When asked what culture is celebrated during the month of February, most MSU students could tell you that it is Black History Month.
But many may not know that February is also home to a celebration of another culture – it is Chicano History Month. The term “Chicano” represents a person of Mexican culture living in America who identifies strongly with their heritage. This February, MSU students have the chance to learn more about civil rights pioneers, culture, and the fight for equality. It is the time of year to celebrate Chicano History Month and to take notice of the academic and social programs the university has incorporated into the Chicano Studies field.
Chicano Studies is dedicated to the history, literature and culture of this nuanced group all year round. One professor in the arena is Dr. Jerry Garcia, who teaches such courses as Chicano History and Mexican Immigration. He is pleased with the progression of the program at MSU.
“The evolution of Chicano Studies at MSU has been remarkable,” Garcia says. “The program itself is less than ten years old, but there has always been a very strong Chicano community here.”
Recently the university approved a Ph. D. program for Chicano studies, making it only the second university in the nation to offer such a program (University of California-Santa Barbara is the other). “This is a very big thing that’s happening, and I’m not sure everyone realizes the scope of importance here. We’ve created a new space for this study, one which will bring both national and international attention to MSU,” Garcia says. As of now, Garcia says there is a waiting list for all of his classes and they are packed to capacity. With the approval of the Chicano Studies P.H.D program, the popularity is expected continue to grow in the future.
Dr. Theresa Melendez, who teaches Chicano Literature this semester, teamed with Professor Dionicio Valdes last year to write the proposal for the P.H.D. in Chicano/Latino Studies with the goal of expanding the opportunities for Chicano-Latino students to study their culture and history in a focused manner, as well as to increase the diversity of faculty and curriculum “The discipline underscores the needs and issues that our community has and allows us to concentrate on fulfilling and addressing them,” Melendez says.
Both Garcia and Melendez say Chicano students, past and present, were instrumental in creating Chicano Studies and will play a vital part in its progression. Chicano student-driven movements are nothing new. The battle for Chicano equality has been a long and arduous struggle, with students often at the forefront.
Most are familiar with Caesar Chavez, arguably the groups most notable pioneer, and founder of the present day United Farm Workers of America. Chavez led strikes and boycotts to improve the working and social conditions of migrant workers starting in the early 1950s. In addition, he urged workers to be politically active and respond to injustice.
Perhaps less known are the several student organizations that followed in Chavez’s footsteps, which also fought for Chicano rights and against the oppression of their people. One notable group of concerned high school students in Los Angeles who joined together, were the Young Chicanos For Community Action. The group decided to symbolize their oppression and unity against it by wearing brown berets, which later became the name of the organization. The Brown Berets also were involved in tackling community issues such as improving East Los Angeles schools, unemployment, safe housing and food. Many during the late 1960s and 1970s saw this as the Chicano equivalent to the Black Panthers in both their programs and radical political activism.
Presently, Melendez estimates there are about 1,200 Chicano students currently enrolled as undergrads at MSU, a number she says is very similar to other Big Ten universities. The varying backgrounds these students come from can create some obstacles in adjusting to campus culture. Fitting in and feeling welcome can be a challenge in a predominately white community and finding students with the same cultural background can be difficult, but it’s far from impossible. Also, Garcia says often times non- Chicano students and the university administration have low expectations of Chicano students and many perceive they are on a “free ride”. All of these factors can lead to retention problems, something many university groups are setting out to combat.
Oscar Vega is a social relations junior and Office of Racial and Ethnic Student Affairs aide, as well as a member of Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan or MEXA. MEXA works to open doors for Chicanos around the country through educational programs, mentoring and various outreach programs aimed at increasing college enrollment. Vega says this and other Chicano/Latino groups on campus foster a sense of family between their members “We are trying to grow more,” Vega says. “Currently there are a lot more students interested than professors available to guide us, so that is one way to show the university we need to be allowed to expand.”
“MEXA has played a significant part in the development of Chicano/Latino Studies since they along with similar student groups have been working for over 30 years to bring Chicano-Latino Studies and our community concerns to this campus through various student actions,” Melendez says.
February is a time of many commemorations, from President’s Day to Black History month and Garcia feels that Chicano and Latino historical observance fits together nicely along side Black History Month celebrations. “We share many historical experiences and a common past of overcoming oppression by seeking social justice and contributing to the national civil rights movement,” he says.
Human biology sophomore Sergio Montes Garza sees the month-long celebration as important enough to stand beside Black History Month. “I think it’s a good thing, that this month is recognized as the Chicano/Latino’s since it is demonstrating the intent to increase diversity and enough people are willing to participate in it for it to make an impact,” he says.
Many non-Chicano students, however, seem to know little about the celebration, and find it strange that it is celebrated during the same time of year as Black History. “I think it’s strange, that after fifteen years in the public school system this was never mentioned to me,” undeclared sophomore Kelly Sorenson says. “You would think that a group like this would get a separate month to increase awareness. I thought February was Black History month, but this is the first I’ve heard of another group being associated with this month.”
Hopefully through the celebrations this month as well as the new academic programs being offered to students, awareness of Chicano history, culture, and their deep-rooted presence in this country will become more widespread. Not just during February, but all year long.
Melendez says If Chicanos and Latinos will be the largest minority group in the United States, then universities should be preparing themselves and the larger society for this new demographic change.
“We need an informed population that understands the critical issues of the day,” she says.

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