Class War

Héctor Muñoz is a self-described "Chicano poster boy." Born in Mexico and raised in the United States, he spent much of his 45 years with one foot in Piedras Negras and the other in cities like Denver, where he wrestled with issues of culture, identity and belonging.

"I'm an Americanized Mexican," he says.

But when he arrived at Metropolitan State College in 1996, Muñoz found one place where he felt at home: the old rectory building beside St. Cajetan's Church. There, at the Chicano Studies Department, he met faculty, staff and students who embraced him for who he was. He found courses that helped celebrate his heritage. He found programs that helped him reach into the Latino community. And he found opportunities to produce his own bilingual plays and curate art shows.

"I personally feel a lot of racism in this town, and that carries over into the schools here," says Muñoz, who majored in Chicano Studies and communications at Metro and is now pursuing a master's degree in humanities at the University of Colorado at Denver. "At Chicano Studies, they let me be me. They gave me a chance to do my work artistically. They supported gay rights. They welcomed me."

Muñoz now fears that climate could be changing. Budget cuts, tuition hikes and financial-aid reductions at Metro are threatening the programs that helped him so much. And unless he and fellow Chicanos act now, he says, they could lose what others have fought so hard for.

This year, as part of a statewide funding crisis, Metro cut its budget by $5.5 million. Come July 1, it must cut another $6.5 million. To stop the bleeding, administrators have sliced the college's travel budget by 20 percent, eliminated 26 support staff and four administrative positions, instituted a hiring freeze and offered early-retirement packages. Metro also has shuffled programs within academic affairs, business and professional studies. To save even more money, it is now considering a campus-wide reorganization that could take effect next January.

It's these plans, Muñoz says, that have him and other students worried.

Under one proposal, the Chicano Studies Department would be grouped with African-American Studies and the Institute for Women's Studies under the umbrella of a Center for Ethnic and Gender Studies and Services. If that happens, says Luis Torres, Chicano Studies chairman, each department could lose the independence to develop its own budget, its long-term planning and its own outreach programs, such as the Alma de la Raza project, which helps Denver Public Schools develop curriculum for Chicanos and other ethnic students.

"We wouldn't be able to decide as freely as we can now about the direction of the department," Torres says. "We need our autonomy."

Torres understands the need to cut costs, and he doesn't blame administrators for the funding crisis, but he does wonder why other departments, such as sociology and history, or English and modern languages, aren't being considered for mergers. Chicano Studies even offered its own belt-tightening measures, which included slashing one faculty member's salary by $10,000, but it was refused. That, combined with the tendency of Metro officials to treat Chicano Studies faculty, staff and students as "third-class citizens," prompted him to speak out publicly.

"The community has struggled hard for this department, and it has struggled hard to send its kids to school," he says. "This is a big step backward."

Last week, Torres organized a standing-room-only rally at Metro to call attention to the merger as well as tuition hikes and financial-aid cuts. Taken together, he says, the moves represent a "perfect storm" of negative influences for minority students.

Tuition at Metro hovers around $2,000 per year for full-time students. Next year, that could jump by 10 to 12 percent. Not only that, but state financial-aid programs such as merit-based scholarships could be cut by as much as half. All students will be affected, Torres says, but Metro's estimated 2,300 Latino students will be especially hard hit. Many already work to pay for school and do not have family members with fat savings accounts, lines of credit, second mortgages and safety nets.

"If they don't get financial aid, many of them simply cannot continue," Torres says.

Muñoz might have been one of them. Without work-study, grants and scholarships, he wouldn't have been able to graduate from Metro, let alone go to graduate school at UCD. "Even as it now, with the money they do allocate, you struggle," says Muñoz, who's the first member of his family to attend college. "If they cut more, it will hurt a lot of people."

And the timing couldn't be worse, Torres says. For the first time in its eight-year history, Chicano Studies graduated enough students last year to meet Colorado Commission for Higher Education viability standards. Retention rates for Latinos are also climbing: During the past several years, 62 percent of the entering Latino freshmen returned to Metro.

"It's terrible to have to face these cuts at a time when these students have achieved so much," Torres says.

Students attending the rally agreed.

Ché Chandler said the merger of Chicano Studies, African-American Studies and Women's Studies sends the wrong message at the wrong time to the wrong people. "It says they don't care about your culture, your history, your influence and your contributions," he said. "It says that you need to be put into the same group because you have one thing in common: You're all minorities. We need to tell them we don't want to be pushed into a box."

"I want a well-rounded education," agreed LaShanta Smith. "Just like I want a well-rounded meal. It's like the food you eat on an airplane: I want chicken that I can identify as chicken, green beans that I can identify as green beans, pie I can identify as pie. I don't want everything scooped up in a blender and plopped down on my plate."

"I am a Chicano," added Mark de la Cruz-Chavez. "Ethnic studies is not me. We do not need to be lumped into one. We do not want to be pushed under a rug because of some bureaucratic bullshit."

But that's not happening, said Cathy Lucas, Metro's communications director. Complaints about the proposed reorganization are "premature." The proposal is just that: a proposal. Nothing will be done without extensive feedback, which will occur during the next six months. And no matter what decision is made, nothing will diminish Metro's commitment to people of all ethnicities.

"We have the most diverse student body, faculty and staff of any public four-year institution of higher education in Colorado," she says. "We're as committed to diversity as ever."

Jodi Wetzel, chairwoman of the Women's Studies department, isn't sure what to think.

"It's only a proposal so I really can't say whether I'm opposed or not," she says. "We're not even sure if any of this is going to happen. If it does, it could be totally different than what's being discussed now. New things are coming out almost daily. And it's my understanding that nothing is going to happen until January, anyway, so I really don't have much more to say until we get through this process of consultation."

Even if the departments were reorganized, Wetzel says, "I don't feel that this is really the college's fault. What's going on at Metro is going on all over the country. It's the economy. Everyone is having to take millions and millions out of their budgets."

This isn't the first time the experiment has been tried at Metro. In 1985, African American Studies and Chicano Studies were merged into a newly created Institute for Intercultural Studies due to a lack of enrollment. But a decade later, as students started returning to the humanities instead of career-oriented degrees, the two programs regained their independent status. However, it's been a continual roller-coaster ride for the AAS department, which failed to meet the Colorado Commission's minimum number of students graduated and was scheduled for closure in May 2002 ("A Major Problem," December 7, 2000). It was saved, but last month the Board of Trustees was again asked to give the program an exemption. They agreed, warning that there would be no more forthcoming.

Students from both departments plan to make sure their opposition to the merger and eliminating programs is heard from the office of Metro's president to the chambers of the Colorado Legislature to the halls of the Governor's Mansion. Expect more rallies, they say, and more demands for the autonomy of Chicano Studies, African-American Studies and Women's Studies. The departments were built upon the struggles of others, students say, and they're not about to give up the fight now.

"It's sad that we have to fight," Muñoz says. "But if we don't fight, we have no chance."