Its launch five decades ago—which Muñoz, then a graduate student, helped lead—would usher in a new era of ethnic studies across the Southwestern United States and ultimately around the country. Today more than 400 universities have programs dedicated to the study of the history, circumstances and culture of Latinos in America.
“Right now, there’s an awareness of ethnic studies. … But the beginnings of ethnic studies, as a discipline, were right here at Cal State LA,” says Professor Dolores Delgado Bernal, chair of what is now the Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies.
“The discipline offers a lot to students, in terms of their identities, their intellect, what interests they pursue. Taking these courses allows students to say, ‘I can claim and be proud of who I am, and that allows me to better understand and accept others who are not like me.’ ”
“It’s becoming increasingly important to have that interdisciplinary background, and an understanding of other cultures and races,” Delgado Bernal says.
Today Muñoz is a professor emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He’s an author, political scientist, historian and scholar, specializing in social and revolutionary movements.
But the challenges Muñoz encountered on his journey from the barrio to the ivory tower typify the struggles that many Latino students still face today—and illustrate why Chicano Studies was necessary decades ago, and still has an important role to play.
In its early years, the Cal State LA program was a resource for local students who felt intimidated by college and invisible on campus.
The spotlight on Chicano history and culture allowed them to see themselves through a new lens, one scrubbed of stereotypes. And its sweeping scope connected them to other marginalized groups, illuminating struggles for equality that students found ultimately empowering.
Carmen Ramírez, an Oxnard city councilwoman who attended Cal State LA for two years in the 1970s, said she first learned about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in a Chicano Studies class. “I was angry about what had happened, angry at not knowing about this until I was an adult.”
Ramírez grew up in Pico Rivera, earned her J.D. at Loyola Law School and spent more than 20 years as a legal aid attorney in Ventura County.