From College Readiness to Ready for Revolution! Third World Student Activism at a Northern California Community College, 1965–1969


  • Jason Ferreira



The history of the creation of academic ethnic studies departments in the 1960s often focuses on relationships between popular social movements and activists on campuses of research universities. This history often neglects the emergence of ethnic studies programs at community colleges serving working-class students. Community colleges were the public institutions of higher education that enrolled (and still enroll) the greatest number of working-class students (of color). There are more than one hundred community colleges across California, which serve as the primary entry point to higher education for Latinas/os. This article presents a history of battles over ethnic studies at the College of San Mateo in California in order to explore the dialectic of reform and revolution as it unfolded there. Postwar liberalism created new opportunities and offered new promises by opening up new spaces for Latinas/os and other students of color. Yet these transformations also laid the groundwork for frustration because of both structural and ideological limitations in these institutions. Frustrations with Cold War liberalism played an important role at the College of San Mateo in promoting a greater embrace of revolutionary politics among students of color from working-class backgrounds. The struggle at San Mateo also illuminates an often forgotten dimension of the Chicana/o movement—its affinities for inter-ethnic anti-racist coalitional work. In contrast to Southern California and other locations in the West and Southwest, in the Bay Area cultural nationalism rarely became the ideological touchstone for Latina/o radicalism. Chicanas/os in Northern California often lived, worked, and organized alongside Latinas/os from Central America, thereby contributing to a more expansive political identification. La Raza Unida Party in Northern California, for instance, defined Raza as anyone with roots in Latin America, while San Francisco State University implemented a Department of Raza Studies instead of Chicana/o Studies. At the same time, a distinctly Third Worldist discourse shaped Latina/o politics, born of the interconnections that existed between various communities of color in the region. While a regional movement of Third World students existed in the Bay Area that included Berkeley, San Francisco State, San Jose State, Laney Community College, and a host of inner-city high schools, this essay places the College of San Mateo at the center of the story.