Fighting against state power can seem like a herculean task to many activists, but in places like Tucson, Arizona, community groups see no choice but to keep fighting an uphill battle. In this essay, part of our Saving Ethnic Studies series, leading ethnic studies scholar Rodolfo Acuña uses Camus’s essay on Sisyphus as a window into the fundamental crisis of faith that many activists encounter: halfway up the hill, we have to question how far we’re willing to push for incremental change, and whether we should just give up on the system and let it all come tumbling down. Acuña observes, “some of us cannot leave the rock behind and getting to the top of the hill without the rock has no meaning.” With the courts, the school system, and the political establishment stacked against them, those who dare challenge the status quo gain strength from embracing the full weight of their struggle.
When asked what I have learned from writing about Arizona and what is going to happen in the future, I feel like the legendary king of Corinth immortalized by Albert Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” You remember the guy who was condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill. Every time he felt that he was making progress, the giant rock rolled back to where he started.
The moral of the story, according to Camus, is the absurdity of thinking we can learn the meaning of life. This absurdity compels us to turn to religion for answers — religious faith supposedly tells us the meaning of life without us having to find the answer for ourselves. It gives us faith that we can roll the rock up the hill even though it keeps rolling back.
For over forty-three years I have been pushing a rock called Chicana/o Studies, obsessed with the notion that we as a community can push the rock to the top of the hill. Chicana/o Studies would give a greater number of us access to knowledge that would free and enable us to solve the contradictions of American society.
Instead of reaching the top, the rock has become heavier and it has slipped back to where we started in 1969. Still we believe that we can reach the top of the hill despite the size of the rock. Truth be told, it would be easier to leave the rock behind and “make it in my own.”
But, some of us cannot leave the rock behind and getting to the top of the hill without the rock has no meaning. How long can you live solely on memories of those you left behind?
Is the obsession of reaching the top collectively an absurdity? Will those of us who are pushing the rock suffer the fate of Sisyphus – reducing our efforts to the absurd? Isn’t having faith in Chicana/o Studies’ ability to push the rock to the top in fact having faith in the system?
It is difficult to accept that there is nothing more to life than the absurd. At some point, Sisyphus has to accept the absurdity of his faith. In this case not so much the absurdity of faith in Chicana/o Studies, education or the community but in the system’s ability to allow everyone to find the meaning of life because it is the absurdity that keeps faith in the system alive.
The failure to make progress in pushing the rock to the top has nothing to do with Chicana/o Studies, Mexican Americans or our failure to push the rock up the hill. It is possible to make it to the top alone but impossible to make it as a community.
Ironically, the rock ruts a path that makes it easier for a few to reach the top; unjustly those who have abandoned the rock benefit from the sacrifices of those pushing the rock. For them, it matters little if they make it to the top of the hill without the rock and less that their desertion potentially permits the rock to crash down into the gully.
From my point of view, what gives life meaning is the struggle to make it up the hill collectively. This is how all progress has been made. As long as there has been humanity, people have struggled for the truth. The answer to the meaning in life is hope for a better and a just world. Without struggle life has no meaning.
You may ask what is so hard about pushing the rock to the top. It would not be if everyone pushed the rock until the end. But it is easier said than done. Society or should I say those who control the system protect themselves by exerting social control through popular culture, mass media, ideological divisions, religion, and fear. Education becomes part of this “invisible hand” that makes absurdity seem rational.
This brings us to Sisyphus’ dilemma in Arizona. Many understand the absurdity of believing that the system will protect the rights of Mexican Americans within the state. But they also believe in the Constitution and in the myth of “equal protection.”
The system, however, is not constructed to protect the rights of the poor but the privilege of those who benefit from it. Today more than ever Supreme Court decisions such as “Citizens United” give the rich uncontrolled access to power – making the rock even heavier.
In Arizona, the rock is heavier because it is a state without laws and bought public officials. The absurdity of the struggle struck me as I learned more about the interests behind the anti-immigrant hysteria and why it is important to the Kochs, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the prison industry, the gun lobby and other special interests to erase the memory of Mexican Americans left behind.
The few who have fought back are paying the price. The teachers of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program have been fire, not because they were not doing a good job teaching students, but because they were too effective.
Making the rock even heavier — a million dollar civil suit has been filed by the Tea Party with the support of Arizona Attorney General Tom Horn for defamation against TUSD Mexican American Studies Sean Arce and José González.
Meanwhile, Arizona lawmakers are attempting to nullify the U.S. Constitution. This is so even though Arizona receives back $1.30 for every dollar it sends to Washington –contrast this to California that gets back 79 cents.
The rock gets even heavier when the weight of the Democratic Party is added. The so-called Party is too timid to fight back and the Blue Dog Democrats cringe in fear of the Tea Party, the Minutemen and their corporate “sponsors.”
For the past forty years, Arizona has defied a federal court order to desegregate the TUSD and it has avoided compliance. Worse of all “the system” has bought off many of those who had pushed the rock in previous struggles. Tired of struggling they abandoned the village.
In spite of the absurdity of his belief that he can push the rock to the top of the hill, Sisyphus is not absurd. He realizes that if he lets go of the rock it could roll back and crush him or even worse tumble down and wipe out the village.
Sisyphus has no other choice but to struggle. Abandoning others pushing the rock up the hill would be abandoning his memories, abandoning his values. These are choices we all have to make.
I was once told that I could make it by changing my last name. I was light enough that I could pass. My first thought was, what about my sister? My cousin? They had the nopal plastered on their faces. Besides, I loved who I was, and that meant pushing the rock up the mountain.