Dr. Gary Mounce
Dr. Gary Mounce

EDINBURG, RGV – I have written several times in the past about MAS—Mexican American Studies. Professors and students of that academic discipline have also written or spoken of the importance, need, trials and triumphs of that program.

They offer rigorous courses, solid research, and excellent public relations. The University of Texas—Pan American (UTPA) has become one of the premier universities in the United States to produce accomplished and published scholars in that field, one too often neglected in the past.

The MAS community in south Texas was spearheaded by UTPA faculty. The University of Texas—Brownsville (UTB) will now be included in the merger with the new University of Texas—Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). Faculty members and students are united and vigorous. They held their annual retreat May 19 and 20, 2014. The MAS community gathered at the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development.

Llano Grande is a Valley nonprofit founded by UTPA Professor, Dr. Francisco Guajardo, when he taught at Edcouch-Elsa High School in the 1990s. Its mission is to assist local students build leadership skills and gain access to higher education (“No Limits,” People Magazine, 2003). Sessions were held in the historic home of Valley civic leader, A. L. Cramer, on the old Engleman Garden Farms. Lyndon Johnson was a friend of Cramer. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the property in Elsa, March 1939. The home was an early “think-tank” for broad analysis and planning; it remains so.

Renowned Educational Anthropologist, Dr. Enrique Trueba, taught and wrote at the home. Special among other scholarly works is his powerful Latinos Unidos: From Cultural Diversity to the Politics of Solidarity (Rowman, 1999). The current venue, Llano Grande, and the MAS sessions and research derive inspiration from those early precedent-breaking roots and surroundings.

Dr. Guajardo and Dr. Marci McMahon, Department of English, UTPA, Director of MAS, facilitated the two-day work sessions. But the real stars were the undergraduate and graduate students, sharing their vivid stories of family hardship and personal triumph. They all attributed to MAS a new sense of purpose and confidence in their lives. Highlights of the opening orientation included sharing of “sacred objects.”

Featured in this bonding ceremony were items such as pictures of loved ones. Bibles and Rosaries predominated, giving lie to the calumny of a cold or agnostic academic community, divorced from real social life. From Dr. Guajardo himself came a poignant auto-biography written in his father’s own hand. (His birthday and death occurred, as it happened, exactly one year before this conference).

Each participant had his/her unique story. Many of the students, migrants themselves and/or sons and daughters of migrants, spoke of physical and psychological obstacles–the prejudices often encountered “en el norte.” One graduate student documented an omnipresent statue of a KKK founder, facing him each day at College Station. The less sensitive or more privileged student or faculty would not have noticed also the “Hanging Tree,” infamous for over 500 cases of “bitter fruit,” African Americans who had been hanged from its branches. Not exactly a “welcoming” atmosphere!

However, when traveling or studying outside the region, the students and professors also had seen more positive things—the excitement and challenge of the greater multi-ethnic diversity that exists on east and west coasts. They were surprised at the outside interest in their language and ethnicity. They discovered it anew for themselves. Colleagues at other universities encouraged them to write literature and poetry extolling their native roots of south Texas. Many of them still oblige—with pleasure–by inserting family and Valley stories into their research and essays for class assignments.

Those stories came at great cost. They are worth telling and worth reading. One student’s father, a school janitor, had educated himself with books he found in the trash. Another student’s favorite Tia had just passed away; but he came to the conference anyway. He saw in this group of friends a new, larger “family.” Many students had fathers with a military background. One of the Grandfathers (“mi ‘buelo”) was a founding member of the G.I.Forum, a civil rights organization, Mexican American veterans of World War II. Most grew up with strong women in their families, long before “feminism” appeared politically or academically. Many of the Mothers owned small “Mom and Pop” stores, sold Avon, worked for Sears, managed family budgets, prayed and held the family together.

The inter-connections and similarities of the stories stirred a palpable sense of fond memories, of graciousness, of community and of unity. Some were harder to relate to, however; one young woman, publishing her views in support of “Dream Act” legislation, had received death threats. But, most had been spared the hardships faced by their parents and grandparents. They appreciated the love they had received and, specifically, the support of their education. All found it difficult but rewarding–at the conference and in their studies in the Valley or abroad–to “get out of their comfort zone.”

One way to achieve this goal, the conferees found, was to unite around MAS—Mexican American Studies. They can and will do this, whatever their career goals—STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), Medical Studies, Constitutional Law, the Social Sciences, Languages, Literature, or the Fine Arts. They support to a man and to a woman the need for a strong financial commitment by the new UTRGV for Mexican American Studies.

Unfolding here in the “great plains” of Llano Grande was grass roots democracy at its finest. Have you ever seen students join faculty in designing their own curriculum? Have you heard of them suggesting new courses? Can’t you see the value of the users of educational structure advising the professors as to how well it is working? That is what happened. They want MAS—Mexican American Studies. Supporters of sound, innovative education should want MAS too. And what does MAS want?

MAS wants and needs, among other things, a solid, new Department status and support, not merely a “program,” as is the situation now. They want the new university budget to reflect a serious commitment to the pledge for support of a “bicultural, bilingual, and biliterate model“ for the new UTRGV. Or, they wonder, are those just “words?”

They trust the incoming President of UTRGV, Dr. Guy Bailey, will recognize the relevance, the need for this realistic, yet avant guard model. They foresee him taking the lead in seeing it accomplished. It is certain he and others “who have eyes to see” will find their commitment rewarded tenfold with national and international respect for these pioneering efforts. They will help put south Texas and UTRGV “on the map.”