“Frank. NEVER trust an Anglo.” That was the steely admonition of John. A Chicano, WWII US Navy veteran who took advantage of his G.I. Bill benefits to earn a college degree and purchase a Levittown-styled home in the southside of Chiques. Then as an Oxnard firefighter, he scaled the ranks to assistant chief. But before his training he sued his future employer because the outfit’s arbitrary height requirement, which he could not meet, had nothing to do with his ability, or that of other applicants of his stature, to perform the job.
As I absorbed his directive with concentration, I thought to myself, “They [whites] aren’t all bad.” Why I grew up with a good number of them. Moreover, the best man at my wedding, Cody, was a white guy, one of the last americanos who lived in Mission Hills just across the way from San Fernando High. To this day, if I’d ever find myself in a jam or life-cycle moment, Cody tops the list of brothers to call. So, I trust him.
Then there are the Anglo teachers, coaches, advisors, and bosses—many of the Jewish persuasion—that treated me all right.
Nonetheless, I periodically ponder John’s counsel. Because there is a complexity behind it. In my research for Curious Unions and subsequent casual conversations we had as friends, John shared how one of his Anglo superiors worked to diversify Oxnard’s monochrome fire department. Conversely, he also relayed a weariness toward the city’s police, a force made up of largely white officers for much of the twentieth century. One story entailed how when he lived next to the city’s jail on A street as a boy, he often heeded the screams of tortured inmates.
Although I am conflicted about not trusting people of any demographic solely because of the society from which they belong, I understand where John (RIP) was coming from. As a person of the Mexican American Generation who came of age roughly between the years of the Great Depression and the Korean War, he and his cohort of Brown ethnics lived an in-your-face, apartheid-like reality much like that conveyed in the movie GIANT. Whites, the rich, kind of rich, and the hardscrabble class, like the uncouth Jett Rink, called the shots at the workplace, in government, and public spaces. And as Bick Benedict’s sister Luz did on screen, they barked orders at their “Mexicans.” Hence, an Anglo dictatorship viewed ethnic Mexicans, as a subordinate people created inferiorly by God—if there is one—to serve them. Los gueros also Orientalized, to use Edward Said’s definition, ethnic Mexicans as a generalized, static, and backward people—at best, when not selling drugs and violating women.
Therefore, John and his generation, as well as politicized Chicanas and Chicanos of mine, understood how white Orientalists fantasized representations of ethnic Mexicans in stereotypical ways, often with a presumptuous noblesse oblige, to materially privilege their tribe legally, economically, and spatially. To undergird their power further, Orientalists fabricated and inculcated a steady stream of myths, dishonestly packaged as history, to students and the public by way of fiction and film. The stinking badges scene in Humphrey Bogart’s 1948 movie The Treasure of Sierra Madre comes to mind.
This settler colonialist “history” replete with lies and omissions centers white protagonists as nation saviors, redeemers, heroes, founders, and pioneers. I internalized this worldview in watching John Wayne movies of the Stagecoach, The Alamo, and the particularly laughable and offensive The Green Berets kind. Ethnic Mexicans, Native Americans, Blacks, and Asian characters, when recognized on the page or big screen, were depicted as marginal in Easy Rider, inarticulate like The Lone Ranger’s Tonto, and obsequious as Hop Sing in Bonanza.
Orientalists dictate representations. This is how power, and supremacy, work. It’s coded, not so subliminally, and normalized. This is why the lions must have their historians, as Chinua Achebe submits, so the glory of the hunt will not always be attributed to the hunter.
As I have aged, I more fully understand John’s wisdom. He lived in a societal system where Anglos were always the hunters and had been betrayed by them more than once, I’m sure.
As an educator, I have seen hunter, settler-colonial, Orientalist forces in play, especially in the institution of curriculum (i.e., histories) as well as academe’s selection of the next generation of storytellers. For example, Anglo tenure-track faculty — a numerical minority at my campus, California State University Channel Islands — exercise their supremacy in the formulation of courses and capricious criteria that privilege different sub-groups of their larger tribe while systemically disadvantaging Chicanas/os and other lions from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs).
A white professorate who dominates the ranks of the tenure-track faculty has authored courses that are essentially culturally irrelevant to the glories of Chicanas/os, Blacks, Indigenous, and ethnic Asian students. Indeed, centering the campus’s curriculum on the epistemologies of Chicanas/os and other HUGs students is unimaginable not only to most, if not all, Anglo faculty but also lion educators whose minds have been colonized by WASP knowledge systems. Unless learned in the departments of Chicana/o, Africana, Indigenous, and Asian American Studies, the epistemologies, cosmologies, and ontologies of peoples of color are never at the center of learning, if learned about at all… much like in the movies.
Oppressively Eurocentric hunter-histories in the form of curriculum then serve as the required and preferred criteria of tenure-track job announcements tooled by settler colonial professors, often recent pilgrims from Northern, Southern, and Midwestern regions of the US with little to no consideration of the cultural capital of people of color. What they know of Chicanas/os, Blacks, Indigenous, and ethnic Asian American peoples is superficial at best. If they are experts in an area of study, they are prone to employ, as Said posits, Orientalist perspectives.
Then this ruling class of faculty dominate search committees, like jurists in a courtroom trial, to select the next generation of colleagues that are racial reflections of themselves. The chosen often are ol’ boy and ol’ gal peers of graduate school and professional conferences. More insidiously, over the years, I have exposed job announcements patterned after the resumes of favored white applicants.
Furthermore, before the last five years, my university conducted a tenure-track recruitment process that was centralized. After two preliminary screenings, this entailed interdisciplinary search committees inviting three, sometimes four, candidates to interview on campus. As part of the recruitment of new tenure-track colleagues, existing Orientalist faculty mouthed rhetoric about the importance of diversity. Naively, wanting to be accepted, I trusted my Anglo faculty colleagues as I liked them and, I think, they liked me, for the most part, especially as I did not rock the campus boat back then.
Then, circa 2009, a colleague in Chicana/o Studies pointed out to me that most academic departments across campus failed to invite HUGs applicants to interview on campus. And the few that did arrive were ultimately rejected. As I write this story, viscerally I am reliving the punch-in-the-gut emotion of betrayal when I awakened to the fact that most of my white colleagues spoke with forked tongues. They hired their own as this was where their tribal loyalty existed.
The intervention by my Chicana/o Studies colleague compelled me to think back to one ethnic Mexican candidate named Luis who interviewed on campus for a position in the Education department. As the recruitment process back then encouraged all professors, students, staff, community members, and administrators to observe the teaching demonstrations of candidates, I sat in Luis’s presentation as he was not only an ethnic Mexican but also trained at the Claremont Graduate University as I was. He lectured on the consequence of Paulo Freire’s learning theories and culturally relevant education for HUGs students.
After an analysis of Dr. Seuss’s book, The Sneetches, Luis described how our nation’s elementary schools debilitated the learning of ethnic Mexican grade-schoolers, both the US-born and migrant, by the ablation of cultural support systems. To prove his point, Luis broke down how trusting parents escorted their children to their first days of school with mochilas — metaphorically complete with the assets to communicate in both English and Spanish, knowledge of their rich history, and a strong identity of who they were. Straightaway, however, teachers at the classroom door seized these powers from the mochilas of students. Furthermore, schools grounded in a WASP settler colonial tradition did not celebrate or inculcate the danza, musica, and holiday traditions of the community they served. School systems, hence, excised the cultural connective tissue of chicanita y chicanito students, severely disabling their learning readiness from day one.
For young ethnic Mexican children to excel academically it behooved educators to embrace and center the cultural capital of language, history, and community of these students. As I account in Mexican Americans with Moxie, during the Chicano Movement, the Brown Berets of Oxnard understood this by staging a pedagogical intervention with the administrators and teachers of the Oxnard School District in the late 1960s. They pointed out to district officials that it was the teachers that were deficient, not the students. The Brown Berets then ran a tutorial program that centered a curriculum of the community, by the community, and for the community as an amour propre served as the foundation for learning excellence. A half century later, this model is mandated in California state law for high schools, community colleges, and universities as Ethnic Studies.
I was blown back by Luis’ lecture. He was perfect for the position. A shoo-in, I thought. But disappointedly, I never saw him again. Another white candidate became my colleague instead.
No matter. The struggle continues.
All, however, is not so bleak. Incremental, steady progress is being made in the diversification of the tenure-track faculty with the support of white allies who get it, so to speak, and who wish not to play the role of an Orientalist. They are okay with supporting Chicana/os and other people of color centering their experience and expertise in the further development of a university that serves the needs of a student population of the 21st century.
And for this, I hold qualified trust as there still remain academic departments, despite their empty liberal rhetoric of inclusion, at CSU Channel Islands that have no Chicanas or Chicanos as tenure-track faculty.