In the culminating event of the two-week-long Chicanx Series hosted by M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztln), human rights activist Carlos Montes spoke via web chat about his personal history with the Brown Berets, fighting for equality of Latinx people from the 1960s to the present.
Though Montes’ appearance was a high point of this year’s iteration of the soon-to-be annual Series, M.E.Ch.A. has long-term goals that extend beyond a yearly celebration of Latinx and Chicanx culture.
Knox’s chapter of M.E.Ch.A. is aiming for the eventual creation of a Latinx Studies minor, and potential major.
“Latinx” refers to the culture of the people whose heritage is traced to Latin American countries, Spanish-speaking and otherwise, while Chicanx refers to people of specifically Mexican descent as their history and heritage interacts with that of the United States. The “x” in either term stands as an inclusion of all genders within either group of self-identified individuals.
Sophomore and Alumni Relations Chair of M.E.Ch.A. Karla Medina said that getting to hear from Montes was an inspiration: His firsthand experiences opened her eyes, she said, and reminded the organization of their founding generation’s long history of activism. As M.E.Ch.A. looks to the future, discussions and dialogues like these are intended to become the foundation for change.
“[Montes] is our goals, he’s what we aspire to be, all that we want to bring onto the campus,” Medina said. “We’re trying to open up the conversation more to what students want.”
She explained that inclusivity within the discussions was a major goal for M.E.Ch.A. with the series, one she feels was reasonably well-accomplished this year.
“I think it’s worthwhile to make our presence known here on campus so students get more of a rounded view of the different presences,” she said. “We just wanted to make a more inclusive sort of events that bring more knowledge onto the campus.”
Senior Andrea Santoyo hopes for a broader understanding of Chicanx culture on campus. The inclusion of a variety of voices in M.E.Ch.A.-lead discussions was one avenue the club took, and Santoyo emphasized that this type of education is at the heart of M.E.Ch.A.’s work.
“As a Chicanx individual I would say it’s more like letting other people know that we have been fighting for our struggle, for getting our land back and what not, but it is also embracing our culture in ways nobody else has,” Santoyo said. “Embracing our literature, our archetypes, our ancestors.”
Even before the first of the three events in the Chicanx Series began, students like junior and M.E.Ch.A. Co-President Marilyn Barnes noticed that there was limited space on Knox’s campus where students could embrace their Chicanx culture.
“We only have one Chicanx literature class [at Knox], and it’s only available like once every two years. I don’t really know a lot of my history,” she said. “I want to learn about the Latinos that are in the United States. We’ve been here for a while, it’s not like we’re new, you know? I want people like me to know what has happened, because a lot of times we’re blinded. Not a lot of people see what has actually happened in the United States.”
For Barnes, it’s important knowledge for students of all backgrounds, not only those who identify as being Latinx or Chicanx. Having access to resources on her culture would, she believes, change the perceptions of it held by Latinx or Chicanx individuals and white individuals alike.
“I know a lot of [Latinx or Chicanx] people that come here and once they graduate they hope to never go back to their neighborhood. That’s not what I want. I want people to go back and give back, because now they know why a lot of people in their neighborhoods are in the situations that they’re in, it’s not really their fault,” she said. “And I guess for white people, too, to realize the same thing. I know you go in Chicago and they tell you, ‘Don’t go here, it’s really bad.’ But you don’t know why it’s really bad, you just judge the people.”
It is thus in conversation with their recently-appointed new faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Anthropology-Sociology Teresa Gonzales, that Barnes and other members of M.E.Ch.A. have begun to push for the creation of a Latinx Studies major and minor at Knox.
The first big move will be a Latinx Studies 101 course offered this fall, taught by a visiting faculty member. Additionally, Gonzales herself will teach a 200-level sociology course with a heavy emphasis on Latinx culture in the United States in the spring of 2017.
“I’m not a trained Latinx scholar,” Gonzales said. “So I articulated that to [the representatives from M.E.Ch.A.] but said, you know, I am willing and I understand there’s a need, and I recognize the need to teach more sociology-focused classes that center on Latinx culture around the United States.”
The issue, according to Gonzales, exists on multiple levels. The need for representation of all historically marginalized groups in academia is an ongoing discussion, and one of the most significant arguments for the creation of a Latinx Studies major.
“We really see the need on campus given the demographics of the student body on campus, but then also the changing demographics of the United States. It’s not feasible to continue not offering these types of courses,” she said. “If you don’t see yourself represented in the coursework, if you don’t see yourself represented in the classroom in a variety of ways, if we look at the demographics of the faculty, right, there’s that issue. But also if we look at the content of the classes that are being offered, that sends a very specific message.”
For the sake of history, Gonzales feels that providing the opportunity for students to learn about Latinx and Chicanx culture is vital to creating a socially conscious society, a value central to Knox’s foundation as an institution. This builds on the idea of representation and takes it a step further.
“It’s about understanding, where is [racially based societal power] coming into play and thinking about how we understand ourselves as a nation? How do we recognize our very complicated and complex history so that we don’t repeat a lot of the mistakes that we’ve made?” she said. “It’s along class lines, along gender lines, along racial lines, along all these various avenues of stratification. And this is where I think it really becomes key, and it’s not just about learning our history. If we are a liberal arts institution, how do we really get into the depths of this?”
Academically, these depths are just beginning to see exploration. However, M.E.Ch.A.’s Chicanx Series and other events they plan to sponsor are a promising start to the discussion.
Santoyo believes creating visibility is a crucial first step.
“It’s missing,” she said. “Since we’d seen that there was a lack of Chicanx classes, that was our main priority. It was the beginning steps of what lead up to the Chicanx Series, just to inform everyone else what Chicanx folks are, how we identify ourselves, our struggles.”
*Editor’s note: Nadia Spock contributed to this reporting