The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1999, Volume 45, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Sometimes There is No Other Side: Chicanos and the Myth of Equality.  

By Rudolfo F. Acuna. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. Bibliography, notes, index. v + 292 pages. $36.00 cloth, $18.00 paper.

Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies, San Diego State University, author of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (1990) and co-author with Arnoldo De Leon, North to Aztlan: Mexican Americans in United States History (1996).

The title of this book by noted scholar Rudolfo Acuna is taken from Edward R. Murrow’s response to those who criticized his not offering ‘the other side’ of the death camp stories emerging from World War II. The theme developed in this book is to deconstruct what Acuna calls “The American Paradigm,” an uncritical acceptance of cannons arising from the culture of Western civilization, particularly its courts and the universities. Acuna develops his attack using Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of paradigm construction, maintenance, and shift to argue that commonly accepted definitions of truth and objectivity reflect temporal and cultural biases.

This book is perhaps the most thoughtful and philosophical one yet written by Professor Acuna. In it he explores philosophical assumptions undergirding contemporary court cases and laws that have sought to define fairness: the Bakke case and Proposition 209 both of which sought to eliminate affirmative action. Acuna argues that the policy of color blindness used to justify these measures, ironically has promoted discrimination by ignoring race as a factor in achievement.

Undergirding the American Paradigm, says Acuna, is a philosophy of positivism, called neo-liberalism in Latin America. This is a nineteenth century belief in objectivity through scientific reasoning applied to human affairs. In public affairs positivism, has rejected morality as a principle of action and has promoted relativism. Hence academics and judges alike feel that their decisions are justified by a process that can objectively determine reality. Acuna believes that justice would be better served by relying on natural law, moral principles emerging from reason and nature rather than from an appeal to objectivity in process.

The core of Sometimes There is No Other Sideis a detailed analysis of Acuna’s own court discrimination case against the University of California which failed to hire him in 1991. Acuna was then and remains now one of the most prominent Chicano historians in the United States, yet the process of evaluating him for a position as a Professor in the Chicano Studies department, resulted his being rejected on the grounds that he was a “inveterate polemicist and pamphleteer who ignores the rules of evidence. . .” and that he “fills his work with angry pronouncements….and apparently on purpose shapes his analyses and narrative to serve a political purpose.” (p. 126)

In great and painful detail, Acuna retells the story of his legal battles with the University of California, one of the largest public corporations in the United States. We are given an inside glimpse into the workings of the Committee on Academic Personnel, the University of California’s evaluative committee that secretly works to promote the American Paradigm within the university. Acuna gives us names and copies of memos; he is not shy of telling us all he can within boundaries of the law. It is a fascinating revelation of arrogance of UC power and of tricky legal maneuvers. The result, however, was a victory, of sorts for Acuna. He won a monetary judgement against the University of California for age discrimination. Acuna argues that his candidacy and the court case that followed was intensely political, because he had dared to challenge the American Paradigm by presenting alternative interpretations of accepted truths. Acuna sees himself as a modern day Galileo, challenging prevailing institutional orthodoxy and being excommunicated as a result.

There is much more in this book to make it fascinating and provocative. For me his critical evaluation of the directions of Chicana/o Studies is refreshing and will be for some uncomfortable. He believes that the field has failed to challenge the American Paradigm and is in danger of being main streamed, diluted, and co-opted. This is a passionate book written by a highly articulate and thoughtful scholar who has done more than any other academic in the United States to shape history. Sometimes There is No Other Side is a sophisticated and highly articulate critique of the major assumptions underlying contemporary American society. Those who want to better understand the Chicano Studies in general and specifically in Southern California would do well to read this work.