Berkeley, Calif. - Hungry students and their supporters sit for the seventh day in front of University of California at Berkeley’s California Hall, after a futile meeting with University Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. The students asked Birgeneau yesterday to reinstate fired ethnic-studies staff members.
“We're still here, we're still fighting and basically, we're not going anywhere," said a weary-looking, third-year Native American studies major, Zoila Lara-Cea.
They are protesting cuts resulting from a comprehensive audit of university operations conducted by the consulting firm Bain and Company. The auditors recommended trimming two-and-a-half staff positions from the Ethnic Studies Department.
Even though cuts are distributed university-wide, “people of color are targeted first,” asserted third-year ethnic studies student Edward Rivero.
“This institution is very white-dominated,” added Luzilda Carrillo, a fifth-year student majoring in integrative biology and anthropology.
Over the years, students and faculty in the ethnic studies department have grown accustomed to protesting. Present at the current demonstration were several professors, who had advocated for the department’s creation in the late 1960s.
As a UC student, Harvey Dong, now an ethnic studies lecturer, participated in the 1969 Third World Liberation Front, a movement that lead to the creation of the department, which became a model for similar programs nationwide.
At the time, Dong and fellow students sought the creation of an entire Third World College devoted to the study of marginalized groups, but settled for a department.
Professor Emeritus Carlos Muños, also present at the protest, benefited from Dong’s actions and became the first chair of Chicano Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.
Spearheading this new field, Muños and Dong recalled their responsibility to respond to a basic gap in college curriculums.
A Mexican American, Muños said he remembers “being a graduate student and not being able to find books on ourselves.” He added, “At that time we were an invisible people in this country.”
While ethnic studies have since matured, Muños said students must continue to fight for the survival of the field.
“We have to go out of our way to legitimize ourselves,” he said. “Students have had to struggle on our behalf.”
At UC Berkeley, cuts will mean reduced office hours and unanswered phones. The history and psychology departments face similar cuts.
However, Carleen Sanchez, vice president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, said that the protest represents a broader cause.
“Ethnic studies are under assault,” she stated in a phone interview.
“Administrators do not recognize the importance of ethnic studies,” Sanchez continued. “Given our origins in civil rights, I think that that type of direct action and individual sacrifice is part of our history.” She emphasized, “A hunger strike is not silly.”
Sanchez cited a law signed last May by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that bans classes “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or which “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals from K-12 classrooms.”
At Berkeley, though, protesters may have to remain patient. Claire Buss, two-time hunger striker who hadn’t eaten in 176 hours when interviewed for this story said she can wait.
“I’m feeling great,” she said. “I could go forever.”
The students plan to continue their protest throughout this week.