SAN DIEGO -- On the campus of San Diego State University recently, Sandy Chavez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said, without hesitation, that she thinks of herself primarily as American.
Yes, she is Latina, of Mexican heritage. She’s visited family in Mexico, and on weekends as a child she woke up to her parents playing Mexican music on the stereo. But she’s never described herself principally as Mexican or Latina, much less Chicana, a term preferred by many young Mexican-Americans in the 1960s and 70s.
“A lot of people say Latina, Chicana. I don’t even really know the distinction between them,” Chavez said.
By official projections, next year, Latinos will surpass whites as California’s largest ethnic group. This is due in large part to young people like Chavez, the children of immigrants from Mexico, who are also landing on college campuses in record numbers.
But these students see themselves differently than earlier generations of Mexican-Americans.
And on campuses like San Diego State University and others, that shifting sense of identity is posing a recruitment challenge to Chicano Studies programs that grew out of the Chicano political movement of the Civil Rights era.
Last semester marked a milestone at San Diego State University. The Chicano Studies Department failed to meet its enrollment target. It’s falling short this semester, too, having enrolled just two-thirds of its target of roughly 1,300 students.
“It’s a small crisis, in terms of the department’s history,” said Isidro Ortiz, a longtime professor of Chicano Studies.
Ironically, the drop in enrollment coincides with record numbers of Latino students on campus, a large proportion Mexican-American. Last year the university was recognized as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the federal government, a designation that qualifies it for grant funding because its undergraduate student body is at least 25 percent Latino.
Professors and administrators are trying to figure out why the record number of Latinos on campus hasn’t translated into more interest in Chicano Studies courses. One theory is that a growing number of them think of themselves like Sandy Chavez does.
“Students in many cases don’t identify as Chicanos, as did the generation that created this department,” Ortiz said. Many more identify as Mexican, Mexican-American, or simply American.
Chicano Studies departments at San Diego State and across the West grew out of the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Its members rejected the term Mexican-American and instead adopted the term “Chicano,” which is thought to derive from the indigenous pronunciation of Mexicano.
Identifying as Chicano symbolized solidarity with a proud, sometimes even militant, struggle against second-class status — a struggle by Mexican-Americans to be recognized by politicians, employers, and by academia.
That led a group of Chicano academics to call a summit at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1969. There, they drafted a plan to begin establishing university Chicano Studies curricula and departments. Within a few years, they were established at universities in California, Arizona, and Texas.
At San Diego State University, the department flourished well into the 1990s, and even the last decade. But in recent years, Ortiz said, the declining enrollment became apparent, and last year, the missed target. That has forced a conversation within the department about how relevant the term Chicano — with its political, even radical, connotations — is to young Mexican-Americans today.
Continued, even unprecedented, civic engagement by Latinos suggests it’s not mere apathy driving them away from an interest in studying the Mexican-American community in an academic context. Take the ongoing movement in support of immigration reform, driven in large part by young Mexican-Americans, and voter turnout in the last election.
“But maybe that term,” – Chicano – “is not what’s appropriate for unifying a mobilization of young people in 2013,” said Jorge Mariscal, a professor of Chicano arts and humanities at UC San Diego.
He said understanding the community’s demographic evolution is key. The Latinos on university campuses today are the children of the large wave of immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s, well after the Chicano movement’s heyday.
“It means that many of these young people don’t know what the term Chicano means in the U.S. context,” Mariscal said. “So it’s really the demographic change, and the culture that those new young people bring, that is slowly moving off center stage the term Chicano, and therefore Chicano Studies.”
Unlike the Chicano generation, which saw itself outside the mainstream and was clearly a minority, today’s young Mexican-Americans increasingly are the mainstream. Many are voting, participating in the political system from within. The four-decade-old Chicano movement is increasingly a vague memory, the term imbued with nebulous meaning.
“I don’t know, when I think of a Chicano I think of somebody who grew up in the streets of East LA,” said Ernesto Limón, an undergraduate at San Diego State.
The declining enrollment is not true everywhere. At San Diego City College, a community college, the Chicano Studies department is requesting more capacity for its courses because of saturation, professor Elva Salinas said in an email.
Mariscal, of UC San Diego, said the decline in interest tends to magnify as an institution becomes more selective and elite. There is even less interest in Chicano Studies among students at UC San Diego than at San Diego State, he said.
At San Diego State, Ortiz said Chicano Studies faculty recently held a first meeting to discuss the decline in enrollment and how the department might address it. Chicano Studies departments at other universities have retooled the curriculum to include classes reflective of the greater diversity within Latino communities.
Several university departments have changed their names to include "Latino" or "Hispanic," in an effort to give the department broader appeal among the large and still growing Latino student population.
“We should be in a position to be able to capitalize on those numbers,” Ortiz said. “And I think we will be able to, provided we can solve this puzzle.”