CALEXICO — Calexico natives Javier Rangel and Michael Aguirre have dedicated their careers in academia to learning, recording, and teaching others about the struggles that many Mexican-Americans face in the United States, albeit from two different generational perspectives.
On one end is Rangel. At age 59, the Imperial Valley College professor’s interest in the Chicano perspective began as Rangel was growing up, when he did not see his identity acknowledged in the United States until he moved away from the Imperial Valley.
“My interest in Chicano culture and Chicano literature began because I knew very little about it,” Rangel said. “I didn’t know about Mexicano/a history in this country.”
On the other end is Aguirre. At age 34, the Chicano movement was pretty well-defined by the time he came of age, yet he brings in the element of casting an eye toward the future of the movement by evaluating the past and present, what men and women like Rangel experienced firsthand.
“I want to write about the Imperial Valley because this is my hometown, and I care about it, and this is my history,” Aguirre said. “A history I started knowing through hearing stories from my grandparents and family members when they would point things out that happened that wasn’t common knowledge, because it wasn’t history that was discussed, let alone discussed in history textbooks.”
Aguirre, a historian, is using the past to rewrite the future, through his postdoctoral fellowship with Harvard University’s Inequality in America Initiative. The initiative “is a multidisciplinary effort to elevate and energize teaching and research on social and economic inequality and to use what we learn to inform the public debate and public response to these challenges,” he said.
Aguirre’s work focuses on the Imperial Valley and hopes that by recording the full complexity and problems found in labor and migrant communities of the past, the future can be informed by the “public debate and public response to these challenges.”
“I decided that my dissertation and first book should be on Mexicali and Imperial Valley because there is just a real magnetic pull about wanting to write about the place you are from and that is a place that has a lot of acknowledged but not written history,” Aguirre said. “For better or for worse, when you write things down, that history is captured, and I wanted to capture that history, and preserve the history and bring the Mexican-American, Mexicano/a and Chicano/a experience in the Imperial Valley to the forefront.”
Aguirre said he hopes to influence the way the Mexican-American is viewed in the United States.
His work with the World Economic Forum, whose mission is cited as “committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas,” is an example of how and what is reported on and given priority.
To Aguirre, conversations about the past from a Mexican-American perspective brings to light struggles of his community that he never saw acknowledged. Without a Chicano perspective taken into consideration, society in the United States becomes unaware of how multi-dimensional current issues such as migration are in some communities.
Through history, one can ask and answer questions of how the past has shaped society, Aguirre said. As a community, awareness of the past informs the way that community views the future, and how it acts moving forward through its conversations, he said.
One way to be informed about a Chicano perspective is through studying in Imperial Valley College’s first Chicano studies program, which now allows the Chicano narrative to be an option to be learned and discussed by students living in a valley affected by many Chicano issues.
Rangel is the man who will make that experience possible, as he begins the program in the spring.
Telling the stories of Chicanos, and recording them, gives a full picture of history, and shares a perspective that Aguirre describes as “history from below.”
“Chicano studies and ethnic studies are critical to writing about ‘histories from below,’ or the history of the people living day to day, not the history made and told by politicians or congressional leaders, but by those who are affected by their choices,” Aguirre said.
Historically, these “histories from below” often are not taught in most classrooms in the United States, which has left many gaps in the narrative of the past. And often Aguirre thinks these fields of study have been disregarded, which limits what people are able to acknowledge and learn about in higher education.
When this other narrative is taught, the full complexity of history is realized.
“In these studies, their (Chicano/a’s) history and presence is validated, for all its complexity,” Aguirre said. “There is no one narrative, there’s no one historical trajectory, it’s wide, and that’s why Chicano studies fill in many of the gaps that are not always present in U.S. history — it’s another lens.”
The desire to fill in gaps in history and share another perspective is the purpose behind Aguirre’s work.
“Chicano studies and ethnic studies have often been critiqued as “erasing history,” or that these people are not studying “real history,” because it’s not a part of a continuous line of Enlightenment thought,” Aguirre said. “But what Chicano and ethnic studies does is that it captures this other portion of history that people know is there and feel is there, but haven’t had access to study it in a formal way that is also acknowledged by institutions, communities, and systems of higher education.”
Rangel, who moved back to the Imperial Valley a decade ago to help start the program at IVC, recognizes the importance of discussing the Chicano perspective inside the classroom, but realizes how the conversations over issues that affect Mexican-American communities go beyond academia.
“University was an enlightening experience, but the people that I met, my classmates, were who challenged me beyond the classroom. That was an important and enlightening way of educating myself beyond the classroom, beyond what the professor tells you to read, beyond the basic experience,” Rangel said.
During college, Rangel strayed from classes that taught subjects like history and literature in a traditional structure and looked for classes that gave him another world view that represented him, and the problems that he identified with.
“There was no ‘me’ in some curriculums, no mention of strikes and a resistance that has been going on for almost 200 years, there’s no mention of my way of looking at life through traditional ways of coming of age, music, oral poetry, traditional theater,” Rangel said.
Rangel has a background in literature and earned his Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees from San Diego State University main campus in the 1970s and in the 1990s, he earned a Ph.D. in Hispanic literature and culture from University of California Los Angeles. And he finds that through the lens of Chicano literature, many of the gaps of the whole narrative of history are filled.
While in San Diego and Los Angeles, Rangel was exposed to other Chicano/as that shared, spoke out, and fought for many of the issues he identified and stood by. These experiences in college are what has led Rangel to believe that the Chicano/a perspective provides a counter text to the ways the world was being viewed.
“You have to reflect on what the Chicano perspective does, in any field … if you are a Chicano historian, sociologist, or someone who deals with literature, which is my field; they will give you the counter text, the other version of history, sociology, and literature,” Rangel said. “In that sense, we point out what is missing from the narrative, the poetic voice, and what is on stage, and many times it’s what people don’t want to hear.”
By giving a counter text and responding to past narratives (or lack of) of Chicano/as in the United States, Rangel believes he is making a difference in the Chicano/a community. If the Chicano perspective is not discussed, then the past struggles of the Chicano community are not represented, and this may leave many issues still unresolved in the future.
“What draws me to Chicano/a issues are because they are my issues and the issues of my ancestors that haven’t been resolved either here in the U.S. or Mexico,” Rangel said. “I see myself continuing on with the Chicano struggle, probably with different tools, but that’s a way to make a difference. I don’t necessarily have to be in a march, but my education and teaching are a way of being active … you have to respond, and you have to answer back, you have to try to be committed and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Rangel’s work through education, and in particular his contribution to IVC’s Chicano studies program, matters. Programs such as these give a community a place to discuss struggles that, as Aguirre had expressed, “feel are there, but haven’t had access to study it in a formal way that is also acknowledged,” and “where their (Chicano/a’s) history and presence is validated, for all its complexity.”
Education is just one tool, as Rangel said, his tool to how he responds, answers back, and makes a difference in people’s lives, in the continued Chicano struggle.
This story is featured in the Jul 23, 2020 e-Edition.