Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

California State University at Northridge

For the past 25 years, I have been at war with American historians. My disenchantment with these scholars sprang from the 1960s and what seemed a profession more interested in the past than the present. This persuaded me to join the movement to establish Chicano studies—an interdisciplinary field examining the body of knowledge that included Mexicans on both sides of the Río Bravo. Over the years, the profession’s failure to incorporate Mexican Americans and other ethnic groups into the field of history led me to question the reliability of the historians’ claims to objectivity. Indeed, I reasoned, how accurate were the interpretations of historians of the past when they knew so little about the present?

As my influence grew within Chicano studies, and indeed, within the larger Latin community, my view of the profession became less harsh. I appreciated that my training as a historian contributed greatly to my ability to bridge the chasm between the humanities and the social sciences within the field itself—the truth be told, history has two heads. Moreover, with age, I realized that the study of history contributed to my understanding of what an interdisciplinary field was. Equally, it became clear that my own separatism was a form of elitism itself, and that by not participating within the profession, I had abandoned valuable political space to those with a much narrower vision than my own.

A profession, like a civil society, is as functional as its members. Controversies over the scope of knowledge are as old as education itself. It is only through the insistence on a full and open discourse will its values change.

The lack of a critical mass of minority scholars or those wanting to broaden this scope of its knowledge slows the ability of the profession to change and to include the studies of working-class people, women, and racial and ethnic minorities. That is why, in recent years, I have rejoined the profession, so I can encourage young Chicano scholars to enter the field in larger numbers.

In retrospect, I could have chosen a more lucrative profession. Indeed, teaching has, until recent times, been an avocation reserved for the sons and daughters of a small group of professionals. I had to use the secondary schools as a stepping stone to higher education. Working full time to support a family, I often wondered whether I would be better off pursuing another career. The study of history, however, lured me—as did the ideas of historians like Carl Becker and E. P. Thompson. I also realized that in order for this history that inspired me to filter down to the barrios, so as to draw young minds and inspire them, present generations of Chicanos would have to sacrifice. Only in this way could we “Take Back Our History!”

Next essay: David Brody