Surviving Conditions and Competing Visions: The Fight for a Chicano Studies Department

By Dustin Cohan

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The three-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2021, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

Since the late 1960s, Chicanx activists, academics, and students have been fighting for the legitimacy of Chicano Studies as a discipline with a rightful place as a department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and on campuses across the country.[1] Following a four-month protest and successful state lobbying effort in 1975, Chicanx students and activists amended the university’s budget to allocate $50,000 for “American Ethnic and Chicano Studies.”[2] After the College of Letters and Science refused to house Chicano Studies, the School of Education established a program with minimal funding and kept its budget unchanged for over a decade. By positioning the Chicano Studies Program at the bottom rung clawing for scraps, the university administration created conditions that fractured the movement for a Chicano Studies Department. Caught in limbo between activist ideologies forged in the Chicano Movement and the restrictions of an academic institution, Chicanx activists and academics experienced the effects of structural racism through institutional poverty in Chicano Studies and division in their communities. Despite these circumstances and the infighting that erupted between Chicanx activists and academics, both parties helped Chicano Studies survive the 1980s and enabled future generations to grow the program.

Chicanx and Latinx activists at UW walk down State St. holding a banner that reads “La unión hace la fuerza,” which roughly translates to “Unity is Strength.”
July 1983; Latinx and Chicanx activists march down State Street protesting the U.S. Invasion of Nacaragua. Photo courtesy UW Archives.

From 1975 to 1988, the College of Letters and Science and the School of Education kept the Chicano Studies Program depressed. Devoid of support and the necessary resources for growth, Chicanx activists and academics split between pragmatism and principle, causing a schism that made it easier for the university administration to confine the program. Representative of its limited funding and institutional stature, it took the Chicano Studies Program six years to offer its first class. Frustrated by this glacial pace, a diverse group of Chicanx activists and academics disagreed on how to combat the institutional racism that created such economic limitations. As an organized national movement, M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) maintained a nationalist, community-based version of Chicano Studies detailed in El Plan de Santa Bárbara, and the UW–Madison’s branch stressed that its members follow this party line. Others disagreed, such as graduate student and program director Mario Compean, who favored a more pragmatic approach that balanced academics and service in an effort to placate the university administration.[3] In essence M.E.Ch.A. and Compean wanted the same thing: to develop Chicano Studies as a discipline that served both students and the community. Yet, economic limitations magnified disagreements and sowed division within the movement for a Chicano Studies Department. Numbers and unity, however, did not guarantee success. With the prevailing conditions constructed and maintained by the university administration, working from within the system assured only struggle. Nonetheless, this period of survival strengthened the drive for Chicano Studies and empowered future generations to challenge restrictive institutional structures.

In the fall of 1982 after a five-year hiatus, Jesús Salas returned to his PhD studies at the UW–Madison. Immediately, he helped reorganize the La Raza Unida student group into a branch of M.E.Ch.A. Under this banner, the UW–Madison’s M.E.Ch.A. chapter initiated coalitions with African and Native American groups, coordinated Mexican American cultural events in the community, and successfully lobbied the state legislature on migrant issues.[4] Academically, though, the Chicano Studies Program that some M.E.Ch.A. members helped establish in 1975 was still little more than a sign on a wall. Salas reflects that the program “belonged” in the College of Letters and Science, but administrators refused to house it alongside complementary humanities departments and programs.[5] (The program would later be moved to the College of Letters and Sciences.) In the absence of administrative support, the Chicano Studies Program remained undeveloped and underfunded in the School of Education. Its first two program directors left in less than ten months, it had no affiliated faculty, and during the academic year 1982–83 the program had no staff or plan and appeared on the verge of collapse.[6] While some students and staff believed it could grow incrementally, M.E.Ch.A. argued that there was no hope for developing Chicano Studies as a program. Instead they reignited a decade-old movement, calling on the UW–Madison to form a Chicano Studies Department. The distinction is key and one that the university knows creates inequities. Departments, not programs, are needed as a tenure home for faculty, and organize the majority of major programs. In addition, despite funding not being guaranteed for either departments or programs, ethnic studies programs at the University have been consistently threatened by state budget crises and competing strategic demands in the past 10 years. While programs are popular with students and have been able to fight off institutional threats that aim to collapse or dissolve them entirely, the institutional power overwhelmingly rests with departments.

A fundamental difference between M.E.Ch.A.’s and Mario Compean’s approaches was their willingness to pacify the university and Wisconsin’s shifting political climate. In 1975, when Chicanx activists successfully lobbied the Wisconsin legislature to amend the university budget and allocate funds for Chicano Studies, the state house had been more vulnerable to political pressure from the political left. By 1983, however, an increasingly conservative legislature pushed budget cuts that put ethnic studies in danger of extinction. Wisconsin was and is a state dominated by white residents who, by and large, are unfamiliar with Chicano Studies. To sustain a program at the UW–Madison, faculty and leadership had to demonstrate how it would bring value to the statewide community and provide a desirable service to students. Being that Chicano Studies was a young program without significant funding, institutional support, or statewide recognition, it was lucky to survive. Still, even in their conciliatory approach the program under Compean failed to gain any traction.

Despite their common goals, a rift developed between M.E.Ch.A and Compean that sent ripples through the Chicanx student body and Madison community. While M.E.Ch.A. had become a cultural and political fixture, Compean had worked both as a university recruiter and a Chicanx community organizer. After arriving in September 1979, Compean began building bridges across disciplines and schools to foster relationships that could support future Chicano Studies endeavors.[7] His approach to developing the discipline accounted for the white majority in the state and positions of power at the university. He considered the rising tide of conservatism in relation to M.E.Ch.A.’s uncompromising stance against a program and for a specific brand of Chicano Studies, and argued that the university would not abide by such a narrow, cultural nationalist vision of the field.[8] As the two sides divided along ideological lines, structural and institutional inequalities kept a stranglehold on the program’s growth plans.

Their conflict began in the summer of 1983 when School of Education Assistant Dean Walter Lane hired Compean as the Chicano Studies “Project Assistant.”[9] In all but title, Compean was the program’s director. This move upset M.E.Ch.A. who felt that the position should have gone to one of their own. They were the ones who protested and endured police beatings and incarceration in 1975 during the struggle for a Chicano Studies Department. When the College of Letters and Science refused to house the program, they organized for it to be formed in the School of Education. Despite repeated institutional rejections, these activists and former students remained engaged through La Raza Unida and its successor M.E.Ch.A., criticizing the university for failing to live up to its promises and keeping Chicano Studies undeveloped.[10] These experiences, they felt, earned them the right to lead the program under their vision of Chicano Studies.

Compean was a respected Chicano Movement leader, but he opposed M.E.Ch.A.’s strict posture on Chicano Studies that amounted to an ultimatum: a university department or nothing. Conscious of political realities, Compean believed that a more conciliatory approach was the program’s only chance of success. In the late 1960s, Compean was a founder of the Mexican American Youth Organization, which led a Chicano political revolution in south Texas, inspired the La Raza Unida political party, and served as a precursor to M.E.Ch.A. Compean became a key La Raza Unida member and in 1978 ran for Governor of Texas under the party name. Regardless, Compean’s acquiescence to the university administration and program status was unacceptable to M.E.Ch.A.

In a fall 1983 M.E.Ch.A. meeting, group leaders expelled Compean and his supporters, seeding a near-forty-year divide between Chicanx community activists and the Chicano Studies Program. As Compean recalls, “They kicked me out and said, ‘Go back to Chicano Studies and bring your guys with you…You’re a political boss and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.’”[11] Referring to his leadership in Texas with the La Raza Unida Party, M.E.Ch.A. felt Compean had lost sight of the grassroots principles that guided their vision of Chicano Studies. In the midst of the encounter, students took sides. Nearly half left M.E.Ch.A. “They [M.E.Ch.A.] had only one goal,” Compean contends. “They didn’t just want Chicano Studies, they wanted a particular type of Chicano Studies.”[12] He believed that M.E.Ch.A. leadership was content letting Chicano Studies fail if it did not meet their narrow vision, and saw that as sacrificing the needs of students who clamored for this kind of knowledge.

Members of M.E.Ch.A., nevertheless, remained consistent in their approach and organized off-campus Chicano Studies classes. Tony Castañeda recalls that Compean, “didn’t abide by the militant stance that M.E.Ch.A. had taken.”[13] When they found out that the university had hired Compean, Castañeda remembers, “we were pissed off, because we felt like we were being sold out. ‘Hey, we’re fighting for a department.’ We told the university. We took a strong stance against it saying, ‘We don’t want a program. We want a department. A program is crap. There is no major, no assigned professors.”[14] Castañeda and M.E.Ch.A. leadership preached the party line, but as a forty-three-year-old veterano Compean was confident in his decisions and moved to develop the program without their interference. In M.E.Ch.A.’s view, Compean had betrayed them.

While M.E.Ch.A. maintained a nationalistic focus on Chicano concerns, Compean continued the Sisyphean task of growing the program. As the feud persisted, M.E.Ch.A. publicly criticized Compean in an attempt to delegitimize his leadership. Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas, a graduate student at the time, remembers, “One of the critiques was Mario [Compean] was not as confrontational as he could have been with administration.”[15] There was a simple reason for this. In the academic year 1981–82, Compean observed the program’s second director José De Paz endure repeated rejections from the university administration, because of his Chicano nationalist approach. “Mario didn’t want to fail like that,” Arenas attests. He “formed alliances across campus and was critiqued for ‘kissing too much ass instead of being in their [administration] face.’” Compean rejected M.E.Ch.A.’s objections, asserting that a confrontational brand of Chicano politics would not work in the Midwest where Chicanx were such a small minority. While their population in southern Wisconsin was nothing compared to parts of Texas or California, M.E.Ch.A. had the support of a substantive Chicanx community in making their demands. Nonetheless, Compean viewed administrative accommodation and coalition building as the right strategy, and refused to incorporate any of M.E.Ch.A.’s strategies.

Meanwhile, M.E.Ch.A. officially separated themselves from the Chicano Studies Program, arguing that by accepting the watered-down version of Chicano Studies offered by the university, Compean had compromised students’ decade-long effort to create a department. Castañeda explains, “It was a very crucial time, because we became separated, M.E.Ch.A. We had our own offices, which the university allowed us to keep. We had our own student organization. Mario [Compean] and some of the students…they acquiesced. They accepted the program status.”[16] Angered by some activists’ willingness to follow Compean, Castañeda details how M.E.Ch.A., “ignored anything that was going on with the program and stayed away from their activities.”[17] By disowning the program, M.E.Ch.A. thought that they had made themselves targets. “We would have these battles between the program people and us,” Castañeda remembers. “They were the ones who were recognized by the university administration and they tried to shut us down several times. They tried to cut our funding.”[18] In the face of attacks by the Chicano Studies Program, university administration, and student leadership, M.E.Ch.A. maintained their stance against a program. Castañeda explains, “The important piece for us was always the battle for a department over a program. When the university went with the program we stayed away. We would not give it any credibility by recognizing it. In a way it was bad, because it isolated us, but we continued to do our political work.”[19] Despite some apprehension, M.E.Ch.A. pressed on, maintaining opposition to program status and continuing their dynamic activism in the Madison and campus communities.

When the School of Education decided to hire Mario Compean, M.E.Ch.A. saw their vision of a community-run Chicano Studies Department evaporating in front of their eyes. Being that Chicano Studies was a product of community activism, they believed it would set a precedent for how an ethnic studies entity should operate. When it did not, many reacted by rededicating themselves to the fight for a department. Considering the economic conditions and lack of university support, it is hard to say whether the history of Chicano Studies at the UW–Madison could have been different had these foes found a way to harness their knowledge and skills in collaboration. With or without M.E.Ch.A.’s support, Compean committed himself to fostering Chicano Studies bit by bit. Still, by the fall of 1987 the program budget remained unchanged, Chicano Studies hadn’t offered a second class, and Compean’s strategy was no closer to expanding the program.

In the ensuing three decades, however, the Chicano Studies Program has made significant progress with the creation of a certificate program in 1994 and a six-fold expansion of affiliated faculty since 2000. Reflecting on how the program has survived with such minimal institutional support, former director Professor Benjamin Marquez argues, “We exist because students, faculty, and staff demand it.”[20] Over the past forty years, the university administration has attempted to both consolidate and reduce ethnic studies in tandem with state budget cuts, but support from students, alumni, and the wider community has enabled the Chicano Studies Program to grow and maintain autonomy. “The greater good is not what university administrators think about,” Marquez contends. “They think about their own programs, their own departments. [We] have been forced to do the same.”[21] To support community demands and ensure the program’s existence, Chicano Studies leaders like Marquez have had to focus on the things that university administrators cared about, “the bottom line and political power.”[22] Meanwhile, M.E.Ch.A. has had numerous organizational successes. During the early 1980s, mid-to-late-1990s, and 2000s, M.E.Ch.A. experienced surges in membership while maintaining a strong political and cultural presence on campus and in Madison. Despite their prolonged division, M.E.Ch.A. activists and program faculty, staff, and students have continued to build their organizations into campus entities engaged in the lives of Chicanx students and their histories.

Notwithstanding these efforts, the schism between M.E.Ch.A. and the program benefited, above all else, the university administration. With the movement for a department divided, administrators kept Chicano Studies “illegitimate” and underfunded, and took comfort in the absence of a united community response.[23] Nevertheless, as Chicano Studies faced repeated institutional threats to defund and consolidate it with other ethnic studies fields, both M.E.Ch.A. and the program played vital roles in defending its autonomy. Together, Chicanx academics and activists kept the movement for a Chicano Studies Department alive and active. Going into the fall of 2020, the program has more affiliated faculty and students than ever before. With support from alumni, students, and the community, the program is hopeful that it will establish a Chicano Studies major in the upcoming academic year and make another stride toward the ultimate goal, a department.


Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us.

[1] A note on terminology. Chicano or Chicana refers to a Mexican American person, usually second generation, who has been politicized by the Chicano Movement or its politics that originated in the 1960s. The terms Chicano and Chicana do not have universal meanings. Oftentimes people who embrace the identity of Chicano or Chicana define it in varied ways. Chicanx is a twenty-first century word created for gender inclusivity.

[2] Laws of Wisconsin 1975, Chapter 39, Sec. 727, 30 July 1975, CLS history, Box 1, Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Archives, UW Archives.

[3] Compean served as the director of the Chicano Studies Program from fall 1983 to spring 1988, and again from fall 1989 to spring 1991.

[4] In the fall of 1982 M.E.Ch.A. spearheaded a lobbying effort to pass the 1982 Migrant Bill that gave seasonal migrant workers access to state services. Jesús Salas, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 21 February 2020, Roberto Hernández Center, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

[5] Jesús Salas, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 21 February 2020.

[6] Mario Compean and Tricia Price, Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Program UW–Madison Chronology 1975–2006, UW–Madison Archives Department File, Series 7/71, 5 May 2006.

[7] Mario Compean, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 19 March 2020.

[8] Chicano cultural nationalism emerged from the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It refers to a form of nationalism shaped by Chicano culture. In this era, cultural expression frequently came in the form of murals, paintings, dance, fashion, theater, music, wood carvings, and film.

[9] Despite his graduate student status and job title, Compean acted as the program’s director and only full time employee from 1983 to 1988, and then again in 1989, 1990, and 1991.

[10] Jesús Salas, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 21 February 2020.

[11] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[12] Mario Compean, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 19 March 2020.

[13] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[14] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[15] Andrea Teresa Arenas, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 5 March 2020.

[16] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[17] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[18] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[19] Tony Castañeda, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 6 March 2020.

[20] Professor Marquez served as the director of the Chicano Studies Program from 1995 to 1997. Then, he served as director of the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program in the spring of 2014 and again in the academic year 2015–16. Benjamin Marquez, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 29 January 2020.

[21] Benjamin Marquez, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 29 January 2020.

[22] Benjamin Marquez, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 29 January 2020.

[23] C. Alejandra Elenes, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 17 March 2020; and Francisco Scarano, interviewed by Dustin Cohan, 15 April 2020.