By Mara Stojanovic
In 1994, eight students participated in a hunger strike from April 27 to May 5. As members of El Congreso, a Chican@/Latin@ support group and political student organization, these students were striking to bring attention to the university’s repeated dismissal of the needs of Chican@ students. They outlined their demands in a statement titled, “Our Struggle,” announcing their strike as part of an effort to “fight for a better life for students… to help all peoples who are fighting for social justice.” Students called for actions such as the establishment of a Chican@ Studies Ph.D. program, adherence to the United Farm Workers Union grape boycott, and increased recruitment and retention of Chican@ and Latin@ students.
[(El Congreso, 1994, May 3). “Our Struggle.” Daily Nexus, p. 7. https://alexandria.ucsb.edu/downloads/tx31qj818.]
Claudia Leiva, Alma Flores, André Vasquez, Edwin Lopéz, Tino Gutierrez, Gilberto Limón, Heather Gonzalez, Salvador Barajas and Naomi Garcia camped out in front of Cheadle Hall during their strike and together with the rest of El Congreso organized rallies to demonstrate further support and push for a response from the administration. During that time, the students only consumed water. This kind of protest was not a sudden or unprecedented course of action. Students also carried out a hunger strike in 1989, with demands including the implementation of a general education ethnicity requirement. The continuous efforts of Chican@ students to push for reform highlights the difficulty of achieving institutional change.
(“Procession – March – Rally” flyer, Folder 1, Box 1). University of California, Santa Barbara, El Congreso Collection, UArch 104. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.]
[(C-J Conklin, 1994, May 5). “Students, Administrators Still Negotiating.” Daily Nexus, p. 1. https://alexandria.ucsb.edu/downloads/mp48sf073.]
[(“Viva La Huelga” article, Folder 19, Box 1). University of California, Santa Barbara, UCSB Ethnic Studies Protests Collection, CEMA 93. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.]
Reactions to the strike among the students were mixed. Some students decried their tactics as extreme and unnecessary in a series of letters to the Daily Nexus, and others published articles such as Kathryn Mulligan’s “We Whites Want Equality and Justice.” These students didn’t see a pressing need for the fulfillment of El Congreso’s demands or understand the frustrations faced by the Chican@ student population, particularly when dealing with the university.
[(Brett Orlanski, 1994, May 4). “To Die For.” Daily Nexus, p. 10. https://alexandria.ucsb.edu/downloads/k930bz15n.]
(“We Whites Want Equality and Justice” article, Folder 19, Box 1). University of California, Santa Barbara, UCSB Ethnic Studies Protests Collection. CEMA 93. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.]
Not all of the community reactions were negative. Students also received an outpouring of support from family, faculty, and fellow students. Many students responded in particular to Brett Orlanski’s letter to the editor. One staunch defender called the strike a demonstration of “guts, intent and unbending will.” Others, such as the A.S. Women’s Commission, simply shared their belief that “the issues the students are striking for – fees, EOP, the Chicana/o Studies Dept., the grape boycott and a diversified student body – concern us all.” They recognized the strike as a response to a pattern of neglect and indifference.
[(1994, May 5). “Striking Distance.” Daily Nexus, p. 5. https://alexandria.ucsb.edu/downloads/mp48sf073.]
After a series of meetings and email exchanges with the administration, the strikers ended their fast on May 5, bringing the length of their strike up to nine days. The administration and students signed a formal agreement delineating the university’s commitment to meeting El Congreso’s demands. Students, parents, and supporters celebrated, viewing the event as a step forward for the Chican@ student community.
[(“Hunger Strike Ends with Agreement And Breaking of Bread” article, Box 1). University of California, Santa Barbara, UCSB Ethnic Studies Protests Collection. CEMA 93. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.]
[(“Status of Hunger Strike Demands” flyer, Box 1). University of California, Santa Barbara, UCSB Ethnic Studies Protests Collection. CEMA 93. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.]
A follow-up on the status of those demands, however, showed a lack of progress and lagging implementation of the points formally agreed to by the university. This kind of non-response demonstrates the difficulty of achieving reform at a college campus full of administrative roadblocks. Despite the slow initial progress, the efforts of the strikers and El Congreso paid off. In a fact sheet describing their demands, students said that “these issues are not new. These demands are not new. It has been 25 years and the administration still has not kept its promises or fulfilled its responsibilities to students and the community… we want to see results now, not in another 25 years.” Twenty-five years later, UCSB has a strong Chican@ Studies department and PH.d. program. Students must push continuously for their voices to be heard and valued by the university, and even then progress is often slow and frustrating.