Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Q&A with Reflections contributor Elias Serna

 A Brief Interview with Elias Serna on "Eagle Meets the Seagull," Chican@ Epistemology, and Xikano Pop-Up Manifesto

I have had the pleasure of knowing Serna and his infectious ganas for teaching, learning, and speaking out against the attacks on Ethnic Studies programs for a few years now. I feel lucky to have coordinated this on-line Q&A with Serna as a couple of High-Tech Aztecs or Cyber-Vatos (with all respect to Gomez-Pena), providing a good space to delve into some of the issues and movements that Serna is a part of. This is of course a continuation of some of the posts I've done regarding the forthcoming issue of Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing and Service Learning, so be sure to order a copy when it comes out!

1) In a nutshell, what would you say that your article in the Fall issue of Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing and Service-Learning is about?

The "Eagle Meets the Seagull" article was originally written as a reflection on the 2nd Raza Studies Now (RSN) conference this past summer. RSN came about from the political and pedagogical interaction of LA/Santa Monica educators and the Tucson Raza Studies folks. Early on we attended the amazing Summer Transformative Education conferences, then all the racist republican borlo picked up and we jumped into that struggle, raising awareness and funds for the case (which is now headed to the 9th circuit federal Court of Appeals). The first and the second conferences were somewhat magical for me, they were invented/organized in quick "de volada" fashion (the first I believe in 2 months), they were dynamic, gathered many people and forces, and seemed to make a splash on social media and with those in attendance. The potential may have been bigger than the outcome. The article meant as reflection was also putting RSN activism under a rhetorical lens. Cristina and Isabel encouraged more citation and homework - including looking at your submission on "Nuestros Refranes" - and that really helped me crystalize my thinking around rhetoric as a civic mode of writing. The article itself in a way is civic writing in that it still reflects on Raza Studies activism and suggests points of improvement and attention – such as addressing gender issues, converging with the Dream Act movement, community colleges, and engaging with issues around policing and the prison industrial complex. That was more like a big walnut shell.

2) Tell me a little about how you came to be interested in the Tucson Ethnic Studies controversy as a researcher, teacher, and activist?
Around 2006 or 7 currently UCLA Education PhD candidate Johnny Ramirez connected with MAS alumni Selina Barajas Rodriguez at CSU Northridge’s Chicano Studies program and began attending the summer Transformative Education conferences in Tucson. I went a few years later and was amazed by the program, its accomplishments, and perhaps that it had innovatively taken the field of Chican@ Studies to a whole new place. It was eye-opening and inspirational. I saw it as a model and a future path.
The activist part of the question reminds me of a concert I attended in Tijuana in the late 90’s. A few of us were there for Aztlan Undergound, which was opening up for Voodoo Glowskulls and Tijuana No. My friend Edgar was alone hopping around in the pit and some punkabilly dudes started pouncing him and blindsiding him. Mark Torres of Travel Tips for Aztlan and Anjanette from Zapatista PRC were there. I jumped in there with him and these dudes which were like a dozen (some in the pit, others standing in a corner) started to pounce on me. I saw that they were gathered at the edge of the slam pit, in a corner by a wall. Once there was about 20 people in the pit it suddenly occurred to me that with the right timing, and the force of the song, a single person could push about three people, much like a small wall, against twelve people, acting like a musically engined human tractor, and smash those mean people giggling in the corner hard against that border wall, which is exactly what I managed to do (several times). One person can have a powerful effect on many, and many on millions. And mean people should be smashed. That’s what I’ve been trying to do in Los Angeles, but with more constructive, pedagogical and creative intent. I went into PhD in part to contribute to Chican@ Studies, and as a result my work in rhetoric and Chican@ literature/studies began to serve a movement. 
 (From Aztlan Underground's Myspace)
3) What part of the situation in Arizona do you think is the most shocking, offensive, or overtly racist that hasn't garnered much attention for whatever reason?
That they’re getting away with it. Dr. Cintli gave a powerpoint presentation once that explained how the Republican proposition was essentially outlining their own political behavior: they were the ones promoting resentment against a race of people, they were trying to overthrow the federal government, and the education they propose is designed primarily for a particular ethnic group (Euroamericans).The Arizona legislature is tilted racist right and so are the courts, which allowed all this to happen. When my students in California ask how this racism is possible, I explain this and that Arizona has an older conservative white demographic (many retirees) that votes out of fear; much like California in the 90’s, which pushed reactionary and racist propositions attacking affirmative action, bilingual education and undocumented families. Increasingly I read it as an attack specifically on young people of color.
The most overtly racist example is State Superintendent of Schools Huppenthals recent slip/confession that he read military war texts (Hannibal) to prepare for taking on the MAS issue. That the head of schools looks at Mexicans/Latinos as enemies to destroy and slaughter – as in his earlier genocidal comment that he will “destroy La Raza” - is clearly racist and quite unbelievable. A state superintendent who’s never taught, makes racist comments about Latinos (who make up a third of the state’s population), and that looks like he’s about to cry every time he speaks should step down. It’s unbelievable so many people in power stand by. I thought at some point more big shot educators, even Obama could have weighed in. The video says it all and should be shared widely:

(Xican@ Pop-Up Book #2:  Teatro Chicano- Stop the War!)

4) You live in Califas Sur, can you speak a little about the Ethnic Studies debates and outlawing of programs that's been happening close to you?

We’ve had successes and battles out here ourselves. The Santa Monica/ Malibu Unified School District recently created a small Ethnic Studies course/program which parents and community called for after some racial tensions between Latino and Black youth, and other youth (gang) violence.  Behind the scenes a group created a proposal for a larger Ethnic Studies program but that proposal has been largely ignored; band aids are cheaper and easier to throw away after some time, they (district administrators) suppose. XITO (Xican@ Institute For Teaching and Organizing) created by former MAS teachers has also helped us in this campaign. In East LA, the Semillas high school (Anahuacalmecac) was recently denied their high school charter despite impressive programs and high graduation and college-going rates. This recently became our little Tucson here in LA. After several spirited protests and interventions the struggle continues and may be appealed at the state level. Groups like MEChA, Chicano Studies departments (especially CSUN), ARE (Assoc. of Raza Educators), AMAE, and PEN (People’s Ed Movement) have been vocal and active around Raza Studies. The most ambitious statement has come out of Raza Studies Now, but we are also a group that goes through changes in momentum, membership and energy. Organizing is hard, time-consuming, risky and thankless work. Still, the struggle continues. 

(Xican@ Pop-Up Book #3: Anahuacalmecac)
5) What has been the most inspiring aspect of taking part in the support of Ethnic Studies programs?
To be a real nerdo, I must say the epistemology and methodology of it. I really do see a huge theoretical lesson in Tucson’s MAS model. Rudy Acuna has stated that Chicano Studies is primarily a pedagogy, not an epistemology, but I disagree to an extent. I enjoyed Michael Soldatenko’s book theorizing Chican@ Studies as an epistemology. Maybe because I’ve been in rhetoric and we pay so much attention to categorizing and epistemology, I have pondered the tenets of Chican@ Studies, because I do think the field has produced tenets that interpret and produce knowledge uniquely. Concepts like “taking the university back to the community” precedes “field studies”  and ethnography (participatory action research) for me. The Chicana feminists disruptions and interventions (big in the late 80’s) within Chican@ Studies preceded what Critical Race Theory terms intersectionality. Chican@ self-determination, which was big in the Plan de Santa Barbara, should be revisited by everyone (from students to tenured professors). I taught an introduction to Chicano Studies one summer for high school students and it forced me to define Chicano Studies, and these tenets helped me do that and to teach these youth that our people created a discipline, a science if you will. Really looking at the epistemology of Chican@ Studies will be part of effectively building and carrying it on into the future.
6) You've recently been in the running for a national book collectors award. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to develop a passion for collecting? What kinds of things do you tell younger readers to help them discover a similar love for books and reading?

Three weeks ago I flew with my family out to DC to pick up my award: 1st place National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest for a collection titled “Chicano Movement Banned Books” (entries from Duke and John Hopkins came in 2nd and 3rd – sorry had to rub that in, UC Riverside, whoop whoop!). It’s an archivist award. I have collected unique texts over the years including a first edition Plan de Santa Barbara, a first edition “I am Joaquin” published by the Crusade for Justice and signed by Corky Gonzalez. Betita Martinez’ classic picture book, 450 Years of Chicano History in Pictures (now titled 500 Years…). This last book is actually one that my older brother brought home from Santa Monica community college when I was in high school. These books opened my eyes to my history and culture and gave me motivation and purpose to go to college where my passion continued.

(Chicano Movement Banned Books collection currently on display at Tomas Rivera Library, UC Riverside)

To answer the second part of that question, I was recently explaining to my Chican@ Literature class at Cal State Dominguez Hills about the dilemma of Chican@ Literature in the digital age. I theorized that there were likely 3 groups with definite attitudes towards Chican@ novels and books. In Tucson, I explained, there are teachers and students who believe that these texts are integral for Raza students to see and understand themselves (and all students in order to create cultural understanding in a diverse society). The second group are the Arizona Republicans who see these books as tantamount to a civilizational cancer, books so dangerous that they prepare the soil for the violent overthrow and collapse of the republic as they know it. To them these books are worse than deadly weapons (in Arizona you can openly carry around deadly weapons). The third group exists within their generation of young people which asks, why should I read this book… when I can look up cheat notes, Wikipedia, watch the movie or spend time on social media. I was trying to have my students reflect on reading a longer novel (Bless Me Ultima) and where they stood in an era when textual reading is challenged by social media, phones and the internet.  In a strange way, Tucson’s politics have brought a spotlight to Chican@ Literature and we as activists/participants should exploit this.

7) Are there any other projects that you're currently working related to literacy (and culture)?

(above: Xican@ Pop-Up Book #1: dedicated to Jose Montoya, Royal Chicano Air Force)

My main job right now is writing a dissertation on Chican@ Rhetorical Traditions and technology, looking at Tiburcio Vasquez’ photo/letters from jail, the Magonista PLM newspaper Regeneracion at the turn of the century in LA, and manifestos from the Chicano Movement. My conclusion will likely center on the work of Tucson’s Raza Studies department. My comedy performance group Chicano Secret Service is also currently working on a play addressing Raza Studies titled “Neoliberalandia.” The most exciting project recently is the Xican@ Pop Up Book Manifesto, which is taking the world by storm. Together with UCR Mexican dance instructor JohnAvalos we’ve made a few Xican@ pop-up book prototypes (first models) and authored a vitriolic manifesto that states in part:

 The Xican@ Pop-Up Book movement is designed as a resistance movement against the cultural hostility of Tom Horne and Arizona’s racist Republicans, and as a cultural affirmation of MAS, Chican@ Studies, Chican@ Literature and art! All liberation art warriors are called upon to create and display Xican@ Pop-Up books and JOIN THE MOVEMENT! ... This concept is designed to create a movement of Xican@ art display, of mass popular production and participation for a resistant art form in the era of imperialistic civilizational warfare upon our communities… The idea is to add paper engineering to display our plight, to get viewers attention, and to proclaim: ‘You can BAN CHICANO BOOKS… but they’ll still POP UP!’

I took some prototypes and Xican@ Pop Up Book manifestos with me to DC and they were a hit. An original prototype found its way into the Smithsonian and we were invited to join the Movable Book Society. Back home my CSU Dominguez Hills students and JohnAvalos’ students are creating books and a pop-up book dance performance, and we are planning to share/produce how-to videos, and make some multiples to get out to the public. I think that getting some artists involved will help this really take off. Johnavalos suggested that with profits we fund our private corporate jet fleet, but I think we need to focus on where the Xican@ pop-up book goes next.

1 comment:

  1. Elias and Cruz,

    What a great interview! Elias, congratulations on this prestigious award.

    Cristina Kirklighter
    Editor of Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning