This college Latinx Lab won’t X-out Chicanos. It plans to preserve Chicano history, embrace inclusion

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With more than 50 years of experience under the program’s belt, Cal State Fullerton’s Chicana and Chicano Studies Department is pioneering a new era of Latin American studies.

The program, whose beginnings are deeply rooted in the Chicano civil rights movement, is creating a new lab centered on storytelling and social justice.

Faculty hope the lab will create a space that reflects “the complexity in the fabric of our life that goes way beyond terms like Hispanic or Latino,” said Gabriela Nuñez, a Chicana and Chicano studies associate professor at Cal State Fullerton.

This complexity is central to the intricate Latin American experience, Nuñez said. To reflect this,, Chicana and Chicano studies faculty opted against naming the lab after the department.

Instead, it added an “x.”

Officially established as the Latinx Lab, the name aims to highlight both gender inclusivity and geographical diversity, Nuñez said.

Funded by a $1.2-million grant from the Mellon Foundation awarded to the department in April, the lab launches this fall. The lab’s goal is to create projects that center on narratives as crucial to creating knowledge, transforming communities and addressing structural racism.

Gabriela Nuñez, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies, stands inside an archival multimedia collection room at the Cal State Fullerton Pollak Library. Some of it will be included in the school’s Latinx Lab.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

The Latinx Lab is the latest in various programs created by the university to further expand Latinx studies. Earlier this month, two Cal State Fullerton programs were recognized as positively impacting and accelerating Latinx studies in higher education.

These programs include Project upGRADS, which supports the academic achievement of Latinx graduate students, and Ánimo: Latinx Counseling Emphasis, which offers five courses that prepare graduates to provide bilingual and bicultural counseling for Latinx clients and families.

Instead of being a physical space, the Latinx Lab will conduct a series of both virtual and in-person projects led by Cal State Fullerton faculty. Some of these projects include developing an online digital hub and archive focused on disseminating Latinx stories as well as creating an on-campus research symposium that allows faculty to create and share new research within Latinx studies.

The lab will also take charge of managing the new ethnic studies requirement, which requires Cal State students to take a three-unit ethnic studies class.

“I remember us students organizing to fight and demand the inclusion of ethnic studies,” said Carlos Escobedo, a master’s student of history at Cal State Fullerton. “This moment — where you’re actually seeing funds being poured into these programs — is the beginning of the fruits of our labor.”

Alexandro Gradilla stands inside a room

Alexandro José Gradilla, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Alexandro José Gradilla, a Cal State Fullerton associate professor and co-principal investigator for the grant, hopes the lab will embrace the importance of a humanities education, which “will give the students the skills to be able to dream, imagine and enact ideas into reality,” Gradilla said.

Gradilla adds that students of color are constantly viewed as lacking in higher education — whether that be test scores or other traditional academic skills. However, institutions often ignore a valuable tool that Latin American students are naturally equipped with: storytelling.

“Many Latinx students, whether we are the fifth-generation, recently arrived, an immigrant, a refugee, an asylum seeker, we are immersed in a culture that values storytelling,” Gradilla said.

Higher education spaces traditionally downplay this skill because it doesn’t know what to do with it, Gradilla said.

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The Latinx Lab will create a learning experience for students where they can “blend the academic with their own home knowledge so there’s no canceling or negating the knowledge and the skills that our students are already bringing to the classroom,” Gradilla said.

The use of “Latinx” as an ethnic label for the Latin American community has a relatively short — and often controversial — history. The term originated in the early 2000s and has gained traction in academic spaces for its ability to reject the gender binary.

However, various nationwide surveys conducted by ThinkNow, a market research company, over the past few years found that only 2% of Latino Americans prefer “Latinx” as an ethnic label when referencing themselves. This number rises to 6% among all Hispanics and 7% among college-educated Hispanics if Latinx is used to describe all people of Latin American origin.

Mario Carrasco, co-founder of ThinkNow, notes that Latinx is a relatively new term, which means it’s not yet prominent in the public sphere, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

“It takes time. Latino is a made-up term and Hispanic is a made-up term. It took time for people to embrace that,” Carrasco said.

Carrasco said the Latinx term is a reflection of the community’s current efforts to question the concept of Latinidad as a whole, which has “a history of exclusivity and leaving out marginalized groups.” He notes that the term taps heavily into these sensitive questions, which could lead to hesitancy within the community to embrace it.

Although previous research suggests that young adults and college graduates are most likely to know and use the term, ThinkNow’s survey found little to no difference among those demographics. Yet, universities are increasingly using Latinx in department and program names.

Daisy Gomez-Fuentes stands outside of Cal State Fullerton's library

Daisy Gomez-Fuentes, a Cal State Fullerton graduate, says she identifies as “Chicanx” but adds that “Latinx” is more inclusive when referring to the community in general.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

When Daisy Gomez-Fuentes first started pursuing her undergraduate degree in Chicana and Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton, she found herself instinctively using the term “Chicano” to refer to her major. Yet, as she moved through the coursework for her degree, she gradually became more comfortable with the phrase “Chicanx.”

Now, she prefers Chicanx, even though this wording doesn’t actually exist “on paper” for the major.

Gomez-Fuentes, who graduated in 2021, tacks on an “x” at the end of Chicana/o when stating her bachelor’s degree information. She notes that although Cal State Fullerton uses gendered terms in its department name and course listings, that’s not common practice within the department itself.

“Even the courses themselves, they focus on the Latinx identity in general,” Gomez-Fuentes said. “They don’t really use the term Chicana, Chicano or Chicanx. All of the courses are named that way, but they focus on the Latinx identity.”

“Latinx is great because it’s inclusive,” Gomez-Fuentes added. “The word Chicana, Chicano and Chicanx in general is Mexican American. But Latinx is including all descents from Latin America, so it’s definitely more inclusive of those identities.”

Faculty hope that the Latinx Lab will embrace this diversity rather than shy away from it, Nuñez said.

“The students today have no idea how we got started or the struggle we had to wage to open the doors to higher education for our youth. It’s unfortunate that in the effort to be inclusive, the specifics are lost.”

— Carlos Muñoz Jr., a leading figure in the Chicano civil rights movement

Although she recognizes conversations surrounding social identifiers are nuanced and often controversial, Nuñez also credits these identities as crucial to inclusive storytelling.

“Everyday life is really at the foundation of who we are and how we experience this life and that is crucial to our stories. We’re not interested in one story. We’re interested in everyone’s story, as complex and contradictory they may be,” Nuñez said. “We want to embrace the controversy and the way that people are contradictory.”

Entrance to Cal State Fullerton

Cal State Fullerton’s new Latinx Lab was funded by a $1.2-million grant from the Mellon Foundation.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Although there have been some efforts at Cal State Fullerton to change the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department’s name to include Latinx, Nuñez notes that they are trying to strike a balance between adhering to diversity and preserving history.

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It’s crucial to recognize that social-identifying terms like “Chicano” are based within a specific historical context, Nuñez said. She stresses that the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department only exists because of the young people who led the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Carlos Muñoz Jr. knows this history quite well — because he lived it.

Muñoz was part of the Eastside 13, one of 13 men secretly indicted by a grand jury in June 1968. They were indicted on conspiracy charges stemming from the East Los Angeles walkouts, which began on March 5 of that year. In response to the discriminatory education system, Chicano students at Garfield High School walked out to demand better education. The protests quickly spread to three other high schools — Lincoln, Roosevelt and Belmont — in the area.

Grand jurors found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that protests at the four Los Angeles high schools were not spontaneous. Instead — they claimed — the walkouts were organized through careful planning spearheaded by nonstudents.

Muñoz, who was a student at Cal State Los Angeles at the time, was one of the 13 men indicted on these charges. He faced 66 years in prison for charges of conspiracy to disturb public schools and conspiracy to disturb the peace.

The indictments were ultimately struck down in 1970, after multiple protests and marches both in Los Angeles and in Washington. Defense attorneys successfully argued that protest organizers were exercising their 1st Amendment rights. This was considered a turning point in the political development of the Chicano identity in the United States.

Muñoz, a leading figure in the Chicano civil rights movement, was also the founding chair of Cal State L.A.’s Chicano Studies Department, which was the first program of its kind in the nation.

Cal State L.A.’s program started off as Mexican American Studies in 1968, eventually transitioning to the Department of Chicano Studies in 1971. The department underwent yet another change in 2016 and is now known as the Department of Chicana/o and Latina/o studies.

Muñoz expressed happiness and excitement over the Latinx Lab but does not agree with the use of Latinx.

“I understand it from the point of view of young people … who are trying to be inclusive and bring into the fold all Latinos,” Muñoz said. “But unfortunately, in the process, the history is lost.”

“You can still be who you are within the [Latinx] label. You can still be a Chicana, you can still be Guatemalan and Mexican, or Honduran. You could still be whoever it is you are, just learning within that broader Latinx label.”

— Irene Sanchez, who teaches Chicano and Latino studies in high school

Muñoz feels that the term Latinx “hides the origins” of the Chicano studies program and doesn’t accurately represent how Chicano activists fought for a space in the academic world.

“The students today have no idea how we got started or the struggle we had to wage to open the doors to higher education for our youth,” Muñoz said. “It’s unfortunate that in the effort to be inclusive, the specifics are lost.”

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However, Nuñez notes that this friction between historical preservation and transformation “can be really productive in building our intellectual knowledge about people in this world.”

“This term, Chicana and Chicano, is historically specific. It’s a term for anyone who identifies with the history of Mexican American social and political struggle in the United States,” Nuñez said. “We’re really proud of that. We don’t want to lose that history because that’s really at the foundation of our academic discipline and our department.”

Veronica Mendiola inside a library's archival multimedia collection room

Graduate student Veronica Mendiola in the archival multimedia collection room at the Cal State Fullerton Pollak Library.

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Veronica Mendiola, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in history with a focus on Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton, reiterated the importance of Latinx studies to be grounded in storytelling and inclusion.

“Storytelling is a big part of how people told their stories. For a long time, that storytelling wasn’t seen as a primary source,” Mendiola said. “There are different people from around Latin America that need a space to be able to share their stories, to fight for social justice, and find their voice.”

Nuñez, who is South American herself, echoed this sentiment, noting that Central American and South American representation is lacking in the traditional Chicanx-centered curricula.

“I’m half-Peruvian. I’ve never really had the space to intellectually think about South Americans and the United States, and how that can contribute to really important philosophy and literature and the way we think about Latinx study,” Nuñez said.

Nuñez adds that the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department has started to grow the Central American studies focus within its curriculum. Professor Mario Obando, whose teaching specializes in the Central American diaspora, is at the forefront of these efforts.

In 2020, he taught Introduction to Central American Studies for the first time in the department’s history.

According to Obando, the inclusion of Central American education into Latinx studies is vital because it offers students an idea of how to relate to Latin American people with other geographical identities. He also notes that Central and South American history has largely been missing from the broader Latinx studies field.

“I went through an entire education, even in grad school, of me make-shifting [Central] American history,” Obando said. “Finding history from Nicaragua, Panama, Belize, Honduras, from El Salvador, it’s marginalized and often erased within questions of the American Southwest.”

The fight to expand Central and South American history in the department’s curriculum goes hand-in-hand with the use of the “x” in the lab’s name, according to Obando. Being able to name the lab Latinx gives students the space to explore the unexplored and “name new things that have not been named,” Obando said.

“It’s a possibility of being able to break down the cisgender, hetero-patriarchal norms and cis binary around who produces scholarship, who produces knowledge and who’s heard,” Obando said.

Irene Sanchez, an educator who teaches Chicano and Latino studies at three high schools in Azusa, has appreciated the space created by a broad term like Latinx.

Having taught many students who don’t fit the gender binary, Sanchez has embraced the use of Latinx in her classroom and has found that her students don’t question it.

Rather, they are thankful for it.

“The whole reason why people are drawn to major in Chicano studies is they want to feel a sense of belonging. The longer that certain folks argue about this, it’s going to push people away,” Sanchez said. “There is space for multiple stories and multiple communities and the Latinx Lab is trying to do that.”

The “x” doesn’t take away from teaching her students Chicano history, Sanchez said. Rather, it engages a wider range of students who have lived different experiences and would be turned away otherwise.

“You can still be who you are within the [Latinx] label. You can still be a Chicana, you can still be Guatemalan and Mexican, or Honduran,” Sanchez said. “You could still be whoever it is you are, just learning within that broader Latinx label.”

Muñoz, who is retired after a long career teaching Chicano studies at UC Berkeley, has passed over the baton to current and future faculty in this field. He hopes that they can continue fighting the “issue of forgotten history.”

“Hopefully, faculty can carry the ball on today’s campuses,” Muñoz said. “It’s important to know history — to know where you are and where you came from.”

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