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A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano
by Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Harvard University Press, $69.50
Among the many books by Harvard graduates about their "Harvard experience," A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano aims to portray the dificulties encountered by a typical Chicano. In fact, the author, Ruben Navarrette Jr. '89-'90, is far from typical, and his autobiography presents issues of affirmative action, civil rights, growing up and adjusting to Harvard from a partial perspective, overshadowed much of the time by Navarrette's personality. His frequent criticisms of RAZA, the Mexican-American student association, add to the book's sense ofone-sidedness.
A Darker Shade of Crimson details Navarrette's life from the moment his Harvard acceptance letter arrives at his house in Sanger, California. Navarrette describes a feeling of belittlement when confronted by peers and high school faculty who carelessly and sometimes innocently inferred that he was accepted only because of his ethnicity. Upon arriving at Harvard, Navarrette found himself in an alien environment. He was shocked by the transition from dry and sunny California to wet and dreary New England, as well as the change from a community that is predominantly Mexican-American (70% of the population) to one where Chicanos form an almost invisible minority (only 2.5% at Harvard).
Navarrette's only recourse during his time at Harvard was RAZA and the organization's members. He writes that RAZA was "the centerpiece of my very existence at Harvard. I drank RAZA. I dated RAZA." Unfortunately for Navarrette, he alienated himself even from his friends in RAZA when he publicly criticized Cesar Chavez's leadership of the United Farm Workers.
The aggressiveness that caused Navarrette's estrangement from his Chicano peers becomes evident in conversation with him. If Harvard taught him anything, it was how to make sure he gets his message across. Repeating the phrases "I'll tell you this..." and "One thing that's interesting...," Navarrette manages to cover all of the controversial points in his book with minimal prodding. During a phone interview, he gradually relaxed and assumed the tone of a storyteller, conveying a sense of self-confidence tinged with megalomania. While discussing his critics' assertion that he is opportunistic, he reminded me that if this is so, he wouldn't be the first Harvard graduate to display that characteristic.
Navarrette relishes confrontation. He writes that his beliefs cause him to be "arrogant and overbearing," that he was in a "nose-to-nose shouting match" with Cesar Chavez, and he was booed off the stage of my high school in Fresno, California last year. Navarrette insists that youths who read his book have the right to "confront" him and "take his head off." Navarrette is a man of extremes. He can admit that Cesar Chavez was a great leader of the Mexican-American people, yet claims that he confronted Chavez because the leader was losing touch with his followers.
If Harvard taught him anything, it was how to make sure he gets his message across.
Navarrette's publishers have attempted to emphasize his taste for controversy, portraying his book as a piece of Harvard-bashing literature by a sour alum. In A Darker Shade of Crimson, Navarrette criticizes Harvard for forcing him into "playing the role" of a token minority student. He also claims that the University could do more for its minority students by including adding a Chicano studies major and recognizing that Mexican-American students feel alienated in a unique way.
One of Navarrette's more encompassing criticisms is of the University's admissions policy. He writes that Harvard "skims the cream" of minority applicants, usually taking middle and upper class students. In conversation, he cites a survey taken of Harvard undergraduates which showed that Chicano students had above-average high school GPAs and SAT scores when compared to white students. These students would have been accepted without consideration of their race; the current process leaves less room for other Mexican Americans who had a more difficult time in high school. He argues that Harvard's policy tells the world that "only super-Mexicans need apply," while white students aren't subject to the same criteria.
Alongside his criticisms, Navarrette writes favorably of Harvard, referring nostalgically to his graduation and to many of the students and faculty he met. Navarrette is willing to tell any Mexican-American student to choose Harvard over other big name colleges. He reserves stern criticism, however, for RAZA, Harvard's Mexican-American student group. Navarrette writes about being the group's political "pitbull" and allowing its activities to consume him. But after his shouting match with Chavez, he writes that he was "completely cut off socially" from the group.
He claims that groups like RAZA do not fulfill their purpose since they demand political conformity of their members. "The problem becomes that when we enter politics there's a tendency to divide the world into those that are in favor of us and those who are against us." Navarrette writes somewhat sulkily of his fall from grace in RAZA: "I was no longer us; I was finally part of them.."
The mood of his book is one of alienation. Navarrette describes long nights spent in dorm rooms drinking with fellow RAZA students in order to lose himself. He writes about rumors of Harvard students who just couldn't take it and committed suicide. And, especially, he writes about Joe Razo, a fellow Chicano student who committed several armed robberies while enrolled at Harvard. In Navarrette's eyes, Harvard is a tense, intimidating workplace that "needs you far less than you need it." Mexican Americans are not unique in feeling isolated at Harvard.
Near the end of the interview he makes a statement that he has probably mulled over for weeks. He says, "To be Mexican American at Harvard is to live an experience that a white reporter for The Crimson, or a white student at the Kennedy School or even an African American at the law school will simply not experience." Navarrette refrains from claiming authority on the reality of that experience for every Mexican American. The publicity and word of mouth surrounding the book, though, suggest that it might be received as the definitive statement on Chicanos at Harvard. That would be a shame; Navarette's overbearing if engaging voice is hardly the last one that should be heard on the subject.
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