On the corner of North Calle Cesar Chavez and East Montecito streets, a large building with no signs or lights stands alone. The plain white walls and barred windows of La Casa de la Raza hide a community most passersby would miss. However, behind the old wooden doors are full-wall murals and paintings, ranging from traditional Native American art to modern street art.
Tables — full of revolutionary pamphlets and posters from every political inclination — are set up. There’s a free anarchist bookstore in the corner with works from radicals like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Malcolm X. It’s early on a rainy Saturday morning, and over 50 people from around the county have showed up for a presentation and workshop, “What is Ethnic Studies?”
“We’re a small, grassroots community coalition,” said event coordinator Fabiola Gonzalez. She describes ethnic studies as a way for kids to “be taught who they are and where they come from.”
Only 25, Gonzalez was inspired by her former Chicano Studies teacher at SBCC, Magdelena Torres. She says Torres related her education to her life in Santa Barbara in a way school never had. She started organizing with Ethnic Studies Now just a few months ago after moving back from UCLA, where she was an undergrad. Now at CSU Northridge working on her masters, she’s closer to home and able to volunteer in the community.
La Casa’s main hall opens up to rows of fold up chairs centered around a makeshift stage. The projector is being shown on a big piece of cardboard paper. There’s still wet paint on some of the walls where the holes are being patched. “We make do with what we have,” laughs Gonzalez.
The fundraiser, which was put on with less than $500, is an effort to raise awareness for an issue California and our neighboring states have been struggling with for quite awhile; ethnic studies and how they should be treated in schools.
At one time called “minority history,” ethnic studies programs have gained a lot of popularity, as well as polarity, in recent years, but it isn’t a new issue to Santa Barbara. In 1998, over 700 UCSB students walked out in support of ethnic studies after the administration had threatened to make cuts to the program. In 2012, Arizona made national headlines with massive student walkouts over similar cuts to ethnic studies at the high school level.
Chimaway Lopez, one of the group’s youth coordinators, stressed how important the program was to him and his fellow classmates. “I’m fortunate to have grown up with my culture, but many of my friends were not,” Lopez said. “I just wanted to fit in, and not learning anything about our culture in school really pushed me away.”
Brothers Joe and Alberto Perez were two of the most vocal during the workshop. Younger brother Alberto is studying Addictive Disorders Counseling at SBCC and heard about the event through a program on campus. He brought along his brother Joe, who is currently a resident at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. Alberto said he “always felt like a minority” at schools, making him feel like an outsider.
“Why am I scared to go to school when I’m in kindergarten?” Joe asked the crowd desperately. With almost 84 percent of the teachers in Santa Barbara school districts being white, while the average California classroom has only 3 in 10 white students, the disparity is hard to ignore.
“You don’t see how you fit into what you are learning,” said Alicia Adams, an early childhood development student at CSU Channel Islands. “We need to address overt racism first.” Their personal experiences in the school system were stark reminders of what life can be like for people in underserved and underprivileged communities.
The event would get more lighthearted from there with an art show after the workshop that night. Famous Chicano artwork and work by local artists was featured in another room, while food was sold out of La Casa’s own kitchen to cover the event.
Southern California bands including Aztlan Underground, Sin Quince, and Salvajes performed for over 100 members of the community. All of the proceeds went to the cost of the event, as well as the monthly meetings Ethnic Studies Now holds at the center. They meet on the first Friday of every month. They are pushing to make ethnic studies classes mandatory for graduating from high school.