Scholar gave Chicano movement intellectual footing

March 18, 2005

'Suppose that you are a traveler from outer space. You land on Earth. Everything has been devastated by a final war. You wander about . . . (and) you find a trap door leading into the ground . . . (where) you find an underground library.

"Curious, you pull a book down from the shelf. The book you select is about Mexican-Americans, written by a social scientist. You begin to read. Interesting. Strange. Intrigued, you read more about Mexican-Americans, more books by social scientists. By the time you finish reading these books you have come to two conclusions: Earthlings used social science to "explain" history, and Mexican-Americans had virtually no history to speak of, trapped as they were in their isolated Traditional Culture, an ahistorical process to begin with.

"The first conclusion is correct. The second is not."

That's how Octavio Ignacio Romano-V. began "The Anthropology and Sociology of the Mexican-Americans: The Distortion of Mexican-American History." His essay became one of the most influential pieces of literature in the Chicano movement era, from the late 1960s into the 1970s.

Romano conceptualized his essay, at least in part, at the University of Arizona while doing research here in 1967. In those days, the hangout was "Louie's Lower Level," and Romano had coffee regularly with Chicano/a students at Louie's. I was one of those students. Romano would explore his ideas with us, and much of what he discussed with us later would appear in his essay.

It took great courage for Romano to publish his essay. He was a young anthropologist beginning his career as a social scientist. Yet he took on the entire social science establishment of the time. (The courage he manifested in publishing his essay would again emerge in 1969, during a minority student strike at the University of California at Berkeley. The only Chicano faculty member at Berkeley at the time, Romano openly supported the students.)

When Romano wrote his essay, the Chicano movement was emerging as a full-blown civil rights movement. A man of vision, he knew such a movement needed an intellectual foundation. So he founded "El Grito: A Journal of Contemporary Mexican American Thought," the first Chicano literary and intellectual journal, in which he published his essay and which became "the intellectual bible" of the movement. (Another student from the Louie's sessions, Herminio Ríos, went on to work with Romano at El Grito.)

In his essay, Romano articulately and forcefully tore into the social scientists - including some who claimed to be "sympathetic" to us - for explaining the behavior, history and culture of the Mexican-American community in blatantly racist and stereotypical terms.

Among other things, we were described in the social science literature as a people driven by superstition, fatalism, laziness and lack of ambition, sexual promiscuity and envy. According to these social scientists, these alleged cultural attributes - which together constitute what was referred to as "Traditional Culture" - were at the root of whatever social, political, economic or educational problems confronted us. In short, as a quaint mass of passive creatures who merely absorbed history rather than generated it, we were depicted as being our worst enemies.

Accusing these social scientists of rewriting history, Romano gave example after example, going back to the late 1800s, of Mexican-Americans organizing strikes and taking legal or other actions to improve their position - in other words, generating history. This gave the lie to the social scientists' "Traditional Culture" myth.

These stereotypes were not harmless. They formed the basis and rationalization for how educational, social, political and economic policies related to our community.

We knew these stereotypes were garbage, and Romano gave us intellectual, well-documented ammunition to combat them. He gave us even more ammunition when he later published an essay detailing the rich intellectual history of Mexican-Americans.

A basic lesson in Romano's works was that in order for our people's history, culture, traditions, etc., to be truthfully and realistically portrayed, we needed to write about ourselves. The Chicano Generation began doing exactly that.

We now have hundreds of Chicano and Chicana scholars, filmmakers, poets, musicians, playwrights and artists generating accurate depictions of our people. And we are all over the place - in private practice, in large and well-known universities and colleges, in small and obscure schools, in the East and West, North and South. Not only are we writing, painting, singing and filming our history and ways, but we also are teaching and mentoring students, passing the baton to another generation.

In my mind, that's Octavio Romano's greatest legacy, capping his very distinguished career as a scholar, writer, teacher, mentor and activist.

After he retired, Romano established an e-journal. A month or so ago, he called to ask if he could publish some of my columns in his journal. He died before they were published, but the fact that he asked honors me. c/s

Salomón R. Baldenegro, who works in the Diversity Resources Office at the University of Arizona, is a political historian and activist. In the tradition of Mark Twain, he has not let his formal schooling get in the way of his education. The "c/s" notation at the end of his column is a Chicano barrio term that stands for "con safos," which has no literal translation, but conveys a sense of closure, along the lines of: "that's it," "that's all I got to say," or "that's my story and I'm sticking to it." Contact him by e-mail at or by telephone at 626-9131.