La Vida Chicana and the Art of Savage Discovery

Mary Romero

March 20, 1969, was not a usual Thursday afternoon spent waiting for the school bell to ring. Instead, our principal, Sister Benedict, an­ nounced over the intercom that Cathedral High School was on lock­ down because riots had broken out and protesters were moving to­ ward downtown, where the school was located. Dead silence filled our classroom. Chicano and Black students exchanged knowing glances. We were all aware of the increasing racial tension between our com­ munities and the Denver Police Department. There had been recent demonstrations against the police shootings of an African American man and an eighteen-year-old Chicano. Chicano and Black activism on the issues of school and housing segregation added to the charged atmosphere. Many white students were shifting uncomfortably in their seats, avoiding eye contact with us. By the time Sister Benedict an­ nounced permission to leave the school, it was too late to catch any bus other than the one near a police station, which I’d hoped to avoid. On other days, my journey home normally included a stop at Woolworths to drink a coke with friends before catching the bus. This Thursday, however, I avoided our customarily interracial group of friends. Many of the white students headed out to meet worried parents waiting in nearby cars. While some students of color walked together to catch buses, I avoided joining them, figuring that walking alone was less likely to attract police attention.

While walking the eight city blocks to the bus stop, I heard the con­ stant whine of police sirens. Older white riders at the stop avoided eye contact with me and other regular riders of color. As we waited, two young Chicano guys passed by quickly, swiveling their heads to check for police cars. Both appeared to have been beaten up. When my bus arrived, I was relieved to find an empty seat in the back that allowed me to avoid other passengers.

Not long after the bus began its route south, I found out that the “riot” began as a walkout by West High School students, who were joined by Chicano activists from the Crusade for Justice, an organi­ zation that encouraged cultural pride and provided resources such as bilingual schools and food banks for the Chicano community. West High was predominantly Mexican American and Black. At Lincoln, the public high school in my neighborhood, where I would have gone if I hadn’t convinced my parents to let me go to parochial school, the students were divided-Mexican Americans lived on one side of the boulevard and whites on the other side. Inside the school, these groups were tracked into different types of curricula, which were supposed to group students according to ability, IQ, and achievement level. How­ ever, race was the dominant criteria used: Mexican Americans and Blacks were assigned to vocational training, whites to college prep. My older brother and sister attended Lincoln. All their friends were Mexican Americans, except one or two whites who lived on our side of the boulevard. Both my sibs were tracked, and I cannot remember either of them doing homework or even talking about going to college.

I knew Cathedral High School was not a utopia. Even though I was in the same curriculum as the white students, they were always men­ tored to attend a four-year college or university. When I expressed in­ terest in college, the nuns advised me to apply to a community college. However, the dean of girls encouraged me to apply to Regis College, a private four-year school now called Regis University, a d helped me obtain financial aid. Even if I’d gone to community college, I was much better off than the male Mexican American students in my cohort. The war in Vietnam was raging, and they were advised to enlist in the mili­ tary. I still recall the day Doug Vargas was called out of class to receive the horrible news that his older brother, an alumnus of the school, had died in Vietnam. My brother enlisted in the navy to avoid being drafted into the army and becoming more likely to be placed on the front lines. While none of my cousins or neighborhood friends were killed in Viet­ nam, many returned with serious PTSD and drug addiction.

Sitting on the bus watching the Denver Police with billy clubs and weapons surround West school and the nearby park, I felt incredibly sad and angry. I couldn’t forget the bleeding faces of some West High School students who had been beaten by the police. Before that day, I’dfelt joy, seeing only brown faces, Chicano murals, Chicano com­ munity centers, and shops in the surrounding neighborhood. As the bus pulled away from the stop, I began to see the neighborhood dif­ ferently. Now I realized how old and run-down the West High School building had become. Instead of bright murals, I noticed the factories and pollution surrounding this barrio, the old buildings and cracked sidewalks, the highway dividing our communities. 

A year later, I felt part of the Chicano struggle for better schools and housing, political representation, and equal rights. And these were my goals when I enrolled in my first college sociology course. I wanted to learn everything about the Chicano movement, Black Power move­ ment, American Indian movement, and Vietnam War protests. Why did school segregation exist? Why weren’t the streets paved in my neigh­ borhood? Why were there no sidewalks? Why did I never have a teacher who looked like me? Why were the police so violent in our neighbor­ hoods? As I read about Mexican Americans as a minority group, I was surprised to find us classified as an ethnic group instead of a racial group. After all, the Ku Klux Klan and police in Denver targeted visible African Americans and Mexican Americans. The students at West High School had not been demanding change as an ethnic group, but as a racial group-Brown is beautiful!

I was further confused by the sociological explanations given for social issues. I knew there were poor white people, so how did the concept of cultural deprivation, which was based on identifying cul­ tural disadvantages, such as having inferior norms, values, skills, and knowledge, or the notion of a culture of poverty, which blamed the problem on a values system that perpetuated poverty from one gener­ ation to another, explain low wages, discriminatory hiring practices, poor access to healthcare, and disproportionate deaths in Vietnam? What did being tracked in elementary school, and my brother and sister’s limited options in high school vocational training, have to do with our cultural practices at home? Certainly, Catholicism, listening to corridos, living in a household that included my grandmother and occasionally cousins, and eating tamales on Christmas were not why I experienced tracking in school. I couldn’t accept the belief that as­ similation (acquiring the cultural traits of white middle-class citizens in place of my working-class Chicano culture) was the great equalizer. This process of absorbing the dominant culture, or acting white, was not going to give me access to equipment in science class, college prep courses, or a well-funded library. These sociological concepts bore lit­ tle resemblance to my experiences growing up in Denver in the ’50s and ’60s. I also knew that changing me was not going to change the community.

The first book I read in college that offered what I thought was a reasonable explanation for my experience and that demonstrated the connections between schooling, housing, and poverty was William Ry­ an’s Blaming the Victim. Beginning with the first chapter, “The Art of Savage Discovery,” I began to see how problems, defined as cultural deprivation and the culture of poverty, were actually theories used to blame Chicanos for the racial inequality they experienced. Poor housing conditions and lack of street and sidewalk maintenance were attributed to residents’ disregard for personal property rather than to the negligence of landlords and the scarce resources allocated to communities of color. High dropout rates were frequently attributed to parents’ failure to embrace educational aspirations for their chil­ dren rather than to poorly trained teachers, segregated schools, and vocational tracking. Instead of connecting discrimination to exclusion and suppression, the lack of political representation was regarded as Chicanos’ cultural tendency to follow others rather than to develop leadership skills. While reading later chapters, I began to better un­ derstand the structural changes that the West High School students demanded in their walkout: bilingual education, classes in Chicano history and literature, desegregation of schools, the hiring of teachers of color, and an end to the practice of advising students to join the military instead of pursuing college.

As I continued through undergraduate and then graduate educa­ tion, schools, healthcare, media, and government programs slowly integrated in response to the Chicano movement’s call for civil rights. I was particularly attuned to identifying the ways that responses em­ phasizing culture, cultural deprivation, and assimilation were a source of social control in our communities. Bilingual family members were frequently called upon to translate at work, but they were never paid extra and were more likely to be denied promotions so they would re­ main available to assist higher-paying management. As bilingual edu­ cation expanded in Denver, my sister-in-law was recruited for low-level teaching positions, such as teacher aide and parent advocate. Although she was required to regularly enroll in training classes, she was never given the opportunity to acquire a teaching certificate. Consequently, bilingual Chicanas such as herwere paid less, and they were supervised by monolingual English-speaking teachers.

I examined how assimilation programs in the Southwest controlled Chicano and Mexican immigrant workers, tracked schoolgirls into do­ mestic science, and functioned as tools to erode solidarity. As the War on Poverty, affirmative action, and other initiatives developed around diversity and inclusivity, I began to develop research questions that examined the processes used to incorporate Mexican culture into white spaces where Chicanos remained subordinate. I found that removing Mexican culture from social spaces dominated by the Mexican com­ munity and appropriating them into white-dominated spaces served white diversity narratives and their interests, but ultimately functioned to subordinate Mexican people and culture. I continue to engage in research that aims to expose the mechanisms of social inequality and processes of marginalization.

As I revisit Denver, I’m dismayed to see the persistent inequality in schooling and housing. In response to desegregation mandates, white families moved to the suburbs, and more than half of the Denver School District remains segregated. A large portion of the community surrounding West High School was demolished to expand the Uni­ versity of Colorado at Denver and Metropolitan State College. Several other Chicano and Mexican immigrant neighborhoods are undergoing gentrification, forcing residents to move to the neighborhood I grew up in, located in southwest Denver. An enormous police station has taken the place of the K-Mart, and there is a constant police presence throughout the area. There are also positive changes that mark the advances gained from the Chicano movement and Civil Rights move­ ment. Among a visible Chicano middle class are lawyers, doctors, ad­ ministrators, school principals, teachers, and professors. It has been a long and difficult journey since the day I rode the bus past West High School, but there have been advancements in racial equality. Still, the work is far from over, and we must journey onward.


Key Concepts

Assimilation – The process by which racial and ethnic groups are absorbed into the dominant culture of society, a process that of­ ten leads them to change their beliefs, values, and behaviors to fit into the new culture. The policy goal of assimilation, according to Romero, was to exercise social control over groups to ensure that they complied with the norms and values of the dominant culture.
Cultural deprivation – A theory of poverty that claims people remain poor because they lack skills and knowledge.
Culture of poverty- Similar to cultural deprivation theory, the culture of poverty perspective blames the poor for their condition, but in this case for their supposed deviant norms and values instead of for a perceived lack of knowledge and skills. Romero is skeptical of both perspectives for not acknowledging the role of structural factors, such as low wages and lack of opportunity and resources, in perpetuating poverty.

Discussion Questions

1. Romero identifies a set of structural changes that students at West High School were demanding. Do you see evidence of similar changes in the schools you or your children have attended? What impact have they had? If they haven’t been implemented, why do you think that is?
2. Segregation remains a persistent problem in US communities. How integrated are the neighborhoods and schools where you live? What are your own attitudes toward integration of communities by race and class?
3. Have you seen or experienced victim blaming in your community? How is victim blaming a form of social control?

Learn More

Oakes, Jeannie. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
Rosales, Arturo F. Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1996.
Ryan, William. Blaming the Victim. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1976.

Mary Romero is professor emerita, justice and social inquiry, in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She served as the 110th president of the American Sociological Association. She is the 2022 recipient of the ASA W. E. B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, 2017 recipient of the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award,

2015 Latina/o Sociology Section Founders Award, 2012 Julian Samora Distinguished Career Award, the Section on Race and Ethnic Minori­ ties 2009 Founder’s Award, and the 2004 Study of Social Problems Lee Founders Award. She was selected as the 2021SWS Distinguished Fem­ inist Lecturer. She is the author of Introducing Intersectionality (Polity Press, 2018), The Maid’s Daughter: Inside and Outside the American Dream (NYU Press, 2011), and Maid in the U.S.A. (NYU, 1992). She is the editor of Research Handbook on Intersectionality (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2023) and coeditor of When Care Work Goes Global: Locating the So­ cial Relations of Domestic Work (Ashgate, 2014), Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities (Blackwell, 2005), Latino/a Popular Culture (NYU, 2002), Women’s Untold Stories: Breaking Silence, Talking Back, Voicing Complexity (Routledge, 1999), Challengi,ng Fronteras: Structuring Latina and Latina Lives in the U.S. (Routledge, 1997), and Women and Work: Exploring Race, Ethnicity and Class (Sage, 1997). Her work has also been published in numerous social science journals and law review articles.