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An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal

By Linda Chavez

     I grew up in a working-class home, the daughter of a Mexican-American house painter, believing that disadvantaged students deserved a chance at a college education even if their grades and test scores didn't measure up to the usual admissions standards. When I entered the University of Colorado in 1965, there were no affirmative-action programs to assist me, but by the time I was a graduate student at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1970, such programs had proliferated. Initially, I thought that affirmative action would extend a helping hand to those who might not otherwise learn about available opportunities and might lack the skills to be able to compete for them.

     I would soon learn, however, that affirmative action could be a double-edged sword, even for its intended beneficiaries. My experiences as a grad student at UCLA would profoundly influence not just my personal life but the role I would play in public policy in years to come.

     About a week before my classes at the university were to begin, I received a telegram from the university asking me to contact the "High Potential Program" immediately. In addition to the regular affirmative-action program on the campus, UCLA had set up a special program for young black and brown men coming out of prison, admitting dozens of felons as students.

     I was assigned to teach two classes: a composition class made up of Chicano men in the ex-offender program, and another class that was essentially a reading discussion group made up of regular HPP students.

     There were eight men in the composition class, most of whom were a good deal older than I. Their spelling and grammar were atrocious, and they had great fun at my expense. They took every chance to embarrass me, and I soon found out that open-ended writing assignments usually turned into fantasies of what they would like to do to me if they could get me alone sometime. Not quite knowing how to handle the situation, I decided to correct the spelling and syntax and return the papers with a note suggesting the writers ought to learn how to spell the sex acts they described. I also decided to forgo the short skirts and hip-hugger slacks then in fashion in favor of more conservative dress, but I often felt vulnerable when the classroom door closed and I faced the group of sometimes leering young men.

     The students in my reading class were less provocative but no less challenging to teach. I had students of all races in the class, including one or two Anglo kids from poor, rural backgrounds; a middle-aged American Indian couple; and several Mexican-American and black students. The Indian couple was heartbreaking. They were the most serious and devoted of any of the students, but they read at a grade-school level. I have often wondered what happened to them, if they made it through four years at one of the best colleges in the country, and if so, whether that said more about the university's indifference to standards than it did about their power to overcome disadvantages.

     The text we used in the class, Mixed Bag: Artifacts from the Contemporary Culture, was typical of the era: hip, multicultural, and interdisciplinary. But I soon found that not only were the selections in the text (everything from Sophocles to Lenny Bruce) way over the heads of most of the kids, but the topics themselves (race, violence, religion, family, and death) provoked anger and hostility among the students. Classroom discussions quickly degenerated into name-calling between groups of students. With no sense of irony and lots of racial grievances, real and perceived, most of the students found it impossible to empathize with characters and situations beyond their own racial experience.

     For example, when one student called me a "honky," the Chicano kids in the class seemed to think the remark was particularly funny. Many came from the barrios of East L.A. and viewed me as an outsider. I talked funny -- "like a gabacho," as one student pointed out, which meant I spoke standard English without an accent. I also used my married name, Gersten, and I didn't speak Spanish -- unlike many of my students who were first-and second-generation Americans.

     But perhaps their reaction had less to do with me personally than it did with the shift taking place in the organized Chicano movement, especially in California, which had become increasingly radicalized as Mexican-American groups joined the antiwar movement and mixed with violent black groups like the Black Panthers for national attention.

     On August 29, 1970, Mexican-Americans rioted in East Los Angeles. The riot erupted during the Chicano Moratorium, a march of more than 20,000 through the streets to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It began when police responded to complaints from neighborhood merchants that protesters were stealing from them. The police wielded clubs and set off tear gas into the crowds gathered to hear moratorium speakers. They also shot tear gas into a building where an armed robber had supposedly hidden, and the tear-gas projectile hit a local TV reporter, Ruben Salazar, in the head, killing him instantly.

     Salazar soon became a martyr to many in the Chicano movement who believed he'd been murdered by the LAPD.

     The university's administrators, worried by the unrest in the Mexican-American community, were anxious to demonstrate their sensitivity and good will. In response to student demands, they created courses in Chicano studies in the political-science, history, and sociology departments. They also established a Chicano library, run by a graduate student from Chile. Finally, the English department decided it would offer a sophomore-level "Chicano Literature" course -- but had little idea about what would be taught or who would teach it.

     In 1970 there weren't enough novels, short stories, poems, or essays published by Mexican-American authors to fill a syllabus for a 12-week course. Nor was there anyone on the faculty to teach the course -- especially since MEChA, the Chicano student association, insisted that all of the new Chicano-studies courses had to be taught by Mexican-Americans.

     The English department approached me, since I was the only Mexican-American in their Ph.D. program. Despite my total unfamiliarity with the field, I would be paid as a regular faculty member at the lecturer level -- nearly twice as much as I earned in the High Potential Program for teaching just half as many hours. Plus it would give me another teaching credential, which would make it easier to secure a faculty job once I completed my doctorate.

     I accepted the offer but soon discovered that I had struck no bargain. Nothing I had encountered in my teaching assignments to that point had prepared me for the problems I would face in the classroom that spring.

     I had no real idea what I was doing, and there were few academic resources to draw on. Although a huge body of excellent Latin American literature existed in English translation, the Chicano students wanted a course devoted exclusively to works written by Mexican-American authors. I chose two contemporary novels, City of Night, by John Rechy, and Chicano, by Richard F. Vasquez. Rechy, whose mother was Mexican, was a talented writer, but only the first chapter of his memoir touched on his ethnic background. Though more traditional in its subject matter, Chicano was a second-rate novel in which the heroes were hard-working Mexicans and the villains, hard-hearted Anglos. The plot and characters were better suited to an afternoon soap opera than a college literature class, but it was one of the few novels published by a Mexican-American author at the time. I also assigned Corky Gonzales's poem "I Am Joaquin," an epic about a Mexican "Everyman." In addition, I chose several short stories from a new publication called El Grito. I supplemented the readings with analysis -- such as there was -- of Chicano culture, including books written by non-Mexican-American authors.

     Despite my efforts to give students an authentic Chicano literary experience, the class got off to a bad start and quickly went downhill. When I tried to organize classroom discussions, it became clear that most of the students hadn't bothered to look at the assignments at all. One group of students sat sullenly as I lectured or audibly talked to each other as if I wasn't there. Finally, the ringleader of the dissident group, Richard, spoke up.

     "I don't need to read Chicano literature. I live Chicano literature," he said. "And you -- you don't even know how to say 'Chicano,' Mrs. Gersteeeen," he said, drawing out the last syllable in case anyone in the class had failed to notice it was a Jewish name.

     With that the class erupted in hoots and hollers, slapping their desks and stomping their feet.

     I could feel my face turn crimson. "You may not like the way I pronounce 'Chicano,'" I said, in the nasal tones that characterized my students' barrio pronunciation, "but at least I know something about Chicano literature because I've actually read it."

     "She got you, man," another of the boys chimed, drawing appreciative assents from the others.

     For the moment, I'd taken back control of the classroom. But not for long. The students sensed they could intimidate me, and I felt shaky and frightened, despite my bravado. A week later, I encountered more trouble when I wrote a list of reference books on the chalkboard. Among the books was a short work on the Pachuco dialect, a hybrid Spanish and English slang spoken originally by "zoot-suiters" in the 1930s, which had become very popular once again among young Chicanos throughout the Southwest. The book traced the origin of the dialect to first-generation Mexican immigrants of the Depression era. Naively, I thought students might actually enjoy learning the etymology of words like cholo, pocho, ese, even Chicano, which they regularly sprinkled through their
conversation. I was wrong.

     The dust from the chalk had barely settled on the board when Richard jumped up.

     "I ain't reading no gabacho books. They got nothin' to teach me." And with that he turned his back to me, still standing.

     One by one, other students stood up, and in almost drill-like precision, turned on their heels to present a phalanx of backs to me. Only a half-dozen students remained in their seats, but I decided to try to teach the class anyway.

     "The point of a college education," I lectured, "is to acquaint ourselves with ideas and people unfamiliar to us.

     Just because someone has a different background from you doesn't mean he doesn't have something important to teach you." I kept my voice low and steady. "The book is the only thing written on the Pachuco dialect. Maybe someday one of you will write a better book, but not by refusing to read everything that has already been written on the subject, no matter who wrote it."

     Any hopes I had of using reason to deflect the students' anger vanished as the standing students began stamping their feet in unison, creating a clamor that resounded throughout the building. Within minutes, puzzled professors were peering through the small window of my classroom door.

     "What are you teaching in here, a flamenco class?" one befuddled man asked me when I went out to tell them what was going on. As I was explaining that I had a class protest on my hands, the stomping students began marching out in military formation, leaving us standing in the hall shaking our heads.

     I reported the incident to the English department but got no sympathy or help. The message came down loud and clear: "You're on your own. Handle it." At 23 years of age, younger than many of my students and clearly less wise in the ways of protest politics or the streets, I was ill prepared to manage the situation. A few of the protesters trickled back into class over the next few weeks, but most never returned. I began to dread teaching the class, whose subject matter held no particular interest for me in the first place. The books, stories, and poems I was using were clearly inferior to anything I had ever studied in a college classroom, and I thought it was a waste of everyone's time to create a Chicano literature course when the literary output didn't even exist.

I managed to finish the class, but with no enthusiasm. Only one student in the class made any real effort to do the assigned work. And by the last week, barely a half-dozen kids bothered to show up. I knew that I was going to have to flunk about half the class, especially since most of the protesters hadn't bothered to formally drop the course. I posted notices offering students the opportunity to drop the class, even though the usual period to do so had elapsed. I gave the High Potential Program office a list of students who had never shown up for a test or handed in any papers, warning them that unless the students dropped the course, they would receive F's, but only a few students took me up on the offer. I ended up flunking a dozen students. I was surprised that I received no complaints when grades were posted, but I surmised that many of the students may have dropped out altogether or had gone home for the summer without knowing their grades.

     When fall came, the HPP students began drifting back to campus, and with them came more trouble for me.

     The English department had hired a talented young professor from Texas, Ray Paredes, to teach Chicano literature, so I was back to teaching composition, a subject I was far more comfortable with. But one morning, I went out to my car with my 2-year-old son in tow. As we approached the vehicle, I noticed a swarm of flies hovering around the open window on the driver's side. Picking my son up in my arms to put him in his car seat, I opened the car door.

"Mommy, somebody pooped in our car," he yelled out in excitement. I pulled back in horror. Indeed, someone had ripped open the seat on the driver's side and dumped a hideous liquid mixture of excrement and water in the gash in the upholstery. Then, within days of the attack on my car, I started getting threatening phone calls warning me that if I didn't watch out, I'd find a bomb in my car.

     And the harassment didn't stop with my car. I came home one evening to find that my electricity had been shut off. When I called to find out what the problem was, the utility company told me that service had been terminated at my request.

     Someone posing as me had told the electric company that I was moving and requested that service be stopped. Then pizzas started coming -- by the dozens, company after company showing up at my door day after day until the delivery boys finally wised up to the pranks.

     And when I went to sleep at night, I was often awakened by the sound of sticks being dragged across my apartment windows. I borrowed a six-foot-long African spear from a friend who had served in the Peace Corps. At the first sound of sticks against glass, I raced out of the apartment in my nightgown, spear in hand, screaming every foul epithet I could think of as the car sped down the alley. It's a wonder my neighbors didn't have me arrested or sent off to a mental institution.

     I had no idea who was harassing me. It was hard to imagine what I had done to engender such hatred, but I was fairly certain it was one of the students I had flunked the previous spring. I couldn't imagine that any of them would have reacted the same way toward an Anglo teacher. Their anger toward me was more visceral. I suppose in their eyes I was a traitor. I had married an Anglo, adopted Anglo values, and was accepted in the Anglo world, which they claimed to reject, but which many of them, no doubt, feared would never accept them.

     No one in the English department or the High Potential Program was interested in helping track down the perpetrators, so I turned to MEChA, the Chicano student group on campus. Luis Ortiz, a fellow HPP instructor and native of Mexico, suggested that I approach the MEChA leadership and ask for their help.

     Unlike the American-born Chicanos, the Mexican students harbored fewer racial grievances. They were, on average, better prepared academically than their American counterparts and less self-conscious about their ethnicity. Luis got an agreement from the head of MEChA to handle the issue at the next meeting. I later learned that the message was delivered unambiguously: "If we find out who's doing this, we're going to beat the crap out of them." The incidents stopped immediately. I was deeply grateful for the intervention.

     As the end of the quarter approached, I decided that I did not want to stay in Los Angeles. Having worked on affirmative-action programs for two and a half years, I knew that I could not continue teaching in an environment that rewarded ignorance, made students the arbiters of what would be taught and who would teach it, and was better suited to political indoctrination than genuine learning. More and more, I felt alienated from my students, my fellow teachers in the affirmative-action programs, and the university itself.

     I had started out hoping to inspire underachievers like myself to reach beyond the world they grew up in. For me, college had changed everything -- it had opened up new vistas for me. For the first time, I realized that I didn't have to settle for what opportunities came my way; I could go out and create them for myself. I also discovered that the harder I worked, the more I could achieve. I wanted my students to see those same possibilities.

     Instead I found myself confronted with kids who sincerely believed that the world was out to defeat them. They blamed racism for all their problems and would never consider that their own behavior might be partly to blame for their failures.

     Affirmative action began with the premise that black students and, later, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and other disadvantaged minorities deserved a helping hand. Years of officially sanctioned discrimination had created an uneven playing field in which not everyone had the same opportunity to succeed. But most affirmative-action programs, like those in place in major colleges and universities by the early 1970s, tried to level that playing field by ignoring the huge skills gap that existed between  disadvantaged minority students, on the one hand, and middle-class whites, on the other.

     Such programs were doomed from the start. If anything, they enhanced racial and ethnic tensions and animosity and reinforced stereotypes. I had witnessed firsthand the devastating impact those programs had on academic standards, on race relations, and on the intended beneficiaries as well.

     The kids came into school with huge handicaps, but instead of recognizing their academic deficiencies and trying to do whatever it took to improve them, many of the affirmative-action students I taught preferred to wallow in self-pity. Their attitude -- as much as their social, economic, and educational disadvantages -- would make life difficult and success elusive.

    This excerpt from "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal," appears with express written consent of the author.