Magyari-Vincze Enikő

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utolsó frissítés: 2008. ápr. 17.

Am I that White? An Eastern Anthropologist on American Understandings of Multiculturalism, In V. Anăstăsoaie - Cs. Könczei -- E. Magyari-Vincze -- O. Pecican (coords.): Breaking the Wall. Representing Anthropology and Anthropological Representations In Eastern Europe, EFES, 2003.

Am I that White?

An Anthropologist from Eastern Europe on American Understandings of Multiculturalism

In Breaking the Wall, Cluj: EFES, 2003

Introducing the topic

In the past years I tended to consider that the term "an anthropologist from Eastern Europe in America" might reflect at best a fantasy to dream about. A desire of a scholar from a country where cultural and social anthropology is hardly institutionalized and where enterprises like doing fieldwork in California might not really enjoy any financial and political support. During the last years I have defined myself as a self-made anthropologist, committed to do "anthropology at home" (in Romania) and to prove the theoretical and the critical potential of such an endeavor. I have chosen to study forms of politics of ethnic identity, the cultural concepts and political background of the ethnic debate on sharing Transylvania between Romanians and Hungarians, [1] and to construct a third/ critical position from which to talk in a regime that structures public discourses in binary oppositions. In this context, there were probably many aspects of doing anthropology at home and abroad that I could imagine, and many of which I could not be aware of. But there was one issue that I never thought about. Struggling at home (in an ethnically divided world) with taking a distance towards the positions in which others located me in ethnic terms, I never really thought how it would be to define myself, or to be perceived by some as "White".

Then, suddenly, in the academic year 1998-1999 I won a very generous Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship. At the very beginning, I had many frustrations and dilemmas concerning how to approach the Fulbright Commission from Romania, because -- as I supposed -- there were not so many ethnic Hungarian scholars entering into competition with Romanians in Bucharest. On the other hand, I assumed that there were some usual ways for being in the United States for a Romanian scholar, like doing library work, and/ or to write and give lectures on Romania-related issues. Then I came up with an idealistic proposal: to do a fieldwork-based, qualitative research project at the University of California at Los Angeles on debating multiculturalism in an American way. The idea sounded so exciting and almost unrealistic for me that I decided to follow it, however I did not know, and, back home again, I still -- or more and more -- don't really know, how to continue it, how to integrate it into my usual life.

Anyway, this Fulbright grant gave me the opportunity to investigate the issue of ethnic (and racial) identity politics at universities from different social contexts in a comparative frame. To start to learn about this on a foreign terrain (Los Angeles, California), and to get a sense of comparison for re-interpreting issues researched at home (Cluj, Romania). Not only that, but also to think about the (limited) chance (or almost impossibility) of an anthropologist from Romania to do fieldwork abroad on a systematic basis, and/ or to work on issues that hardly fit into the interests of his/ her country and academic environment.

Nevertheless, as a whole story, my anthropological research in California fits well into the topic of our conference and volume. Because it is about the condition of anthropology in Eastern Europe: about the limits that we have in imagining ourselves practicing this discipline, or about the shifting identities of the researcher travelling in-between countries (and systems of classification and identification). But -- as an effort to decipher several understandings of multiculturalism - it is also about the contribution, which our discipline might have to the understanding of phenomena like cultural imports and the socially embedded nature of the patterns of handling cultural differences.

After an initial period of identifying diversity and difference, among the mostly debated issues at UCLA, and of encountering several participants of the ongoing argument I decided to pursue an ethnography of Chicano Studies. This enterprise was preceded by my investigations made in Romania on the University of Cluj as a site of identity politics, where the rediscovery of cultural differences seems to dominate the political projects of post-socialist reconstruction. In terms of a possible comparative analysis of the two case studies, one may make use of the notion of border identities. With its help he/ she might conceptualize the similarities and differences between the meanings and the ways in which - on the one hand - the Hungarian minority from Romania, and - on the other hand - the Chicano people from California are constructed as national categories existing in between two countries and cultures. That is why the Conclusion of my paper is defining some criteria and preliminary ideas of the comparison between the aims and strategies of identity politics practiced by the border subjects in question, within the institutions of higher education under scrutiny embedded in larger political orders.

Maybe the greatest professional challenge of doing research in America as an East European scholar was to learn about multiculturalism as it is understood and constructed today in an American academic environment through the debates on ethnic studies, in a context from where it might happen to have been imported in the very last few years to Romania, and was used in the cultural fights within and between the Romanian and the Hungarian elite on sharing the University of Cluj. I think that studying the phenomenon of cultural import and globalization/creolization of ideas might be one of the main roles cultural anthropology might play today in Romania. So in a country where this discipline is hardly established and is just starting to definine itself within the academic environment, and in a society that is -- on the whole -- under a post-socialist reconstruction and where people are devoted to reshaping it according to the image they have about the capitalist West, are using Western models in conjunction with their local interests and familiar ideas. The Conclusion of the paper suggests defining this scholarly endeavor as a kind of reversed cultural anthropology as cultural critique.

Conceptual framework and self-positioning

The idea to investigate politics of identity through institutions of higher education is linked to more general enterprises (see Abner Cohen, 1969), seeking to understand the cultural dimension of politics, that is the cultural forms and practices by which politics is constructed in concrete settings. According to this, the intertwining of the cultural and social order is interrogated here (for ex. after Bourdieu, 1991), while the institutions under scrutiny are considered as particular sites where one may observe the links between the production of knowledge and power.

As an ethnography of institutions my analysis looks for the interpretation of the ways in which concrete social actors are trying to use the institutions' organizational structures and ideologies, and are developing their own spaces and knowledge within. While investigating this process as one of the social constructions of meanings, I am actually questioning the experiences in and by which these actors are defining and situating themselves and others in the environment of the institutions under scrutiny.

That is why I may say that my research is about identifying and interpreting meanings and experiences through which identity politics is performed at particular institutions of higher education, but also, of the ways in which all this is connected to a broader social and political order. And further, that is why I considered making my investigation by the means of a qualitative inquiry, in particular of an ethnographic fieldwork based on participant observation and collection of the narrative representations of reality.

The construction of ethnic and racial border identities

As a starting point I am recalling here the view of Stuart Hall, according to whom "identities are never unified and, in late modern times, increasingly fragmented and fractured; never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic discourses, practices and positions" (Hall, 1996: 4). That is why it is useful to consider identity as "the meeting point between, on the one hand, the discourses and practices which speak to us as the social subjects of particular discourses, and on the other hand, the processes which produce subjectivities, which construct us as subjects". Together with Hall I conclude, "identities are points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us" (6).

In the context of Romania, I was making use of the notion of ethnic identity in order to understand how under its conditions ethnic identification was and is considered as primordial in a human's life, and to identify how - while defined in certain meanings and used in positioning - ethnicity organizes social order, builds up politics and shapes the understanding of self and of others. After Frederic Barth I consider ethnicity as a form of social organization characterized by ascription and self-ascription, and focus my interest on the analysis of the practices by which boundaries between ethnic groups are constructed and maintained, while the groups themselves are being created (see in Barth, 1969). Following those, whose interest is in understanding the role of the elite in the construction of ethnic and national identities (for example Verdery, 1991), I am looking forward to understand in this sense the practices of the actors from institutions of higher education. I am interrogating them as processes by which ethnic (gender and racial) relations and differences are produced and represented, while being embedded in the larger social orders in which they operate.

During my research done in California, beside the notion of ethnic identification, I encountered the need to understand how "race" and racialization operate. I define "race" as "an ideological or social construction produced within the historical and geopolitical specificity of its use" (McLaren and Torres, 1999:46), but also as "a sociological reality having serious consequences for certain groups of people in everyday life" (47). As these authors suggest, it is racism as an ideology that produces the notion of 'race', and it is not the existence of 'races', which produces racism, while "racism occurs when the characteristics which justify discrimination are held to be inherent in the oppressed group" (49).

To formulate in a brief conclusion how I understand the study of ethnic and racial identities I may emphasize that I consider them not as sites of shared meanings, but as territories of contest and debates, I am convinced that their analysis becomes a chapter in the investigation of politics. In this endeavor identity is conceptualized as identification, as a case of signifying practice, or discursive work that builds up symbolic boundaries and power hierarchies, cultural and political orders. Ethnicization and racialization as social/ material and discursive processes form the issue that I am actually interested in, respectively the modalities in which multiculturalism as identity politics deals with them in different contexts.

The constructed nature of identity just stressed above is more visible in the case of social subjects living on the borders, and during periods of time when their recognition becomes contested from several directions. As literature shows, the notion of border might be defined and used in several ways (see for example in Anzaldua, 1987; Velez-Ibanez, 1996). Here it stands for conceptualizing instances of "Mestiza", where the belongings of individuals and collectivities are defined in the terms of crossing the frontiers between countries and cultures are experienced in feelings of living in-between and on the margins. To put it more concretely, in my research I was dealing with the condition of some bilingual and bicultural people trying to build up their own spaces in order to live on the border with a full human existence. On the one hand with the case of the Hungarians from Romania who encounter the experience of being Hungarians to Romanians, and Romanians to Hungarians, and on the other hand with the case of Mexican-Americans, who are defined as Americans by Mexicans, and are considered as Mexicans by Americans.

Understanding multiculturalism as identity politics

As mentioned above, I am addressing the issue of collective identity as a set of processes of identification. According to my understanding there is no collective identity without politics, and politics is always creating and using a certain identity, or more identities as both a means and an end to power struggles. The definition of identity always goes together with the effort to locate the actors whose identity is defined in a certain position of the desired social and cultural order. On the other hand this is an act of representation, by which a certain group of people, the elite, is assuming to represent and to stand for a whole community. After Stuart Hall I consider that the constitution of a social identity is an act of power, that is while it is affirming itself, it is excluding something and it is establishing a hierarchy between the two resultant poles (Hall, 1996).

To put briefly, the analyses of identity politics means for me the investigation of the processes of naming, positioning and recognition (see in Magyari-Vincze, 1997). That is, it includes the analysis of the ways in which, and the categories by which a collective identity is imagined. Further, it consists of the interpretation of the ways in which the communities imagined through certain categories and strategies are situated in certain power hierarchies. Finally, it means the understanding of the ways in which a struggle goes on in order to make the public recognize the particular definition of the community and the position in which it was assigned. But in addition it consists of the analysis of the ways in which, through all these, the elite itself is defining and positioning herself, and makes the public recognize the importance of her work.

To the extent in which I am defining multiculturalism as a form of identity politics, I am addressing the issue of what it does do with and over those identities and differences, which are considered as being primordial by the actors of the observed social scenes. How it defines and positions individuals and collectivities in the larger order, what kind of strategies it is using in the effort to make the public recognize them through the definitions and in the positions that are considered as appropriate by those who are engaged in this work. It is also my aim to identify the different meanings in which multiculturalism operates within different social contexts, and to interpret its dynamics in those very environments where people are making use of it, while producing it through a permanent debate on its "proper" understanding.

Perplexities of self-positioning

The story of my ethnographic research done in different places is also one of self-positioning. While traveling across borders I could experience myself as a process of identification and faced the multiple categories by which I was defined by others. Making physical and cultural journeys within and across societies I learned about myself as about one who has to create her comfort in a position of in-betweenness that is in a permanent process of displacements and replacements.

In Romania I aimed to occupy the position of a native outsider. To become an insider who struggled to detach herself from the comfort position of home. Someone who tried to locate herself in a position that gave the chance of a critical look on what's happening in a context in which I was born and socialized. While talking about ethnic identity politics I was a Hungarian scholar who was not neither Hungarian, nor Romanian enough in the eyes of the nationalist Hungarians and Romanians. My aim was to be critical with both sides, and to challenge the romantic tradition of dealing with repression and resistance, which defined the resisting minorities as moral and the repressive majorities as immoral. Defining my analysis as critical, I identified the ways in which repression and power relations were functioning in both cases, developing an authoritarian discourse on ethnic and national communities informed by cultural fundamentalism.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, the foreign place of my fieldwork, willingly or not my searches were driven by questions familiar for me. In the process of turning the unknown into familiar, I had to unlearn them to a certain extent in order to give space to the raising of questions by which local people were defining themselves. All that I could do was to aim to become an insider stranger. Most interestingly, I could be classified as a white scholar who tried to enter into the unknown world of people defined in this context as "people of color". As an outsider who was allowed to participate in some aspects of their lives, step-by-step I have learned about the American society through their critical perspective. But I could identify their internal differences and tensions as well, which made me try to locate myself in a position from where I could browse and reconstruct them in a self-critical manner.

As a result now I am defining myself as the stranger-at-home and the home-with-stranger. As one who perceives herself as the stranger from everywhere, a traveler, who lived here and there and in-between, similar to the border subjects whose multiple identities I was aiming to understand and interpret. As a set of shifting identities, being "Hungarian" in some socio-historical context, and "White" in another, while asking repeatedly "Am I that Hungarian?" or "Am I that White?", and trying to resist the subject positions prescribed for me by the hegemonic ethnic and racial discourses.

Towards writing an ethnography of Chicano Studies

The present ethnography as a written product on the one hand is a confessional narrative. As such it reconstructs the fieldwork experiences through which -- accompanied by my self-transformation -- an initially strange place, like the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles, and some of its inhabitants of color became familiar for me. On the other hand, it is a critical analysis that identifies the perspective of investigated people -- social actors belonging to the so-called "underrepresented minorities" --, through the issue of Chicano studies, is talking about power relations working in the class system of the multi-racial Californian society and within the Mexican-American community. According to the classification made by John Van Maanen, this ethnography is a confessional, and a critical tale (Maanen, 1988).

Defining my research as ethnography of Chicano Studies, I was conceiving it as an analysis of its institutional structures and ideological practices as observable today at UCLA. But first of all I was interested to find out about the ways in which concrete social actors are using these structures and ideologies, and are developing their own on a daily basis. After many months of participant observation and much informal discussion and taped in-depth-interviews made with Chicano faculty, students, and people from academic administration and other ethnic studies centers, I started to understand it as a very complex social, cultural and political phenomenon. Not only that, but also a manifestation of ethnic politics visible inside an institution of higher education, that shapes the networks of belongings within and between students, faculty, administration, constructing a social order debated and challenged by different perspectives, which develops a system of self-understanding, constructing a cultural order debated around the knowledge on "Chicano experience". Finally, it constructs a political order, a hierarchy debated within the "Chicano community" of the campus, and between this community and the broader academic environment.

Also as a result of the ten months long fieldwork and documentation I became able to connect the issue of Chicano Studies to broader issues operating today on and off campus. Like those of diversity, ethnic studies, affirmative action, student empowerment, and underrepresented minorities. Also, issues like bilingual education, the role of American higher education in the reproduction of social inequalities, immigration, and citizenship. In this paper I am going to outline only briefly the complexity of these phenomena and only the extent to which they became visible for me from doing an analysis of Chicano Studies at UCLA.

The place and people under scrutiny

The broader place where my work was done is commonly called "U.S. Southwest". But during my investigations I could encounter other names by which some Spanish speaking people defined this place of their living, such as "Greater Southwest", "Greater Mexican Northwest", "the Spanish Borderlands", "Northern Mesoamerica" (see for ex. Velez-Ibanez, 1996). The shifting definitions reflect the history of belongings of this territory to broader political units, mainly the changes that followed the annexation of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to the United States as a result of the Mexican-American war, ended in 1848. But they also recall the memory of the Mesoamerican Indians as existing here before European contact, the three-hundred-year long Spanish colonial era, and also the period of Mexican independence. (A history of the dynamism of this place and its inhabitants is analised, among others, in one of James Diego Vigil's books from 1998). But one may observe that, as part of Chicano studies, the effort to reconstruct the history of this part of America from the point of view of the "Chicano experience" is at the very front of the agenda.

Further, I could observe that the term "Aztlan" (after the legendary Aztec name for the region) was used quite often to name this space as homeland. And derivatives like "Califaztlan", or like "UCLAZTLAN" were sometimes on the stage as well (as used for ex. in the magazine "La Gente", or on the flyers of some student organizations at UCLA). Regarding this term, I could learn that the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s came up with "Aztlan" in order to represent the need of the empowerment of Mexican community by self-determination. But I also realized that it is considered to be a name for a spiritual space that links those people living on the U.S.-Mexico border, who belong to a common cultural world "sin fronteras" (without borders). Also, it is used as a symbol of the fight against assimilation, for the creation of distinct spaces for Chicanos and Chicanas in the American society. The understanding of the relevance of this term was more important for me due to the fact that I aimed to learn about Chicano Studies at UCLA, where, in June 1993, students demonstrating for a Chicano/a Studies Department renamed the campus' Schoenberg Quad the "Plaza Aztlan".

The "people of color" whose self-identity I tried to understand during my fieldwork, were and are denominated by different terms, and this, at the very beginning, made me realize that here I have to deal with a case of contested identities, and with an intense struggle for "proper" identifications. Later on I discovered that this fight for naming wasn't only a cultural battle, but was also a political and social one, that aimed to locate people in one way or another in a certain position within the American order.

Terms like "Hispanic", "people with Spanish surname", "Latino", "Mexican-American", "Chicano and Chicana" represented different views on how individuals with a certain ethnic origin had to define themselves as citizens of United States. More then that, as inhabitants of California for whom "the American continent is a homeland that precedes the arrival of Europeans" (Flores and Benmayor, 1997).

One may read the definition of the term "Hispanic" among others in the document of the Population Division of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, entitled "Development of the Race and Ethnic Items for the 1990 Census 51". In the past two decades this term evolved to put into a single "ethnic" category all people from America "whose ancestry is predominantly from one or more Spanish-speaking countries" (see about this in Oboler, 1995). As such, it ignores the diversity within, and the differences between, the descendants of U.S. conquest and the immigrants from Mexico, and/or from Latin and Central America. It "homogenizes class experiences and neglects many different linguistic, racial, and ethnic groups within the different nationalities themselves". The further confusions resulted from the usage of this term are regarding the differentiation between "white Hispanic" and "non-white Hispanic", and between "non Hispanic white" and "Hispanic white", and, generally speaking, its use "raises the question of how people are defined and classified in this society" (Oboler, 1995: 2).

One of the main challenges I encountered while trying to find out the categories by which people define themselves, was to learn about the difference between being "Mexican-American" and being "Chicano/a". I think the following citations give a very clear image of this for the reader, but I was introduced to these meanings by faculty and students with whom I talked during my fieldwork. "In the Chicano activists' vocabulary "Mexican-American meant someone who had assimilated -- taken on an 'American' outlook rather than a Mexican one. ... The term 'Chicano', which to earlier generations was a label reserved for the 'lower classes', denoted one's support of activism" (E. Chavez, 1994:12). Some interpretations I heard emphasized that one may be Chicano/a without being of Mexican descent, and it became obvious for me that someone might choose to define him or herself as Mexican-American without assuming the "Chicanismo", denoting a more or less cultural nationalist mentality. As many said, Chicano is a political identity.

The term "Latino/a" as one of ethnic identification, sometimes is used instead of the generic "Hispanic" label, which - as we saw - provides in the federal forms an alternative option to that of choosing between being (not of Hispanic origin) black or (not of Hispanic origin) white. It is considered to represent more properly the fact that "a Latina/o can be black and no less Latina/o", or can be white, and Asian and Indian, but also the need to "debunk the myth of a monolithic Latino" in terms of gender as well. This internal diversity gives, like the cited author believes, a particular role to Latinos/as in the American society. "Here is how Latinas/os can help. We can build bridges ... We are used to being black, white, brown, and every other color and shade. We can help create an understanding within the color spectrum ... We can translate" (Hernandez-Truyol, 1998: 30).

The above mentioned complex debates on self-identity were important for me to interpret, not only to get a sense about the racially charged American political and social order, but first of all because they were part of the phenomenon I tried to understand on the campus. For Chicano Studies, as observed at UCLA, was -- among others -- a site of faculty fights over who has to teach whom and about whom under its umbrella. The search on the part of students for different spaces of their own was a sign not only of being restless to identify with colleagues of maybe same racial and ethnic background, but also having different political convictions and sexual orientations.

To give a closer view of the changing demographics of the society that forms the larger context of my ethnography, I am recalling here some evaluations of data regarding the increase of Latino population and at the same time their under-representation at universities.

The following paragraph uses data from the article of George Sabagh and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, published in 1996 in the volume "Ethnic Los Angeles". "The first federal census of California in 1850 showed that Los Angeles had 3,518 inhabitants, most of them of Mexican origin. Between 1930 and 1960 L.A. became an essentially white metropolis. The numbers of the whites declined between 1970 and 1980, remained stagnant in the next ten years, and by 1990 had slipped to just under half of the region's population. Between 1960 and 1990 the size of the African American population did little to alter the ethnic mix. The change resulted from growth among Hispanics and Asians. The Hispanics increased from one-tenth of the region's population in 1960, to one-third in 1990. Because of the changes in the classification of Mexican Americans, it is difficult to have comparable counts of them for the period between 1930 and 1990. Before 1940 they were classified as non-whites, in the 1940 census were counted as whites, in the 1950 and 1960 censuses were classified together with other Latinos as people with Spanish surnames, and starting with the 1970 census, were identified by their Hispanic origin. In spite of these changes in classification, one may estimate that by 1990 the Mexican population was more than half as big as the non-Hispanic white population." (1996:79, 87, 88). When the media proclaimed the 1980s as that of "the Hispanic", projecting that California was expected to be more than 50% Mexican-American by the year 2000, the latter came to be seen as threats, and these predictions, together with an economic downturn, contributed to a political backlash (Nuevo Kerr, 1992: 215).

Regarding the presence of "Mexican-Americans" in higher education there is an agreement on the fact that "despite their number, they remain conspicuously underrepresented in the recognized areas of power and influence". And "when compared to other ethnic groups, their numbers in the area of government, education, business, science, health, and legal profession are deplorably low". (See the report prepared by the Chicano/Latino Consortium at the University of California, 1988:1, and the volume on "Latinos and Education", 1997). The civil rights struggles of the 1960s and some of the federal programs of the same decade "were the initial bridges that brought the Chicano population into institutions of higher education in relatively substantial numbers" (Aguirre and Martinez, 1993: 2). But one can't forget that these programs facilitated mainly their enrollment in the two-year community colleges, and that after a slow increase in their numbers across the University of California system, during the 1990s their numbers started to decrease again. In the academic year of 1998-99 the percentage of the male Hispanic faculty was 4%, and that of the female Hispanic one was 1% of the total of the hired faculty at UCLA, while the male whites formed 65%, and female whites 16 % of the same total. (See on this the "Ladder-Rank Faculty Diversity Statistics" of the Academic Personnel Office, October, 1998). According to the statistics of the National Center for Education, after the passage of the UC Regent's so-called SP1 and SP2 regulations and of Proposition 209 - which outlawed the consideration of race, ethnicity and gender in hiring and admissions - the number of the admitted Chicano/Latino students lowered a lot. While in 1995 there were admitted 2,049 Latino students, their number in 1999 decreased to 1,013.

Ethnic studies and the development of multicultural campuses up to1990s

While being at the University of California Los Angeles in the academic year of 1998-99, I could observe some of the manifestations organized with the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of "ethnic studies" across the UC system. For example, the two day-long event "Educate to Liberate" (which introduced to the attention of recent students the former struggles of Black Panthers and Brown Berets) and the preparations for a forthcoming conference on Chicano/a student activism at UCLA. I could interpret it as a sign of celebrating the idea of multicultural campuses, but also of nostalgia for the student struggles of the 1960s, considered to be a model for continuing the fight under the new political conditions of today's California.

Among others, this helped me to realize that I have to interpret the existence of Chicano Studies not only through its relations with the Chicano movement, but also as related to the broader processes of the creation of multicultural higher education campuses in America. That is why - besides other directions of study - I aimed to understand the general framework of the interconnectedness of multiculturalism and ethnic studies.

As I advanced in my documentation work I could learn that multiculturalism does not mean the same thing to everyone, and while idealized by some, it is demonized by others (Rorty, 1995). During the past 30 years it hasn't existed as a comfortable ideological zone of consensus, but as an intensive academic debate on education, while being one of the channels through which it became possible to imagine that the United States looks more like "a salad" rather then a "melting pot". Being invented in the 1960s to make the American dream accessible for the formerly discriminated races and to represent and recognize them in public, in very recent years it is blamed by some (like Bernstein, 1994) for becoming "a new oppressive force".

As the advocates of a critical multiculturalism observe, during the 1990s the doctrine of multicultural education started to be attacked both by the conservative and liberal Right, and by the Left. While blaming the "cult of ethnicity" for the danger of the "balkanization" of United States, the former is arguing that politics of multiculturalism (replacing the approach of universalism with that of particularism) is "inherently destabilizing and destructive of the common bonds of nationhood". The latter is criticizing "the inability of multicultural education to address adequately the structural inequalities faced by minority students, most notably racism" (see about these critics in May, 1999:11).

According to Vincent Parillo, multiculturalism might be reduced to the differentiation of three major viewpoints: the inclusionist, the separatist, and the integrative/pluralist ones. The first dominated the 1970s, when multiculturalism meant "the inclusion of material in the school curriculum that related to the contribution of non-European peoples to the nation's history", and when its advocates envisioned the development of a common culture that incorporates the contributions of all racial and ethnic groups". The second version was embodied in the perspective of the so-called "minority nationalism", that aimed to develop separate group identities which resisted assimilation to mainstream America, claimed language rights, took up the pride of being different, and taught and maintained the own cultural customs. The third type of multiculturalism envisions "a multitude of distinctive umbrellas each sheltering a different group, but with the umbrellas' edges attached", and argues for the need of interconnected viewpoints and cross-cultural understanding (see in Parillo, 1996: 158-162). It is exactly this field of contests and tensions within which the position and the role of ethnic studies was and is debated at American universities, and which produces a set of paradoxical commitments as I could observe during my fieldwork at UCLA.

As stated in different analyses, the early strategies of including multiculturalism in higher education aimed to increase the access of minority students, faculty, and staff into these institutions. This idea was backed up by the conviction according to which the upward social mobility of minorities in America is guaranteed by education as the vehicle for social and material success. During the mid-1990s, the goals shifted "to a desire for meaningful participation within campuses of higher education" (Valverde, 1998: 21). That is to say, the struggle to end segregation was transformed into a struggle to integrate minorities into the traditionally white institutions, but also to change the monocultural campuses into multicultural ones.

"Ethnic Studies" (like Native American, African American, Asian American and Chicano Studies) was definitely a tool for this latter end. Interpreting it as an institutional practice of claiming equal opportunity for people of color within a "white university", one might understand why its strategies followed the aim to establish the own spaces of teaching and research as loci of power. Also, established at a university with certain organizational traditions, it had to deal with the paradox of being the same and being different at the same time. Being the same, in the sense of having the same prestige and power over resources and decisions like the more established departments. And being different in the sense of introducing a multidisciplinary study of the hitherto silenced voices, and assuming a committment to the respective off-campus communities.

The creation of the ethnic studies research centers for example at UCLA in 1969 was followed by the formation of different ethnic-based student organizations and academic programs. These aimed to create a climate on the campus that would help the recently included populations to feel at home in a strange place. Under the impact of civil rights movement, students learned that they can make a difference and have the potential to cause change. Today I could observe how leaders of different student groups are teaching the freshman generation not to take for granted everything they encounter on the campus, but to discover that there is still a place for improvement. There are still people who are excluded from this university because of their race and the social inequalities attached to it, and to assume responsibility for these issues, just like their predecessors who fought for the establishment of ethnic studies.

The great challenges for re-addressing multiculturalism and ethic studies in the 1990s are basically coming from the changes, which have occurred, in the larger political and social order. During the past years, the state of California passed at least three Propositions, which resulted in the loss of some concessions won previously by the "Bronze people", and which are considered by them as signs of a new, hidden type of racism and racial discrimination. In 1994, Proposition 187, entitled "Save Our State and stop the illegal aliens" was an attack directed mainly against Mexican immigrants who were supposed to threaten the American order, but had a negative impact also on the general perception of brown people from California. In 1996, Proposition 209, the so-called "California Civil Rights Initiative" started an attack on affirmative action and out-lawed the consideration of race, ethnicity and gender in hiring and admission. In 1998, Proposition 227, called "English Language in Public Schools" ended the practice of bilingual education and re-strengthened the older English-only initiative, being an attack mainly against the use of Spanish language in public.

Under these recent conditions the leadership of the university still defines UCLA as an institution that "celebrates diversity". But the students, and not so much the faculty, are talking about the weakening of diversity and are focusing their argument on the links that exist between the abandonment of the policy of affirmative action and the decreasing prestige of ethnic studies. The cut of funds and the fear of being abolished in 1993, generated a hunger strike for the establishment of a Chicano Department at UCLA, as it resulted in a very recent hunger strike at Berkeley, supported by minority students across the UC system. In terms of how diversity was viewed by students, faculty and administration at UCLA, the results of research done in 1990 are showing the following. "Many students feel that there is little positive communication between special interest groups that the Greek system is characterized by a good deal of racism and sexism, and that talk about diversity is being used as a substitute for affirmative action". "Students and faculty are more likely to perceive 'a lot of racial conflict' on the campus and to say that 'there is little trust between minority student groups and campus administrators'. Compared to them UCLA administrators have a much more favorable view of the racial climate on the campus" (Astin, Trevino, Wingard, 1991: 5, 13).

In conclusion, the institutional structures of ethnic studies reproduced mainly a separatist kind of multiculturalism, at least during their first stage of existence, when they attempted to create safety spaces for minority students and faculty, committed to the representation of their hitherto silenced voices. Besides, with some individual exceptions the university's administration treats them as the institution's stepchild existing somewhere on the margins, and never really challenging the departmentalized world of the traditional disciplines.

As I found out during my fieldwork, people from ethnic studies centers today are more willing to work on the creation of their own departments, and by this to strengthen their positions individually, than to accept the formation of a shared institutional umbrella. Otherwise, each center has its complicated and internally differentiated field of interests to deal with, and is concerned with many different social issues that are affecting their off-campus communities. The issue of repatriation and tribal existence for the Native Americans has little in common with the Latino concerns for immigration and citizenship, or with the special problems of the Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Chinese Americans. However, they have common concerns as well, like the recruitment, appointment and promotion of permanent faculty, and the lack of power possessed by a traditional community within the system of this very prestigious research university.

In the case of the students, the fight for affirmative action seems to be the issue that transcends ethnic and racial boundaries operating on and off campus. But otherwise, on a daily basis they attend mainly their own groups ("where people look like me") and if they are enrolled in any of the Inter Departmental Programs of the centers, very rarely do they visit the classes of the other centers. One may also observe and mention that - besides the classes that are dealing with the history, culture, and society of the own group - some courses are treating more general problems as well across the centers, like those of immigration, globalization, poverty, gender and sexual orientation.

Chicanos, Chicanas and the creation of own spaces at UCLA

In the fall of 1998, for the first time I encountered an area which I supposed to belong to Chicanos in the basement of Haines Hall. There, in the several showcases of the Chicano Studies Research Center and the Chicano Studies Library I could observe a multiplicity of symbols exhibited on the occasion of the Day of the Death, but also in order to visualize what was called "Chicana power". Objects of Indian descent were joined by Romano-Catholic symbols, and Mexican national signs were sharing the same space as some representations of homosexuality. Everything seemed to me so confusing, but at the same time so challenging, that I decided to have a closer look at how this complexity of self-identification might have one single name, or -- as usually happens -- two names, "Chicano" and "Chicana".

After my arrival on the campus, I spent almost two months walking on the Bruin Walk where I met representatives of different ethnic-based students groups (mainly different from the ones I continued to deal with later), and by silently stalking the corridors of Haines, Campbell and Murphy Halls (the buildings hosting the four ethnic studies centers and the offices of administration) where I supposed "my subject" is operating. With time I started to identify places by their names, and to recognize individual faces in the mass of people flowing daily in front of my eyes. But I also realized that it would take too much time to understand everything I discovered at a superficial look as being part of my topic, broadly formulated at the beginning as the "American debates on multiculturalism". The experience of the total confusion presented in the above paragraph came to be the starting point of narrowing my interest and deciding to try to understand as deeply as I can the meanings and strategies of being Chicano/a at UCLA today.

In the next phase I began to develop quite a huge network of relationships, starting by meeting people at events that were most visible for me, and continuing to follow their relationships on the line of their stories and issues considered important by them. It happened that the first student organization I encountered was Mecha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana y Chicano de Aztlan), a "traditional" group formed - like Chicano Studies itself - as a result of the Chicano movement and according to the founding document of the later ("El Plan de Santa Barbara"). I participated at their meetings, trying to assume a minor role in their recently started efforts to organize the so-called Raza Youth Conference, an event conceived as part of their outreach program. Beside the issues of current organizing and fundraising, usually they discussed more or less political questions as well, such as those of labor unions, bus riding, racial discrimination, but their main concerns were related mostly to the chances and problems of Chicanos in higher education.

This group had representatives in all kind of different committees, such as that of Raza Graduation Planning Committee, where I could met Latino students, others than Mexican-Americans, and I could observe the first signs of disagreements and the resistance of some students to be over-ruled by the Mexican-American Mecha. Also, in the Student Senate of the Cesar Chavez Center, where I met people from other further groups (like the Coalition for Chicano/a Studies), and again could see some signs of internal tensions along the lines of how to fight for, and in the name of Chicano Studies. Latterly, I found out that due to the fact that Mecha is considered by the university's administration as the official organization of Chicano students, it is in conflict with the group of gays and lesbians called "La Familia", and some of their acts are considered by others as being male-orientated, authoritarian and nationalist, this group is not strongly supported among students across the campus.   

Continuing my participant observation at events organized by students and mostly for students in February 1999 I had the chance to follow a weeklong celebration ongoing in different parts of the campus named "Semana de la Raza. Celebrando Nuestras Culturas y Educando Sin Fronteras". As I found out, unusual for the "tradition" of putting on this event, this year there was a co-operation of sixteen UCLA Raza groups. The term "Raza", designating "my people", also had to stand for the common struggles of Latinos, but even more, as one of the organizers from the Coalition for Affirmative Action said, for celebrating the fact that "the multiracial communities came together" on this campus. During several days not only flags, songs, dances, and foods were representing the ethnic and racial diversity of the Latino student body, but also the workshops discussing different social issues expressed the many differences within, and the rich range of strategies followed by different Raza groups. Issues of health, represented by the "Chicanos/Latinos for Community Medicine", of developing careers in business represented by the "Latino/a Business Student Association", of sexual orientation represented by "La Familia" were all on the agenda. Together with issues of women, (represented by otherwise uninvolved groups such as "Raza Women" and "Mujeres Unidas"), of self-identification and cultural expressions within the rich Latino community (represented by the "Latin American Student Association"), and together with the particular issues of engineers (represented by the "Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists"), but also with the broader concerns for affirmative action and hate crimes represented by the Undergraduate Student Association Council. Altogether these events gave a great chance for an outsider like me to discover the terms in which the participants conceptualize and discuss their problems, the questions they have, the ways in which they understand being a minority student at UCLA. In addition to continue, in a later phase, to make interviews with some of them and others (not so active or not active at all in the mentioned organizations), using the knowledge to ask questions accumulated during a period of participant observation rich in many challenges, surprises and satisfactions.

During the interviews I asked people from these groups, and/or people enrolled in the undergraduate program of Chicano Studies to tell me their stories of being students at UCLA. To talk about how their decision to come here was related to their former life and familial background, about the difficulties they encountered and the means they used while trying to make this campus familial. About how they make friends, what kind of music they like, what kinds of holidays do celebrate, what kind of student groups they join and why, and why they have chosen to take classes in Chicano Studies. In each case I was happy to let my interviewees take the discussion in any direction they wanted in order to find out their individual concerns and solutions.

I interviewed students with different, more or less mixed ethnic backgrounds, but usually having something to do with Mexican descent. Most of them came from schools with a high proportion of Latino students and from Latino neighborhoods, being the first generation of their family at a college, and most of them were looking to find places on the campus where they could meet "people who look like them". Some of them considered that they "have to give back something to their communities" right away (those being very active within the mentioned organizations), others conceived the compulsory commitment to their community as being an issue of the future. Searching for a place of theirs -- a political space where one may talk about issues of racial discrimination, or a friendly context where women might talk about their bodies, or a safe environment free of homophobia -- was always about to look for others like "them". People together with whom they could resist becoming similar to white Anglos without feeling that something is wrong with them, finally remaining different, and being proud of being different from the mainstream. Values like collectivism versus individualism, spirituality versus consumerism, activism versus elitism, unlearning versus learning, radicalism versus assimilation, or even indigenism versus modernism were occurring frequently in their effort to present themselves as "others" versus "them" (the "Anglos", the "whites", the "mainstream").

Narratives of Chicano Studies

In my efforts to reconstruct the history of "Chicano/a Studies" at UCLA I was using on the one hand different documents and publications obtained from the offices of academic administration and from the Chicano Studies library2. On the other hand I did interviews with some of the staff of the Chicano Studies Research Center, with some of the core faculty of the Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and with some of the faculty hired at other Departments, formerly, or currently having some sort of relationship with the Chicano Studies programs. Also with people from academic administration, such as vice chancellors, deans, vice-deans, directors and committee chairs, who -- being in the position where they were -- had to deal with issues of ethnic studies, student admission, diversity, affirmative action, or even the hunger strike of the Chicano students from 1993.

Basically I was asking everybody to share with me the story of their personal relationship with "Chicano Studies", with other faculty, with students and with administration, emphasizing the most relevant issues they encountered as Chicano/a and/or Latino/a faculty. The interpretation of the rich experiences narrated in these interviews is still underway. Right now I am able to outline some of the common concerns that seem to result partly from their positions at the university, and partly being dustream male Chicano view on the meaning of the "Chicano experience" and on the "proper" way to fight for Chicano rights. Listening to the stories I could learn how some explained the condition of Chicanos by using the theory of internal colonialism and the perspective of cultural nationalism. Others used Chicana feminism, and/or Chicana lesbian feminism in order to resist not only being assimilated by the Anglo mainstream, but also to the internal authoritarian discourse on the "real" Chicano experience.

Another concern of the interviewed faculty was the need of the double commitment of the Chicano intellectual, as imposed by the founding documents of Chicano Studies as compulsory for each "real" Chicano. It was interesting to observe, how some of them tried to be comfortable regarding their "academic activism" while defining research as a form of community service. Others tried to be much more directly involved in the social and political activities of some off-campus organizations struggling against social inequalities of different kinds. Most interestingly, I could learn about the internal contests developed exactly on the lines of calling each other to account for their involvement or non-involvement in the Chicano political movement.

Last, but not least, a third concern of faculty was the inclusion under the heading of "Chicano Studies" of some issues and topics relevant for different Latino people, other than Mexican-Americans. As I could understand it, this concern was related to the fact that "Chicano Studies" as an interdisciplinary paradigm began to be developed as strictly linked to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and to the effort to express the experience of the non-immigrant Mexican-Americans resisting assimilation. But it might be explained further in terms of the changing demographic realities resulting from the increasing number of immigrants from Mexico, and countries of Central and Latin America. The issue of being Chicano and not Latino, and of representing the interests of Chicanos and not of Latinos turned out to be highly charged, for example during the already mentioned hunger strike. In addition, during the negotiations on the nature of the desired "department" or what came to be "the center for interdisciplinary studies", this issue continued to increase the gap between scholars with different views on this concern. That is how it happened that some active faculty of the 1980s, and even some of the new ones hired after 1993, decided to join research centers with a broader interest in social issues regarding not only Mexican-American, but also Latino, and even other minority people, and how the former Chicano Studies Research Center became somehow isolated, dedicating its efforts mainly to cultural issues and programs.

At this moment, it seems useful to use the term of "cultural citizenship", as introduced by Renato Rosaldo and the Latino Cultural Studies Working Group in late 1987. For them, this term denotes "a broad continuum of social practices ranging from everyday life activities to broad social drama", which play an "important part in creating social and cultural identity" (Flores and Benmayor, eds., 1997: 13). Following them, I interpret "Chicano Studies" as being an institutional and everyday practice of "creating space where people feel 'safe' and 'at home', where they feel a sense of belonging and membership". As a set of discourses and practices that allows for Mexican-Americans and Latinos "as excluded groups to establish themselves as distinct communities with distinct social claims, while still situating themselves in the broad context of continental American society". The events I observed and the narratives I've collected seem to tell the story of this collective and individual effort, and as such, to be an active part of the debates on multiculturalism performed within the American academia, but strongly linked to the off campus fights for social justice. As such, "Chicano/ Chicana Studies" is an institution through which people of Mexican origin may assume a political identity. It functions like a source of cultural citizenship for border people belonging to America without accepting the ideology and practices of "melting pot" and the racial inequalities of the "American dream".


As already mentioned, I am interpreting the issues observed in two different social and political environments as being cases of identity politics. And, following Craig Calhoun, I understand identity politics as being one of today's most powerful collective struggles across the world, being a fight for recognition, legitimacy, power, and, of course, on expression of autonomy (Calhoun, 1995: 20-21).

Operating in different social contexts, multiculturalism as identity politics has different meanings and follows different strategies, but everywhere and always exists as a discursive territory of contest. In Romania, introduced within a strongly ethnicized and politicized academic order, it was considered as a solution offered by the Romanian "other" to prevent the formation of an autonomous Hungarian university. There, multiculturalism was contested by the Hungarian elite as a new form of Romanian hegemony and as a strategy that could not satisfy the Hungarian demand for justice perceived in cultural and historic terms. The debates on multiculturalism of the 1990s, under the impact of understanding past ethnic fights among the Romanian and the Hungarian elite, and also that of being shaped by people's current interests, are reproducing in that context the strategies and meanings of an ethnic politics informed by cultural fundamentalism. At the same time they are part of a more general post-socialist effort to rediscover "cultural differences", and replace the difference-blind socialist politics of social equality. Within the Romanian social and academic environment, multiculturalism as identity politics is performed exclusively in ethnic and national terms, and at its turn reproduces a mentality and practice that confronts with each other communities imagined as being internally homogeneous.

In the United States, and in particular in California, the debates on multiculturalism were and are going on within a racialized and ethnicized order, where people under my scrutiny form one of the many actors of a multiracial and multiethnic social field. Here multiculturalism was conceived as a politics representing the interests of underrepresented minorities, and was attacked mainly by those concerned with the "unity of America". Formulating the demand to introduce in the school curricula other perspectives beside that of "white male America", the multiculturalist debate on education was performed within the academia. However criticized as such, it is still considered by some activists to be a proper alternative of melting pot in treating cultural differences, but one that has to be connected to larger projects of social justice and equality. Within the American social and academic environment politics of multiculturalism is represented a complex set of aims and strategies, internally diversified not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but those of gender and sexual orientation as well.

Having the unusual chance to do fieldwork in United States as an Eastern European scholar with some experiences in investigating aspects of the post-socialist transition from Romania, I cannot resist defining my work as a reversed cultural anthropology practiced as cultural critique.

If cultural anthropology is a Western product invented at the point of the encounter between the "West" and "the Rest" of the world, the investigation of an Eastern scholar like me might be considered as a reversed attempt. Under these conditions I came to the conclusion that the role of this discipline in my country might be - among others - the critical understanding of the phenomenon of cultural imports. I strongly hope that my opportunity to learn about visions and practices of ordering reality (like that of multiculturalism), within one of their very places of "origin", was not only a matter of individual luck, but might be continued in a more systematic way by me or by others.

In any case, one of the biggest experiences to learn -- not from books, but by encountering the experiences of some "people of color" in the hegemonic White America --, was to perceive myself within an unknown system of cultural classifications and social hierarchies. To learn that certain positions and definitions -- that might look the most natural ones at home -- might be relatively easily unlearned abroad. I could grasp once again that -- independently of one's personal will to define oneself in certain ways -- the institutional discourses are locating him/her in certain categories that are difficult to deconstruct. I may want to convince Mexican-Americans that I am neither that White who takes privilege from her whiteness in the American system (because I am an ethnic minority woman living in Eastern Europe); or I may try to prove that I am not that White scholar who speaks through a hegemonic discourse about, instead, or maybe against "Bronze" people (due to the fact that I am an anthropologist in an academic environment where this discipline is on the margins, and in a country on the periphery) -- but the image that "they" form about "me" will be one that uses systems of representations familiar for them.

The same happens at home, but with other kinds of identities, and within other kinds of discursive and social orders. The individual experience of being all and none of the subject positions prescribed for you eventually remains a personal adventure, hardly understandable and acceptable for people who are looking on me and on themselves only from within a certain context that naturalizes people's identities and belongings. But anthropology teaches us to take a distance, to always have a look from outside, and to see all these shifting identities of the researcher and of the researched in a permanent move.


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[1] E. Magyari-Vincze: Antropologia politicii identitare naţionaliste (The Anthropology of Nationalist Identity Politics), Cluj: EFES, 1997; E. Magyari-Vincze: A kolozsvári egyetem és a romániai magyar identitás politikája (The University of Cluj and the Politics of Hungarian Identity in Romania), in Replika, 1999/ 4

2 Chicano Council on Higher Education, El Plan de Santa Barbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education, Chicano Council on Higher Education, Oakland: La Causa Publications, 1969; A Proposal for the Establishment at UCLA of a Mexican American Cultural Center; 1969; Chicano Studies Center Annual Report from 1971-72, and 1972-73; Chicano Studies Center Research Development Plan 1973; 1982-87 Program Review; 1987-88 Committee on Undergraduate Courses and Curricula. Review of the Interdepartmental Program in Chicano Studies at UCLA; 1989-90 Committee on Undergraduate Courses and Curricula. Out of Phase Review; Correspondence involving chancellor Young, the Dean of Social Sciences, the Provost of the College of Letters and Social Sciences, and others about a proposal from 1992 of establishing a Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA; Strengthened Plan for Interdisciplinary Programs. Chicana and Chicano Studies Program to be first Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction and named in honor of Cesar Chavez, 1993; 1997-98 Academic Senate Review of the Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.