Chicano activism changed campus, thinking

By on June 1, 2014

Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.

Yolanda Chavez Leyva tells her Chicano History class every semester: “I’m grateful; because of the Chicano Movement, I’m here as a professor and you are here as students.”

Leyva, Ph.D., UTEP history department chair and director of Museo Urbano, is creating an exhibit titled “UTEP and the Chicano Movement” with the help of a team of graduate students. Diving into UTEP’s archives, the students uncovered information rarely written or talked about.

Using original documents and photographs, the exhibit presents a well-rounded view of the Chicano Movement both locally and nationally. The final product will be on display inside the Centennial Museum.

Gaining traction in the 1960s, the Chicano Movement called for social inclusion and political empowerment for Mexican-Americans on issues such as farm workers’ rights and educational standards.

UTEP approved a Mexican-American Studies minor in 1970, and that led to the establishment of the Chicano Studies program a year later, which was one of the earliest in the nation. Its beginning was not without struggle and perseverance, which is one aspect of the Chicano Movement exhibit organizers hope to capture.

“UTEP’s diversity is one of its greatest attributes,” said Robert Flickinger, a graduate student at UTEP helping to create the exhibit. “The unique cultural dynamics of the campus didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. We want to tell the story of the struggle and how different groups are represented on campus and how we came to be such an inclusive and multifaceted culture here at UTEP.”

“This is an underrepresented period in UTEP’s history,” Flickinger continued. “It is an important moment that constructed the racial fabric that we are all a part of at UTEP and people should know that story.”

One section of the exhibit will break down, hour by hour, the events leading to the student takeover of the University’s Administration Building on Dec. 3, 1971.

Tensions behind the Dec. 3 protest had been building since shortly after the Chicano Studies program’s inception. Students began to request tutoring services and additional Chicano faculty hires. They also pushed for more collaboration between other departments and Chicano Studies.

On Nov. 30, 1971, the students, who were members of the mostly Hispanic student group La Mesa Directiva, brought those concerns to then-UTEP President Joseph Smiley and gave a 72-hour deadline for a response. On Dec. 3, they discovered President Smiley was in Austin and another administrator had been tasked to respond to them instead.

The student activists felt the administration was dismissive of their issues, and moved to block the main entrance of the Administration Building. Hundreds of students joined the protest. As a result, law enforcement arrested and maced many students.

“I’m a product of this movement and I never considered myself a Chicano until I got to UTEP,” said graduate student Gustavo Del Hierro. “We have these classes because of the student activism, because they pushed for this change.”

“In showing this history, it shows that community members like us can be active and if they see anything wrong in the community they can organize,” said graduate student Juan Carlos Varela. “Organization is not a new thing, it has been present for decades. It gives students hope. This exhibit can show students that they can become a participant to engage in the community.”

The exhibit “Viva la Causa: Forging UTEP’s 21st Century Demographic”  the ongoing Centennial Exhibit Series and will be on display June 7 – Aug. 2 at the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, located on the UTEP campus on the corner of University Avenue and Wiggins Road. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 915-747-6669 or visit UTEP100Years.com.

Jessica Molinar Muñoz works in UTEP’s Centennial Celebration office.

Published 6/1/14 at http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_25873879/chicano-activism-changed-campus-thinking

Jessica Molinar Muñoz is the director of communications for UTEP's Centennial Office.