Representing the Underrepresented

’81 TWANAS hunger strike demands remain in flux 30 years later

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Illustration by Owen Thomas.
Illustration by Owen Thomas.

For five days straight in 1981, Ellen Matsumoto’s mother called the UC Santa Cruz chancellor’s office to check on her daughter. The chancellor’s secretary would step out of her office and shout, “Hey Ellen, your mom called. She wants to make sure you’re not withering away!”

But this was more than a friendly reminder for her daughter to attend class and eat breakfast. She was calling because Ellen was one of 25 students protesting the university’s lack of a Third World and Native American program through a hunger strike.

When Ed Castillo, the only UCSC lecturer teaching Native American studies at the time, was fired in 1981, students were at their tipping point. About a year earlier, the first issue of Third World and Native American Studies (TWANAS) press collective — a student-run newspaper that discusses issues affecting people of color from the perspective of people of color and allies — was published at a largely white university. Matsumoto remembers the few faculty of color being laid off for vague reasons, while students were placed on multiple committees to talk about solutions, though this stalled the demands of a formal TWANAS program.

“We felt like something drastic had to be done,” Matsumoto said.

About 600 students from TWANAS and other ethnic organizations marched to the chancellor’s office with their demands and a five-day deadline.

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“Third World and Native American Students have directed seminars, held rallies and marches, participated on committees, and sponsored conferences,” the demands document read. “Much of these efforts have stemmed from administrative advice and guidance. After 11 years of forgotten proposals and unanswered questions, administrative guidance has only served to exhaust our energy.”

TWANAS members were unsatisfied with the university’s response, which was to form another committee to talk about solutions. John Marcus, the academic vice chancellor at the time, made no guarantees for permanent funding and said the administration had neither the “resources nor the jurisdiction” to meet the demands, according to the April 23, 1981 edition of City on a Hill Press (CHP). Days after the rally, a group of students began a hunger strike outside administrative offices at McHenry with similar demands.

In 1981, Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer told CHP he was “sorry that students feel they must resort to a hunger strike” to have their demands met. “I can’t just wave a magic wand and clear this all up,” he said.

Hundreds of students gathered outside the library in solidarity, singing, playing drums and sharing stories. Some would sign petitions or participate in a one-day solidarity strike with the 25 students camped out in tents outside administrators’ windows.

Four days after the hunger strike began, UCSC administration conceded to almost all of TWANAS’ demands. This included hiring two tenure-track faculty positions between Asian American studies and Native American studies, permanently funding the Third World Teaching Resource Center, incorporating TWANAS courses into the general requirements and establishing a new search committee for the director of counseling.

Though it was a victory, TWANAS member Robert Chacanaca had it right. “This is not the end,” he told CHP in 1981.

Years after the strike ended, demands remained unmet. Funding was increased for the resource center but a GE was still not established. It took until 1985, after over 1,500 petitions, for the Academic Senate to approve an Ethnic Studies GE. Until critical race and ethnic studies (CRES) was approved as a major in 2014, UCSC was the only UC without an ethnic studies program. The university relied on American studies and community studies majors to discuss intersectionality and race, and both of those programs were cut.

Students continue to advocate for diversity, but administration on the campus and UC level are often slow to act. Out of all UC campuses last fall, UCSC admitted the highest percentage of white students — 32.2 percent of admitted freshmen.

“This woke me up to how hard it is to actually create social change,” said Ellen Matsumoto, an original TWANAS member. “You’re not going to get as far as you think. You have to keep reaching, and even if you get set back, you have to keep going.”

Matsumoto emphasized the protest wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. TWANAS members obtained the proper permits, had police escorts when necessary and notified administration that the hunger strike was their next step.

“Nothing was spontaneous. It was well thought out,” she said. “There was no hint of violence. It was the result of looking back at history, putting together a timeline of everything that had been done for 20 years.”

This form of nonviolent resistance still occurs on campuses in the Bay Area and beyond. In 2009 at UCSC, the Student of Color Collective went on a five-day hunger strike at the base of campus to protest budget cuts and demand short- and long-term administrative actions. Last week, four San Francisco State University students called “Third World Liberation Front 2016” went on a hunger strike for 10 days, demanding $8 million of funding for their College of Ethnic Studies, after funding for two positions in the department was cut. Established in 1968 after a five-month student strike, SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies is the first in the nation. One student was hospitalized on the eighth day.

As Matsumoto said, “you have to keep reaching.” It’s been over three decades since the TWANAS protest and yet there are only five Native American faculty at UCSC today. Two percent of faculty are Asian, 2 percent are American Indian and over 60 percent are white. Out of the UCSC student body, American Indian students are the least represented at 0.3 percent.

“Santa Cruz, especially at that time, was just so extremely white,” Matsumoto said. “I would walk around campus, and everybody would know my name because I wasn’t white. It wasn’t even who I was. It was because I wasn’t white.”

During Matsumoto’s time with TWANAS, staff members also led identity organizations on campus. TWANAS was a way for students of color to amplify their voice and organize as a collective, and it still reflects that mission today.

Third-year Nataly Ramirez-Rayas joined TWANAS her first year when her core professor, a Native American faculty member, encouraged her to submit an essay she wrote for the class to publication.

“I feel really empowered being a part of this publication and seeing the growth of myself and our members, how much more confident and vocal we’ve become,” Rayas said.

TWANAS is staying grounded in its roots with a collaborative event this quarter. Alongside UCSC’s Big Five ethnic organizations, TWANAS hopes to bring an event focused on solidarity, boundaries, allyship and organizing strategies.

“We’re an ally to the ethnic organizations and other groups on campus,” Rayas said. “TWANAS is a piece of everything. We’re a way for students from all communities to get their news out and their voices heard.”