Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools

By Luis Urrieta
(University of Arizona Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




A peculiar tension has always existed between activist educators working in public and higher education. Maybe it is the contradiction of cultivating consciousness of youth while being on the payroll of institutions (and certainly the state) that seldom believe in such politically minded pursuits. Or perhaps, as Luis Urrieta asserts in Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools, it is the self-awareness of being essentially a tool for a system that wants to (and, in many cases, will) assimilate students into white-dominant mainstream America. What this means for Chicana/o teachers in the Southwestern United States, and the movements from which those teachers hail, is at issue for a subculture of educators.

The tantalizing philosophical quandary Urrieta presents indirectly then is this: how much will students’ fates actually change through progressive educators on the tab of a system that, at best, wants to generally educate youth of color for ‘the future’ and, at worst, actively and systematically teaches versions of history that may swim against community self-interest?

The challenges of navigating identity, alienation, politics and agency are tackled head on by Working From Within, a book that asserts a positive history to progressive Chicana and Chicano educators seeking to impart to young people a clear understanding of their roles in society as well as their history. Such relationships, particularly in academia, are fraught with compromises and negotiation. The book shares efforts to organize Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapters, youth leadership development, cultural studies and other tactics. Just as vigorous to the storytelling is a backdrop of educators conflicted about the positions they occupy and their efforts to maintain their idealism in a system that generally does not see the world as they do.

Most telling about the involvement of progressive educators in academia is the ways definitions changed. Activism, in their lens, took on a postmodern feel, from community organizing and street actions to one in which they saw their employment as activism with a different scope, but lending to a social change few believed they would see in their lifetimes. Although one might say such a view could be a byproduct of Chicanisma/o and the complicated relationships it has had with white society for generations, it is doubtful such pretensions are isolated to Chicana/o instructors.

Other writings have criticized the tendency of those working in the academic and not-for-profit world to perpetuate themselves and their careers at the cost of serving the community, most visibly The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence. Implicit to the critique is that, by buying off good organizers with jobs and lifestyles oriented in some way around their views, the struggle becomes not one of community building but ensuring those views have a home (and thus acculturated by some part) in the institution itself. By creating that space, one may win a victory in putting views forward, but ultimately it is argued that mainstream education wins because its own notions of academic freedom and discussion are reinforced.

In Urrieta’s view, such changes are emblematic of how movements grow and change over time. Unexplored is how militant Chicana/o activism has mostly vanished amid the rise of mainstream social action and nonprofits. It is debatable how good or bad the developments such movements have seen ultimately will be, but Urrieta’s research certainly ads more to an ongoing conversation.