Harvard Educational Review
  1. Anything but Mexican

    Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles

    By Rodolfo F. Acuña

    New York: Verso, 1996. 328 pp. $29.95 (paper)

    Anything but Mexican is an incisive, meticulously researched, and timely book that documents the irreversible demographic shift taking place in California, particularly in Los Angeles, which has the second-largest population of Mexicans after Mexico City. This is the first book that analyses the historical significance of this fact in cultural, political, economic, and educational terms. It should be read by educators and policymakers for an up-to-date understanding of the contemporary Chicano community of Los Angeles.

    Author Rodolfo F. Acuña is the foremost historian on Chicanos today. He wrote the seminal book, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, as well as The Sonoran Strongman and Community Under Siege. He is professor and founder of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, which has become the largest Chicano Studies department in the United States.

    As Acuña explains, the plight of Mexicans/Chicanos in contemporary Los Angeles is partly explained by the pervasive historical amnesia of Euroamerica. He states:

    It has long been an insult to be considered Mexican in this city. Until recently, for example, Mexican food was considered "Spanish," although it is one of the few things Mexican almost universally accepted by Euroamericans. . . . This preference for the European appears in L.A.'s public relations that promote a mythical Los Angeles in which cultural borrowing and harmony are the rule. That myth included the fantasy of a romantic "Hispanic"--read, European --past of dons and ranchos. That tradition is acceptable to Euroangelenos; the Mexican reality is not. (p. 1)

    The fact is, there were never more than 100,000 Spaniards in Mexico or the Southwest at any one time. Mexicans are overwhelmingly Native American or mestizo, and, along with other Hispanics, they continue to have a strong presence in Los Angeles today. According to the U.S. Census, a little over 2.5 million people of Mexican extraction were living in Los Angeles in 1990, or 28.5 percent of the city's population; other "Hispanics" numbered 738,113, or 8 percent, making the total Hispanic population nearly one-third of the population of Los Angeles. Taking into consideration the usual undercount of Hispanics (i.e., undocumented, etc.), the figure could well be much larger.

    Since the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexicans have been a conquered people in California, disempowered politically and economically. The restructuring of the city's economy in the 1970s, particularly the decline of heavy industry and the disappearance of manual labor jobs, combined with the city's economic decline in the 1980s, has had a devastating impact on the Chicano population. As Acuña notes, "Restructuring had severe human consequences in Los Angeles. . . . In Los Angeles County, Euroamericans made up 17 percent of those living in poverty; Latinos, 56.8 percent; Blacks, 15.5 percent; and Asians, 9.5 percent. U.S.-born Latinos earned 78 cents of every white male's dollar; U.S.-born Latinas earned 47 cents; and immigrant Latinas, 30 cents" (p. 177).

    For Mexicans in Los Angeles, who have historically been marginalized economically and politically, education was always the key to the doorway of hope. But Chicanos and Latinos have faced serious obstacles in their quest for quality education: most recently, funding cutbacks in education (in 1978, Proposition 13 reduced substantially the local tax base for education) and a backlash of bigotry, as exemplified by Proposition 187 (denying education to undocumented students), Proposition 209 (the state's coup de grace of affirmative action), and the recent Unz Initiative, which calls for the dismantling of bilingual education. Within the context of this scenario, the dire state of Mexicans/Chicanos/Latinos in education can be better understood. Acuña documents the numbers:

    In 1992 Latinos accounted for over 63 percent of the pupils in the Los Angeles Unified School district and close to 70 percent of those in elementary schools. . . . Latino high school seniors performed at the ninth-grade level in reading. Statewide, their high school dropout rate was double that of white students; 54 percent of the 19,381 high school students dropping out of the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) in 1987-1988 were Latinos. Overall, Latinos in the late 1980s had a 40 percent high school dropout rate. (p. 290)

    Despite the history of adversity in Los Angeles, Mexicans have endured, learned, and redoubled their struggle for a better life. Acuña too is hopeful for a better future:

    We can only hope that fewer of our people will hacerce pendejos [willingly remain ignorant] in the next, crucial, period of time, as Chicanos and Latinos build their political base in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States. . . . Neither riots, fires, earthquakes, police harassment or Proposition 187 can drive Mexicanos and other Latinos out of Los Angeles. That is because they have no other place to go--this is and has been their home, and they will not be driven away. So perhaps, if people remember that, the days of "anything but Mexican" are numbered. (p. 320)



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Book Notes

Revolutionary Multiculturalism
By Peter McLaren

Anything but Mexican
By Rodolfo F. Acuña

Education for Extinction
By David Wallace Adams

The Other Struggle for Equal Schools
By Rubén Donato

The Changing Curriculum
By Ivor F. Goodson

Personas Mexicanas
By James Diego Vigil

Many Families, Many Literacies
Edited by Denny Taylor