The Chicano Studies Institute was founded in 1969 as a response to student, community and faculty demands for the study of Mexican populations in the United States as outlined in the founding document, El Plan de Santa Bárbara, a conference held at UCSB that year. Conference participants developed a “blueprint” for Chicano Studies that addressed a pattern of historical neglect and the realization that research on this growing population, especially in the social sciences, was erroneous and biased. 

The Institute achieved Organized Research Unit (ORU) status in 1969 and together with the Chicano Research Center at UCLA, is one of only two ORU’s in the University of California system devoted to such goals.  From its inception, the Institute was separate and autonomous from the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.  Chicana and Chicano Studies Department faculty also participate in the development of extramural activities and other initiatives that strengthen the infrastructure of research activities.

After a series of Acting Directors (Fernando de Necochea, Luis Leal), the Institute grew substantially with its first permanent director, Juan Vicente-Palerm (Anthropology) who served from 1984-1994.  Professor Palerm was appointed director after a national search that also brought two scholars to UCSB in the departments of Spanish and Portuguese and the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.  Palerm’s tenure witnessed the development of bi-national programs with Mexico such as an exchange with the University of Queretaro, the study of rural communities, interdisciplinary workgroups on Latina/o working poor, and, together with the Department of Chicano Studies, the establishment of the Luis Leal Endowed Chair in Chicano Studies (1993) named after Luis Leal, Professor Emeritus from the University of Illinois.  Professor Leal was the first holder of the Chair made possible thanks to funding, in part, from the Mexican Government.

In honoring Luis Leal, the Institute looks to him as a model for scholarship in the field.  Born in 1907 in Nuevo Leon, Mexico “Don Luis,” as he is affectionately known, arrived in Chicago in 1927 to attend Northwestern University.  He later studied at the University of Chicago and majored in Spanish at a time when most traditional departments considered the Iberian Peninsula as the only source of Spanish literature. (Professors even suggested students speak with a “Castilian” accent.) Leal and others successfully argued for the inclusion of Latin American literature as a worthy field of study and wrote his dissertation (1950) on the Mexican short story. Later in his academic career at the University of Illinois he championed the study of Chicano literature before it was finally recognized by the Academy.

In 1994 a group of students and community activists waged a hunger strike and secured an agreement from the administration to reaffirm their commitment to Chicano Studies at UCSB. Denise Segura (Sociology) served as Acting Director after the cessation of the Hunger Strike, was appointed Director in 1997, and began to implement terms of the strike that included a augmentation of resources for both the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and the Institute, an annual Visiting Research Scholar, an Undergraduate Research Internship Program, and release time for one quarter for a junior faculty member in Chicano Studies.

During her tenure Segura formed the Isla Vista Research Project that trained two graduate students and a dozen undergraduates in survey research for two years, and produced a report, “Latinos in Isla Vista.”  Segura also negotiated the establishment of the Institute at its present location in South Hall and out of a temporary building that lacked ventilation and Internet access.  Segura supported the establishment of a new Spanish language literary journal, Ventana Abierta, edited by LuisLeal (Chicano Studies) and Victor Fuentes (Spanish and Portuguese) and, together with Acting Director Carl Gutiérrez-Jones (2000-2002), developed the groundwork for a round of successful grant proposals (Kellogg Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation).

Until 2000, very few Chicano studies scholars had been recruited by departments other than Chicana and Chicano Studies, so Directors Segura and Gutiérrez-Jones, together with the Advisory Committee, successfully lobbied for a national search to hire a senior scholar in Chicano Studies.  This initiative led to the hiring of CCS Director Carlos Morton (2002-2005), a senior specialist in Dramatic Arts and Dance.  In 2005, Gutiérrez-Jones was appointed the Director of the Institute.

The Institute continues to work closely with the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, but also with departments and units within the College of Letters and Sciences, the Gevirtz School of Education, the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research (ISBER), the Center for Black Studies, California Ethnic & Multicultural Archives (CEMA), Office of Affirmative Action, Campus Outreach, and UCSB’s Multicultural Center, among others.  In addition, the Institute also collaborates with institutions in the city of Santa Barbara such as the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Casa de la Raza.