didn’t, many people were upset.”
In those early days, Acuna said he didn’t get much sleep as he wrote course proposals and set up the major and minor requirements for the fledgling department. There were only six full-time faculty on staff.
One move that Acuna made that some say shows he understood the value of collective power was to establish that the department chair could hold the seat for no more than one-year. For the most part, that policy has worked out well, Acuna said.
“We had one chair (for whom) we had to use the Jaws of Life to pry him from that chair,” Acuna said. “He didn’t want to give it up.”
Today, the Chicano/a Studies Department boasts 60 courses, more than 50 full-time and part-time professors, and offers everything from a bachelor’s to a master’s degree.
“We’ve grown,” Acuna said.
W hile some things have changed for the better, Acuna said apathy and greed are the two biggest hurdles Chicanos and other people of color face today.
“The word ‘racism’ has taken on a much different meaning than it did 30 years ago,” Acuna said. “We have J. Lo, Halle Berry, Kobe Bryant. All these rich people. (Why) I got involved in civil rights, people (today) don’t know those reasons. They want to have a good time, make money. Act like the whites do. They’re escaping through economics. Black people do it also. The media has a lot to do with it — a lack of history. (We’re) wiping out our essence as a people.”
Acuna expressed his frustration with the lack of meaningful dialogue on campuses throughout the nation.
“You have people right now (who) don’t care about the truth,” Acuna said. “They become like little Hitler youth. They want to have one linear view. Education is supposed to be a place where you interact. We’ve become like the Fox (News) channel. At one time, professors would talk about social issues. Now, they take a second job to make more money. Why did they get into education?”
The lack of scholastic writings by some professors in his department and throughout the university is also a source of frustration, Acuna says.
Acuna has a lot to say, as his 15 books and hundreds of published articles attest to, and he prides himself on his scholastic output.
“I honestly feel it is the obligation of the professor to write,” Acuna said. “You don’t get a reputation as a department in academia through teaching. You get it through publications. Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game.
“Some (professors) don’t respect the field,” Acuna continued. “They moonlight; they go out and get other jobs. It is disrespectful to the students and the field. People here are not getting paid badly. They should be here doing their work. People who get published should get paid more. People who work with students and get published should get paid more. But we don’t make it like that.”
David Rodriguez, associate chair of the Chicano/a Studies Department, calls Acuna a “scholarholic” whose books, publications, relentless work ethic and willingness to engage in a concrete and fruitful debate is the best mentorship any young professor could ask for.
“He leads by example,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez first met Acuna in 1971, when Rodriguez attended CSUN as a student and took one of Acuna’s classes.
“The word was already out that this was the person to talk to about history,” Rodriguez said. “In the classroom, he is very dynamic. (He’ll) say outrageous things to get your attention. He creates an atmosphere (where) you’re focused, you’re paying attention.”
Among his colleagues, Acuna has a way as well, Rodriguez said.
“He likes to tease people in a good-natured way,” Rodriguez said. He laughed, then added, “But he doesn’t like to be teased back.”
After a moment, Rodriguez considered this last thought.
“His teasing actually relieves some of the tension in an atmosphere (at the university) that is patronizing at times (and) paternal in its approach. (Where some question) your validity.”
Rodriguez said he can’t emphasize enough how important it was that the students in 1969 selected Acuna, with his doctorate degree, teaching credentials and political savvy, to head the Chicano/a studies program.
“He was the heart of the department,” Rodriguez said. “That’s not an exaggeration.”
Acuna’s writings, as well as his willingness
to put himself in the eye of many social and political storms, has earned him the adoration of many.
“People come to him like he’s the Godfather,” Rodriguez said. “They want him to sign ‘Occupied America.'”
Acuna gets a lot of attention, Rodriguez said, but the paradox is that despite his willingness to engage, he is a shy person.
Everyone who knows Acuna, or ever faced off with him, knows he has always been willing to engage.
“His outspoken way doesn’t hurt us,” Rodriguez said. “It inspires us.”
Rodriguez said Acuna’s style might hurt other people at times, because when they are not listening, Acuna is not afraid to get in their faces until they do.
In 1996, Acu?a won a sizeable settlement against the University of California, Santa Barbara, for age discrimination, and has since created a foundation that other professors can use in similar cases.
Jorge Garcia, a longtime friend of Acuna and former chair of the Chicano/a Studies Department, has a story to tell about Acuna’s “willingness to engage.”
In the early days, they were a “pariah department,” Garcia said. Nobody wanted to deal with them. They would show up uninvited to university committee meetings and fight for recognition of their classes or other areas of concern, Garcia said.
At one particular meeting that Acuna and Garcia crashed, they fought with the committee for “two-and-a-half hours straight,” Garcia said.
As they left, Garcia
said he could see the physical evidence of that altercation in the sweat on Acuna’s shirt.
“We talked about how uncomfortable that is (to confront people),” Garcia said. “People accuse Rudy of seeking the limelight. (As) a tenured professor, he felt it was his obligation to protect others. He would much rather do the academic work he does so well, instead of some political fight. It has been a hard life. He has had to battle. He’s not coming back from some picnic. It was a battle.”
What will be Acuna’s legacy? “The thing that stands out is ‘Occupied America,'” Garcia said. “It is the Chicano history book. It sets the standard for all books about Chicanos.”
Garcia also pointed out that Acuna’s social activism and electoral political work will leave a lasting impression.
“He’s like a catalyst,” Garcia said. “He helps clarify issues. He’s like a series of ripples going through the community. Some might say he’s like a tsunami.”
But Acuna doesn’t think he will have a legacy,and has simply never considered it.
“I’m proud that we’ve paid attention to gender,” Acuna said. “Sixty-five percent of our faculty (in Chicano/a studies) are women. The department has made an effort to get rid of homophobia. Students are sensitive to the issue. I’m proud of that fact.”
Acuna said he thinks current Chicano/a Studies Department Chair Mary Pardo is doing a great job, and as more professors get their work published, the department is slowly building a reputation.
He praises several professors who are doing good work, including Juana Mora.
“I like people who work hard,” Acuna says.
But what about his legacy?
“I tried to make things less imperfect than when I got to this place,” Acuna said.
Acuna doesn’t look like your stereotypical brilliant scholar. He looks like your favorite uncle, with a gleam in his eyes and a stick of Juicy Fruit in his shirt pocket to give you.
In fact, the entire staff of the Chicano/a Studies Department looks like your aunts and uncles. Maybe that will end up being Rodolfo Acuna’s legacy: that he helped make that possible.