I am a Chicano scholar-activist.
What does it mean for me to be a scholar-activist? (Thanks for asking.) It means, based on my understanding and experience, that I have one foot in the academy or academe and one foot in Chicana/o-Latina/o communities. It means being a bridge between these asymmetric spaces: institutions of higher education and racialized/working-class communities. It means for the former, with its privileged members, to serve the latter -- not vice versa, as is the norm.
As an interdisciplinary scholar, I have been trained or socialized to the norms and rules of the academy. This includes elite universities, such as the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D.), and the University of California, Los Angeles (B.A., M.A.). I say this not to boast or brag (well, maybe a little bit) but to push back against everyone who has questioned my academic abilities -- as a Chicano kid from East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project or Big Hazard projects -- to compete and thrive at the highest levels in higher education. While I am not seeking pity or sympathy -- especially given my privileged positionality -- too often, similar to my violent upbringing, I must regularly defend myself against academic bullies and haters (to put it in scholarly terms).
A message to the academic bullies and haters: I am not a Mexican boy who you can push around or pat on the head! So, as Kendrick Lamar raps, “Sit down … be humble.”
Higher education is like mountain climbing -- the higher a scholar of color climbs, the whiter it gets. As one of the few Chicana/os to obtain a Ph.D. in urban planning and related fields from an elite university, through my graduate studies and academic career, I have often been the only brown body in the room. While I do not get intimidated by anyone or any situation, thanks to being raised on the mean streets of the Eastside, I aim to change this unjust reality. Actually, since my undergraduate years at UCLA, I have advocated for more working-class Chicana/os-Latina/os and other racialized groups to pursue higher education.
As a faculty member and public intellectual, I’m in privileged position to help more people from similar backgrounds -- racialized minorities, children of immigrants, first-generation university students, those from working-class backgrounds or impoverished/violent upbringings, and the like. I encourage historically marginalized youth to not only seek undergraduate degrees but also to pursue professional and graduate degrees. That includes speaking at high schools, community colleges and community forums and organizing on-campus workshops on demystifying and applying to graduate and professional schools.
When it comes to serving or advocating for Chicana/o-Latina/o communities and other racialized groups, while some scholars talk a good game, they don’t walk the talk. Like the concept of the rational actor, which suggests that people act rationally and in their self-interest, these individuals are more interested in advancing their own social status. While I am not against the idea of individual advancement, generally speaking, I am against individuals who purposely exploit racialized and working-class communities -- by extracting their knowledge, lived experiences, stories and so on -- to advance their own individualistic agendas and goals without any form of reciprocation.
In my case, not only did I grow up poor, but I also spent over 15 years as a community organizer before pursuing my graduate studies. By doing so, I incurred opportunity costs. In other words, instead of advancing my professional career, I invested my time and energy in serving marginalized communities. Among other actions, that included: leading a grassroots campaign to defeat a proposed power plant in the city of South Gate, Calif. (early 2000s); co-organizing Latino immigrant gardeners against a draconian law in the city of Los Angeles (late 1990s); and co-organizing a hunger strike at UCLA to defend financial aid support for undocumented students (mid-1980s).
In fact, the UCLA hunger strike in 1987 that I helped organize, as a member of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), was a precursor to a similar action led by UCLA students (and one faculty member) in 1993. The latter eventually led to the creation of the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies. This department has helped UCLA create more ethnic studies and social justice classes for its Chicana/o-Latina/o student population. It has also facilitated the hiring of Chicana/o-Latina/ faculty members. Many years later, I am still waiting for my Hallmark thank-you card or box of See’s Candies from UCLA. And since campus/community organizing consists of collective efforts by dedicated individuals and leaders, let’s not forget about the other co-organizers and, especially, the hunger strikers of this historic event.
The scholar-activist, however, like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect in the academy. While traditional or mainstream scholars refuse to fully recognize our research-action efforts, activists criticize us for operating in the so-called ivory tower. This is a reality or predicament that Mexican-Americans are all too familiar with.
For instance, Mexican-Americans (or Chicana/os) are not “Mexican enough” for “real Mexicans” from the motherland and not “American enough” for white Americans. To deal with reality or resolve this predicament, scholar-activists and Chicana/os must accept our distinct identities with pride, regardless of what others think of us.
While I accept the “publish or perish” mantra in the academy, I publish without losing sight of my ultimate object: improve the living conditions of historically marginalized communities. This is where I separate myself from traditional or mainstream academics, who falsely believe that publishing esoteric articles in peer-reviewed journals will bring about the necessary structural changes to improve the lives of racialized and working-class communities. While I publish in peer-reviewed journals and university/academic book presses, like Helen Sword posits, I aim to write “clearly and engagingly” in my academic publications.
In addition to academic publications, I strongly believe that colleges and universities -- both teaching and research based -- should give credit (e.g., tenure and promotion) to faculty members for publishing nonrefereed articles, essays and policy papers. Only a small fraction of peer-reviewed articles gets cited, and more people tend to read nonrefereed publications, given their availability and accessible language (mostly). This is especially the case for publications with positive impacts in (re)framing arguments and public policies to advance social, racial and economic equity in this country and beyond. It is also the case for advancing action-research findings in accessible periodicals and reports to improve the lives of los de abajo.
In short, I unconditionally endorse what a wise German philosopher wrote almost 175 years ago, which should be applied to all academic fields: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”