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El Plan de Santa Barbara

chicano american education mexican

During the heyday of the civil rights movement, in April 1969, the Coordinating Council on Higher Education, a network of Chicano students and professors, sponsored a meeting at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This event became one of the most crucial episodes in the history of Chicanos in California. Out of the conference came El Plan de Santa Barbara (The Santa Barbara Plan), a schemata calling for the implementation of Chicano studies programs throughout the California university system. Many of the participants at Santa Barbara had attended the National Chicano Liberation Youth Conference at the Crusade for Justice (CFJ) Center in Denver, Colorado, organized by the CFJ’s founder, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, just one month earlier. More than 1,000 young people, most from California, participated in the Denver conference, engaging in the most intense celebration of Chicanismo (Chicano political ideological activity) to date. The most enduring concept that came out of this meeting was El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán), which proposed Chicano cultural separatism, if not a separate geo-political state, a position justified, according to the framers, by the “brutal ‘gringo’ invasion of our territories.” The separate Chicano region in the southwest would be given the name “Aztlán.”

This ideological experience inspired the Chicano student community in California to implement a higher education plan that would go beyond previous pronouncements. A major objective was to create a college curriculum that was relevant and useful in redressing social and economic inequality in Chicano communities. Higher education, the students reasoned, was a publicly funded infrastructure that enhanced the business community and other white bastions of power, while very little was spent on the needs of the tax-paying Chicano community. The Chicano students’ plan of action centered on supporting a unified student movement called El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA, or the Aztlán Student Movement). The Santa Barbara activists claimed the term “Chicano” after this meeting vis-à-vis Mexican American, and the label became associated with community activism among the emerging young Mexican-origin intelligentsia. Activists elevated the word “Chicano” from its use in the 1920s to denote lower class Mexican immigrants, and from the slang of the 1940s and 1950s when it substituted for Mexicano, to symbolize the realization of a new found and unique identity. Because of its working class connotation, the term appeared more appropriate for a movement claiming grass roots membership; “Mexican American,” according to this line of thinking, denoted individual upward mobility and class separation.

The most tangible and important accomplishment of the conference was the formulation of El Plan de Santa Barbara . The plan articulated the most resounding rejection of Mexican-American assimilationist ideology to date. Young Chicano activists insisted that older leaders of the “Mexican American Generation,” active from the 1930s to the 1950s, had followed a strategy to gain civil rights objectives through litigation, electoral power, and diplomatic appeals (and sometimes by claiming to be white), and that these approaches had not been successful. The framers of the plan advocated “Chicanismo,” or a Chicano-centered ideology. According to the plan:

Chicanismo involves a crucial distinction in political consciousness between a Mexican American and a Chicano mentality. The Mexican American is a person who lacks respect for his culture and ethnic heritage. Unsure of himself, he seeks assimilation as a way out of his “degraded” social status. Consequently, he remains politically ineffective. In contrast, Chicanismo reflects self-respect and pride in one’s ethnic and cultural background… . The Chicano acts with confidence and with a range of alternatives in the political world.

The curriculum envisioned by the Santa Barbara Plan would train a vanguard of future Chicano leaders, providing them with intimate knowledge of how American capitalism and racism had colonized their people. Each of these future leaders would know that “The liberation of his people from prejudice and oppression is in his hand and this responsibility is greater than personal achievement and more meaningful than degrees, especially if they are earned at the expense of this identity and cultural integrity.”

The plan did specify a commitment to physicalaction, such as unionizing or to striving for a separate country. It also encouraged students to enroll in higher education. The Mexican American emphasis on getting a good education remained integral to the Chicano movement, but not at the expense of assimilating into Anglo society and forgetting their roots in the community. According to the plan, students should share control with the faculty in administrating Chicano studies programs, including participating in the hiring and firing of professors in accordance with criteria established by Chicanos, not by the university administration.

After the meeting at Santa Barbara, Chicano studies departments, programs, and research centers became instituted—many, if not most, through student militancy. Most of the California state colleges and universities instituted such centers and teaching programs, as did numerous institutions of higher education in the Southwest, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York. An enduring legacy of the El Plan de Santa Barbara is the “ownership” many college students articulate and insist on within these academic departments and research centers. Any tension this creates is resolved in different ways across different settings, but ultimately the goal of the plan to support civic engagement in the university is a vibrant intellectual and political force in higher education.


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