MEChA began during the 1960s, empowered through the political movements of the time, especially the civil rights and Chicano Movement. The group coalesced out of several organizations which had formed during that turbulent decade and which came together at a conference in Denver. The Denver, Colorado-based Crusade for Justice, a civil rights and educational organization founded in the mid-1960s, concerned itself with the problems of the city's Chicano youth. One of the founding documents, "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan", was drafted during this conference. This document reflects the sentiment of the Latino/Chicano youth during an era of a turbulent social climate (especially in the wake of violence experienced by Latino youth from the US military and police during the Zoot Suit Riots).
The Mexican American Youth Organization was founded in San Antonio, Texas in 1967. It employed the tactics of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later spurred the creation of the controversial La Raza Unida Party.
The Brown Berets were a youth organization that agitated against police brutality in East Los Angeles. In 1968, they helped the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), Sal Castro, and other youth who met at the Piranya Cafe organize the East L.A. walkouts, called the Blowouts, a series of protests against unfair conditions in Los Angeles schools.
Following the Blowouts, a group of students, school administrators, and teachers formed the Chicano Coordinating Committee on Higher Education (CCCHE), a network to pressure the adoption and expansion of equal opportunity programs in California's colleges.
Rene Nuñez, an activist from San Diego, conceived a conference to unify the student groups under the auspices of the CCCHE.
In April 1969, Chicano college students held a nationwide conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Many of the attendees were present at the First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference hosted by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales' Crusade for Justice a month prior, and the Santa Barbara conference represented the extension of the Chicano Youth Movement into the realm of higher education.
The name "Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán" was already in use by a few groups, and the name was adopted by the conference attendees because of the importance of each of the words and as a means of transcending the regional nature of the multiple campus-based groups. Conference attendees also set the national agenda and drafted the Plan de Santa Barbara, a pedagogic manifesto.
MEChA chapters first took root on California college campuses and then expanded to high schools and schools in other states. It soon became one of the primary Mexican-American organizations, hosting functions, developing community leaders, and politically pressuring educational institutions. MEChA was fundamental in the adoption of Chicano Studies programs and departments in academia.