When I started college I was a third generation Mexican-American whose attachments to his culture of origin were made of glass—fragile and transparent. Assimilation had worked its way into the lives of my grandparents and parents and poured bleach over our cultural memories. My only identifiers appeared to be our last name, Perez, and the Spanglish—a mix of English and Spanish—that I heard my father speak when on the phone with my grandparents. I can also recall mariachi musicians performing at family gatherings, and the laborious act of spreading masa on corn husks for Christmas tamales.
Food was my strongest link to Mexican culture. I understood I was Mexican but I never understood what that meant. It was like a bass line of a song that one fails to notice without training the ear to hear it. Once that attentiveness takes hold, the song sounds completely different. For me, hearing that new song came via Chicanx Studies courses I began to take at UC Santa Barbara.
My first Chicanx Studies course focused on gender, and once I found myself in the lecture room the curriculum sank its teeth into me. There were concepts I had never heard before, statistics that rattled my naïve brain and histories that conjured newfound pride. Once I read that less than 1 percent of Chicanx students obtain their doctoral degree I understood that this type of education was important, that facts like these simply need to be heard more often. They need to be screamed from rooftops and repeated often so that they are branded onto the consciousness of those who hold enough power to help. Soon after that course I registered for more and more classes in the department and concluded that this was the major for me.
Understanding the histories and effects of racial discrimination are crucial if our society wants to move toward equality and equity. The curriculum I found in these classes is currently more important than ever, given the political climate we Americans find ourselves in. President Trump’s steps to deport young people by removing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and his rhetoric about building a wall between the United States and Mexico have fortified both anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx sentiment in the United States. Trump’s voter base believes Latino immigrants are dangerous and volatile, crossing the border illegally to take their jobs. Some have even committed violent acts as a result of their views. Dozens of people of color were harassed at Trump rallies during the 2016 election campaign.
At a time when violent rhetoric about minorities spews forth from those who hold political power, university courses such as those in the Chicanx Studies department are more important than ever. Courses such as Critical Race Theory and Decolonizing Feminism, for example, tell true histories of the mistreatment people of color because of their race or citizenship status.
The Chicanx Studies department is integral to the university as well because it offers Latinx students courses about people who look like them and people who are them. It is a way of seeing oneself in one’s curriculum—and if one is a minority, that can be a rare experience. The major I chose breathed new life into the connections to my culture that I previously believed were scant and lacked nuance.
Perez is still my last name and my family still makes tamales during the holidays—but now I have a newfound sense of pride. I always knew I was Mexican but now I also know I’m part of an important legacy, the legacy of people who have survived through racism and injustice and who are never going to forfeit their dignity. Regardless of how many walls are built or what legislation is passed, we aren’t going anywhere. Those who hold a measure of social capital, like myself, need to assist those who live further in the margins. Chicanx Studies has built identity and solidarity within me, where there had been so little of either before I arrived at college.
Christian Perez is a UC Santa Barbara senior majoring in Chicana/Chicano Studies.
Richard Perez (seated) with infant son, Christian, at a Perez family party in Oxnard, California. Christian is now a Chicanx Studies major at UCSB.