Discovering an Untaught History
The summer before Gustavo Licón entered high school in Inglewood, California, he began a quest to learn about a culture his teachers had never taught him — his own. The son of Mexican immigrants, Licón spent the summer devouring books on the history of the Aztecs, the U.S. conquest of Mexico, and the riots against Chicano youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s. In just one week, he read a 750-page textbook on Mexican history that had been assigned to his brother in a community college course. “I just flew through that book,” he says. “I continued to do that in high school, and it was all based on this passion I had to learn about a history I hadn’t been taught.”
Discovering why Latin countries were poor and why Latin Americans had little political power in the United States convinced Licón that he wanted to do something about it. So he joined a high school club called MEChA, which translates into Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán (the X denoting gender neutrality), an organization that originated in California in 1969 and then spread to universities and high schools across the country.
At MEChA meetings, Licón began teaching students from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico about their culture and history. The experience helped him choose a career path: “I decided that what I wanted to be was a professor of Chicano studies,” he says.
After earning his PhD in history at the University of Southern California, Licón became an assistant professor of Latino/a studies at Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity in 2010. He decided to focus his research on the Chicano movement and specifically the organization he was involved in through graduate school — MEChA— the largest and oldest Chicano student organization in the country.
Historians have traditionally argued that the Chicano movement, which began in United States in the 1960s, ended two decades later. Using student newspaper accounts, Licón, however, shows that the movement continued beyond the 1980s and that MEChA is still active today on college campuses.
“The folks that have focused on the movement and just on the ’60s and ’70s have conceptualized the movement as having certain traits—traits that if we look at a longer period, don’t hold up,” Licón says. While some historians have argued that the Chicano movement was sexist and homophobic, for example, Licón says that ME-ChA had embraced feminist and LGBTQ goals by the 1990s. In his forthcoming book, Fractured Unity: MEChA and Ideological Dissent, 1969-1999, Licón shows that MEChA broadened its scope from addressing only Mexican-American issues to those facing immigrants from Central American countries. MEChA’s wide outlook, its em.brace of various geographic, cultural, and ideological groups, however, made it difficult to maintain unity.
“Despite their ideals about how Mexican Americans and Latinos in general could form a united front based on their cultural similarities, there were too many differences between them to create a perfect unity,” Licón says. “So despite their best efforts to unite these communities, they were always leaving somebody out and marginalizing people.”
Beyond his research, Licón has worked with many student clubs at Ithaca College, including the First-Generation Student Organization, which gave him the newly created Licón Award this year for his contributions to the group. He is also a faculty fellow for the Martin Luther King Scholar Program, which offers academically talented students from underrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds up to full tuition in aid, special seminars with visiting scholars, and an opportunity to pursue social justice research on trips around the world.
Licón enjoys drawing from his own background and experiences to teach students about the history and struggles of the Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous, and Latin American peoples. “I want Latino students in my classes to be empowered by knowing a bit about their own history and to better understand how their communities are being impacted by immigration, and why Latino communities are in the position that they are today,” he says. “And I want to encourage them to be part of the change that we want to make.”