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Chronicle Features, San Francisco
RELEASE DATE: On or After January 10, 1997

LATINO SPECTRUM

by Roberto Rodriguez & Patrisia Gonzales

Anti-Immigrant Forces Find a New Enemy in MEChA

To some people, the mere name Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) conjures up images of militancy and perhaps even armed insurrection. The reality is that the national student organization encourages education, indigenous pride and self-determination, mainly in young Mexican Americans and other Latinos. So it is no surprise that the right wing and anti-immigrant forces in this country have found themselves a new target in MEChA.

MEChA translates to "Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán." Aztlán was the original homeland of the Mexica (also known to some as Aztecs), and the name Chicano activists have given the Southwest--land that formerly belonged to Mexico. Since it was founded in 1969, by Chicano students in Santa Barbara, Calif., MEChA has provided much of the rank and file support for virtually all of the major human rights struggles of Mexican Americans and other Latinos. For that reason, many schools have traditionally opposed its formation on their campuses--hoping to avoid political activism. Despite this, most college campuses have a chapter, and many high schools in the Southwest either have one or are struggling to create one.

MEChA is similar to the NAACP in its dedication to civil rights, however, it is a lot more idealistic. In this respect, there is no reason it should be feared by anyone--except the enemies of human rights. And yet, throughout its history, it has drawn the wrath and censure of hostile school administrations and many right-wing student organizations--funded oftentimes by adult, conservative organizations.

In the past few months, MEChA and similar organizations across the country have been subjected to unprecedented attacks by school administrations and conservative organizations. The recent action against them--attempts at censorship, unprovoked arrests, general harassment--is distinct from the harassment MEChA members are accustomed to, such as the recent mass arrests of students at UC Riverside and UC Berkeley for the "crimes" of demanding that universities establish Chicano/Latino studies departments, or for protesting the anti-immigrant or anti-affirmative action movements in the country.

MEChA is now being targeted by conservative forces who have come to realize what many have always known: the most vibrant leadership within the Chicano/Latino community traditionally springs forth from the student and labor sectors, not public policy wonks in Washington D.C.

While MEChA has traditionally supported the work of organizations such as the United Farm Worker's Union, it has primarily concerned itself with bringing more Chicano and Latino students, faculty and staff into universities. Those opposed to MEChA appear to be bothered by the very presence of Latinos in higher education and their preference for using the term "Chicano" to refer to themselves. Apparently, some people preferred it when Latinos were virtually nonexistent at America's colleges and universities, and were considered only worthy of performing unskilled labor.

Moreover, since "Mechistas" almost always organize around educational institutions, conservatives on campuses who are opposed to MEChA appear to fear that the end result will be a generation not of complacent and assimilated Mexicans, but educated and clear-thinking individuals who are not ashamed of their heritage and who want to utilize their skills to uplift their communities.

At a New Mexico high school, a teacher (who has asked to remain anonymous due to possible litigation) is fighting for her job over MEChA-related activities. She has been directed by the administration to cease teaching the "MEChA philosophy" in class. If this case ever goes to a trial, it will be worth following to see what the school administration determines the MEChA philosophy is. Perhaps MEChA's detractors feel that teaching Latino students the philosophy of passivity in the face of injustice--how Latinos were expected to behave in the 1950s--is preferable to teaching students to proudly speak out in defense of human rights.

Daniel Sosa of Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlán at Michigan State University says that if the organization has a philosophy, "it's the liberation of the mind. It's teaching people that we have a responsibility to our communities."

At St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque, the administration has directed "Chicanos Unidos" to change its name to something that does not connote militancy. At St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, the Student Publications Board recently directed MEChA to cease publication of its newspaper, "Espiritu de Aztlán," because it purportedly did not comply with campus regulations. Its editor, Christina Ramirez, says that community support forced the board to reconsider: "We felt they wanted to stifle our voices." At Palo Alto Community College in San Antonio, a student was arrested for posting around the campus "Chicano hate literature." In reality, the literature was campus-approved MEChA recruitment flyers. At both colleges, spokespersons say the incidents were simply misunderstandings -- that there was no attempt at censorship and that the student was detained, but not arrested.

At California State University at Northridge, Rudolfo Acuña, co-founder of Chicano Studies there, says a conservative group has been harassing MEChA, going so far as to place a full-page ad in a major daily attacking the student organization. It has also accused the president of MEChA of physically attacking its members.

Despite the attempts to discredit MEChA, the organization finds itself today with even greater stature within the Mexican American/Latino community. The biggest boost to MEChA nationwide would be if some court were to declare its philosophy and existence illegal or if it was banned by legislation such as California's Proposition 209--which calls for the elimination of all programs that use race or sex as a criteria for eligibility. Yet outlawing MECHA wouldn't destroy the organization, but simply drive it underground, and perhaps make it even stronger.

Rodriguez/Gonzales can be reached at: PO BOX 7905, Albq NM 87194-7905, 505-248-0092 XColumn@aol.com