From the left, Claire Buss, Zoila Lara-Cea, and Kevin Sazo are three of seven hunger strikers entering their eighth day of protesting recent cuts to the Ethnic Studies department at UC Berkeley. Photo: John C. Osborn

By John C. Osborn

Zolia Lara-Cea considers UC Berkeley home, and the staff and faculty in the Ethnic Studies department family.

On Tuesday, Lara-Cea, a third-year Ethnic Studies student, switched between studying material for an upcoming final and talking with joy about her long history with UC Berkeley outside of California Hall yesterday. Seven days without nourishment did little to crack her spirit, and, despite her fatigue and the speed with which her heart beat even after walking a short distance, she spoke with a clear, coherent purpose.

“Even though you’re physically hurting, you need to make sure your spirit is in good shape,” Lara-Cea said. “They’re [staff/faculty in department] part of our family. An assault on them is an assault on our family.”

Lara-Cea is one of seven people now entering their eighth day without eating to protest the controversial consolidation of Ethnic Studies with other social science programs, resulting in staff reductions and the demotion of faculty to half-time. Despite camping out on the lawn for a week, and issuing a set of demands, students have yet to reach a deal with administrators.

Jorge Gonzalez, an Ethnic Studies graduate student who has attended the university on and off for 10 years, said the department’s staff has been so whittled down that it now only has two office workers and two counselors. Ethnic Studies lost two positions last semester and will now shed 2.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff positions. The constant reductions are harming retention and recruitment, he said.

The hunger strikers are watching this downward spiral within the department with alarm, said Gonzalez. “They’re seeing the looming future… that’s why they’re making this gesture. It’s a gesture that is selfless, and you have to appreciate that.”

Claire Buss, a senior who participated in a hunger strike last year over issues revolving around undocumented students and Arizona’s controversial SB 1080, said she felt great physically, but was cautious about whether the administration would concede to their demands.

“When it comes to the administration,” Buss said, “they don’t really care about us students; it comes down to the bottom line.”

Kevin Sazo, a 19-year-old East Oakland resident who has aspirations of enrolling in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies program, spoke with a quiet, almost meditative voice. He felt compelled to join the hunger strike for what he sees as an attack on his future dreams.

“I thought, ‘how can they be attacking Ethnic Studies,’” Sazo said. “I took the initiative of being here and supporting the protest.”

Twelve people started the hunger strike on April 26 following a larger protest criticizing the consolidation of three departments under Operational Excellence, UC Berkeley’s initiative to cut costs and streamline its bureaucracy. The administration has proposed consolidating Gender and Women’s Studies, African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies to save $500,000 in staff costs.

The hunger strikers and their supporters sent a letter to university officials on April 26 outlining four demands: reinstate staff positions eliminated under Operation Excellence, end the current process of Operation Excellence, publicly support ACR 34 — an Assembly resolution that would formally recognize the work of Ethnic Studies departments statewide — and publicly acknowledge the unfulfilled promise to create a Third World College at the university.

A spokesperson with the university couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. But in a letter responding to the demands of the hunger strikers, administrators reiterated a need for the university to trim down due to losing more than $100 million in funding over the past three years. Officials also defended the methodology used under Operation Excellence when distributing cuts throughout campus. In the letter, administrators said they were open to dialogue with the hunger strikers.

“Our hope is to understand one another better, given that we have the same ultimate goals for equity and inclusion,” the letter stated. “This hope also applies to questions about the particular structure of ethnic and related studies and their place in the academic organization.”

Although administrators and student representatives have met several times over the past week, no agreement has been reached between the two parties.

A rally is planned for noon on Friday outside Cal Hall while the seven protesters continue their hunger strike.

As Lara-Cea recounted her early years living in Casa Joaquin Murrieta while her mother attended school (Ethnic Studies as well), she thought about the chain of circumstances that brought her to that moment. She tasted her first campus protest with her mother in the late 80s, early 90s over cuts to the department at the time, she said. After losing her art portfolio to a flood, and succumbing to lung disease and other respiratory aliments while attending Xavier University, Lara-Cera enrolled at UC Berkeley.

“I really think it was fate that brought me here, and it was my dream to come here when I was a kid,” Lara-Cea said. “The lack of diversity saddens me, but it’s home.”

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