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Hispanic activist upset about conquistador monuments' removal pushes to end Chicano studies

New Mexico Hispanic leader Ralph Arellanes thinks Chicano, Native American studies teaches students 'self-hate.'
Image: Ralph Arellanes
Ralph Arellanes speaks at a rally in Albuquerque, N.M., calling for a federal probe of the Albuquerque Police Department following a number of officer-involved shootings on March 28, 2012.Russell Contreras / AP file

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A New Mexico Hispanic leader upset about the removal of Spanish conquistador monuments is pushing for New Mexico to end its support for Chicano and Native American Studies.

In a letter to University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes, New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens executive director Ralph Arellanes wrote that the state’s largest university should dismantle both programs because they teach Latino students “self-hate” about their Spanish heritage.

Arellanes, who signed that letter in his role of New Mexico LULAC executive director and chair of the Hispano Roundtable of New Mexico, said he has collected stories of Hispanic students “leaving classrooms crying” after being told by professors that Spanish conquistadors participated in genocide against Indigenous populations.

“The Hispano Roundtable of New Mexico, New Mexico LULAC and our many expert historians in New Mexico request a meeting with you to discuss our concerns,” Arellanes wrote. “We will be calling for the removal of these courses and programs that are teaching our New Mexico students this kind of hate and complete propaganda.”

Irene Vasquez, the director of the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department, said she has heard of no reports of students complaining about courses taught nor crying after classes.

“It’s incredulous,” Vasquez said. “This is not a serious criticism. But we must be doing something right because we are growing.” According to university numbers, enrollment in Chicano studies classes on campus has jumped from 96 in 2011 to 707 last fall.

Arellanes has previously called for the firing of Vasquez for overseeing a department that has taught courses looking at New Mexico’s history critically. He also has attacked her for being from California.

The demand comes as Albuquerque and the small community of Alcalde removed statues of Spanish conquistadors following racial injustice protests. Some Native Americans in New Mexico have long objected to the public glorification of Spanish conquistadors like Don Juan de Oñate, who they blamed for violence and enslavement of some Indigenous populations during the region’s Spanish colonial period.

But some Hispanic activists, like Arellanes, who trace their family linage to early Spanish settlers, regularly celebrate Oñate and other similar figures.

Arellanes’ suggestion drew sharp reactions from civil rights advocates. New Mexico LULAC State Director Juan Garcia said Arellanes’ demand was not the stand of the civil rights group in the state.

“Our desire is to have factual discussions, not the dismantle (programs) or fire individuals,” Garcia said.

State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, a former national LULAC board member, also said Arellanes did not represent the views of many civil rights advocates who pushed for the creation of Chicano and Native studies classes.

“Why would anyone who purports to support and be a member of a national civil rights Latino organization, LULAC, want to abolish this over 50-year effort?” asked Roybal Caballero, who also has worked as an adjunct instructor.

Ernesto Todd Mireles, a Rocky Mountain regional representative for the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, called the demand an attack on academic freedom.

“That’s just stupid,” said Mireles, a Chicano Studies professor at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. “Not being able to learn to think critically and ask questions is more self-hating.”

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