New Exhibit Showcases Chicano History on the UTEP Campus

By on June 6, 2014

Make Plans: Visitors can see “Viva La Causa: Forging UTEP’s 21st Century Demographic” at the UTEP Centennial Museum and Welcome Center from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 915-747-5565 or 915-747-6669 for more information. The opening reception is at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 7 in the museum.

On Dec. 3, 1971, the burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement made its presence known on the UTEP campus through a series of protest actions, culminating in the takeover of the Administration Building. A new Centennial Museum exhibit opening this weekend aims a spotlight on the events leading up to that day and how they resonated throughout the following decades.

“Viva La Causa: Forging UTEP’s 21st Century Demographic” will open with a public reception at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 7. Designed by the Department of History and Museo Urbano – an ongoing project directed by the history department and community partners – in honor of the University’s 100th birthday, it is the newest in the Centennial Exhibit Series and will be on display through Aug. 2.

UTEP student activists congregate outside the Administration Building on Dec. 3, 1971 in support of Mexican-American equality on campus. Photo by Steve Larsen.

Using historical photographs and newspaper articles, original artwork and firsthand accounts of a pivotal moment in student activism on campus, the exhibit contextualizes local student involvement within the national Chicano movement.

The day of the takeover is broken down hour by hour in one section of the exhibit. More backstory is presented throughout, going back to November 1971 when students presented then-president Joseph Smiley their requests for more Chicano faculty, tutoring and greater collaboration between the brand-new Chicano Studies department and other disciplines on campus.

When the President’s office failed to respond before the given 72-hour deadline, student activists moved to block the entrance of the Administration Building to get the attention of the administration. Law enforcement was called in and many of the students were forcibly removed, detained and sprayed with tear gas.

The idea to tell the story of this moment was first cultivated by Department of History Chair Yolanda Chávez Leyva, Ph.D., about a year ago.

“She proposed the idea to some of the master’s students in one of her graduate seminars and two of us took advantage of researching and writing papers on the events,” said Angelina Martinez, who is working on her master’s degree in history.

Martinez and 10 other graduate students worked on gathering a solid foundation of research that would contribute to the museum exhibit. They were guided by Chávez Leyva; Director of Chicano Studies Dennis Bixler-Márquez, Ph.D.; and Claudia Rivers of UTEP Library’s Special Collections Department.

“UTEP students saw a need for improved conditions and standards of their education and they took a stand for what they believed they deserved,” Martinez said. “Students were able to take their education into their own hands and demand more from a huge university.”

Martinez also pointed out that faculty and local community members united with the student activists to demand a higher quality of education for Mexican-American students at UTEP.

The exhibit’s organizers hope that visitors gain a better understanding of the history of student activism at UTEP and how important the events that took place on and leading up to Dec. 3, 1971 were to campus then and continue to be now.

“Without the efforts of the Chicano students in 1971, UTEP would not be what it is today,” Martinez said. “We can learn from their achievements and form a connection with the demographic identity of the university that has changed and developed immensely since 1971.”

“UTEP’s diversity is one of its greatest attributes,” added graduate student Robert Flickinger, who also worked on putting the exhibit together. “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.”

One of the results of this local activism was the growth of UTEP’s Chicano Studies Department, which is now one of the oldest and most respected in the nation.

The impact of those original students standing up for themselves keeps going. Every semester, Chávez Leyva starts off her classes with one special announcement: “I’m grateful. Because of the Chicano Movement, I’m here as a professor and you are here as students.”

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Lisa Garibay is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.