How to Create a Chicana/o Union

24 Apr

by Renee Hudson
PhD Student and TA, English
AWDU Candidate for Head Steward

You don’t know how good I felt when I saw a whole grupo of raza at UCLA in ’68 from barrios like Wilmas, Norwalk, Whittier, Bakersfield (and Chicano Studies was still a dream). We had rushed the Chancellor, told him he had to share el pastel, give us some slack (of course we stormed the administration, a la brava)

from “How to Enroll in a Chicano Studies Class”

Last spring, I taught a seminar for the ‘60s cluster, Art and Literature of El Movimiento. On our first day, I asked my students to define “Chicana/o.” The response was mixed – some explained that the term refers to Mexican-Americans, while others debated whether or not generation mattered as well as other intricacies. On that first day, I also had my students read the piece, excerpted above, from Juan Felipe Herrera’s 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. My questions: Why did it feel “good” to see a “grupo of raza at UCLA” from barrios? What kind of dream is Chicano Studies? Why offer the Chancellor el pastel? And, why mix Spanish and English together?

I won’t offer the answers here – although I do suggest you think about them – but I will point out that Herrera’s piece traces a history of activism on our very own campus, one in which Chicana/o Studies is more than a dream; it’s a reality. However, this dream was only made possible through collective action and struggle. Chicana/o Studies at UCLA began as a research center (1969), became an Inter-Departmental Program (1973), established a minor (1992) while in danger of being closed, and finally became a department (2005), over ten years after students engaged in civil disobedience and hunger strikes to emphasize their demands that the research center become a recognized department. Or, to put it simply, Chicana/o Studies exists at UCLA because we, the students, have fought for it. In light of budget cuts and the troubling “Restructuring Steering Committee” at UCLA, we must renew our efforts to ensure that our Ethnic Studies programs and other endangered programs – like Romance Languages and Humanities – thrive.

In order to do so, we must not be passive. Rather, we must unite as graduate students and form allies with our undergraduates and campus organizations to ensure that we continue to defend public education. To better achieve this goal of an activist, mobilized graduate student body, I am running for the position of Head Steward with the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union. While I am relatively new to AWDU, I have been impressed with their proposals to reach out to union members in order to have an active, informed membership. I am continually amazed at the important role I already have within AWDU – one day I wanted to run for Head Steward on their slate, the next I was helping with the blog and offering suggestions on blog posts. Simply wanting to contribute made me a contributing member.

While the experience of working with AWDU has been wonderful, and has caused me to reflect deeply on the role of union leadership (and its relationship to the membership), it has also caused friction in my life. From the moment I mentioned running for Head Steward to my dad, he was against it. I was left with the question, “How can I run for Head Steward when my dad doesn’t even endorse me?” My father articulated his mistrust of unions on multiple occasions and, after I accepted the nomination of Head Steward and he saw all the work I was putting into supporting the AWDU slate, he finally sat down with me for a talk. I finally realized that his mistrust wasn’t of unions, but of union leadership. In the ‘80s, my father was a truck driver on the local naval base and a member of the Teamsters (a union that wasn’t sensitive to the changing demographic of its workers; namely, the shift from a white-dominated industry to one that is predominantly Latino). One day, my father overheard the president of his local say, “Ah, unions. Every company should own one.” Since then, my father staunchly refuses to support unions. I explained to him that I was running on the union reform slate and that one of the major components of our platform is to reform union leadership and the top-down approach taken by the current administration. “If you’re going to do this – if you really are – then you have to lead with your heart and your brain,” my father said. “Don’t forget that you work for the workers.” I promised him that I would and that “working for the workers” was exactly what AWDU is all about.

So, now, I am finally endorsed by my father (no small feat, let me tell you) and I have a family project I need to complete. Out of our discussion about the union, my father and I had another conversation, this time with my mother as well, in which we talked about how my father was a migrant worker as a child (this was during the ‘50s before the founding of the United Farm Workers) and I learned that my grandfather and great-grandfather on my mother’s side were also farm workers. I knew they owned a shipping company – Oxnard Produce – that delivered fruits and vegetables to supermarkets, but I didn’t know that my family’s history of being farm workers extended past my father’s childhood experiences, which is why I now have family research to do.

Being part of AWDU has been a great experience, especially since out of the conversations I’ve had with my parents as a result of running for the position of Head Steward, I’ve learned much more about my family history and the importance of a union that works for its members – the UFW is a good model for us, particularly since it is not a bureaucracy, but an ongoing social movement. Make no mistake: we are a social movement. AWDU emphasizes the need for a Democratic union; in order to achieve such a democratically run union, we want to create a space every member can turn to as a place to protect and advance their interests. Increased tuition at UCLA will no doubt lead to a less diverse campus (indeed, two of my AB540 students are transferring to private institutions where they won’t have to worry about paying for tuition, quarter by quarter), which is why AWDU prioritizes forging relationships with other campus groups as part of the larger fight to defend public education. Diversity makes us stronger, as an institution, and as a union. UCLA already doesn’t reflect the population of California, or even of Los Angeles – we must fight the budget cuts and the tuition hikes in order to resist a further distortion of this reflection.

Contemplating this history – UCLA’s, our union’s, my family’s – I’m reminded of the last day of my Movimiento class. I asked the students once again to define “Chicana/o” for me. I often think about the response one of my students – an undocumented DREAMer – gave: Chicano/a is “a method.” He explained that identifying as Chicana/o meant that you were also identifying yourself as a political activist. His definition was a bit of an epiphany for me and it is this realization that has led me to finally identify as a Chicana (an identification I’d often struggled with, mainly because of my anxiety about not being able to speak Spanish fluently, but proudly wrote down on a hospital form a few months ago) and join AWDU.

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One Response to “How to Create a Chicana/o Union”

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  1. Invisible Women of Color « awduucla - April 27, 2011

    […] Huang, Elise Youn, Renee Hudson, and Mindy Chen PhD Students and TAs UCLA Academic Workers for a Democratic […]

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