Mechistas? It's Mucho Ado About Nada

By Frank del Olmo, Los Angeles Times - Commentary Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times
Sunday, September 7, 2003

It shouldn't surprise anyone who reads this column that I was active in the again-controversial Latino student group MEChA during my college days.

MEChA is an esoteric Spanish acronym that translates as Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan. That final word refers to an ancient legend that places an Aztec homeland somewhere in the north. A few Mexican Americans use the word to refer to the U.S. Southwest, and extremists on both ends of the political spectrum interpret that as a desire by Chicanos to reclaim that region - somehow, someday - for Mexico.

But such a far-out idea was never on my agenda in the 1960s, when I was one of the few Mexican Americans at UCLA or, later, at Cal State Northridge. I just wanted to help get more Latinos into college.

Thankfully, MEChA was successful in reaching its goals by focusing on such practical matters.

So successful that thousands of young Latinos in college have created about 300 MEChA chapters, and similar groups, aimed at Latino students on campuses from San Diego to Boston. And most of them are even more benign in their aspirations and activities than the Mechistas I went to college with.

But that has not stopped some folks from trying to equate MEChA with hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Some of these claims are based on genuine confusion, such as attributing offensive political slogans once used by other Chicano groups ("For the race, everything. Outside the race, nothing") to MEChA.

Of course, the rhetoric some then-Mechistas used was overblown. But they were immature activists who - ignorant of a long history of Mexican American activism - really thought they were the community's political vanguard.

That is why Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante should not renounce his affiliation with the MEChA chapter at Fresno State in the 1970s, when Bustamante was a student there. A rival candidate in the campaign leading up to the Oct. 7 recall election, Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), made that demand recently, repeating the canard that MEChA is a racist militant group.

But if the normally diligent senator had done better homework he'd have found that MEChA is no more militant and racist than the Young Republicans clubs on many campuses.

Bustamante is not the first Latino politician to be attacked for his MEChA ties. A few supporters of Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn attacked City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa for the same thing during a tight race for the top job in City Hall three years ago, although Hahn did not join in.

And it's a safe bet other Latino politicians will face similar attacks as they run for higher office.

Despite the bigoted undertones of these attacks, I find them humorous. They simply don't jibe with the mundane reality of the largely social organization I belonged to.

There is no national MEChA organization, just clubs on campuses where students want to organize. I never filled out any application to join or paid dues. I just showed up at occasional meetings (and more often at off-campus parties) and helped at fund-raising events or tutored fellow students. Not very radical.

Which is not to say that some MEChA members were not involved in radical politics. This was the '60s, after all, and some Mechistas also belonged to genuinely militant groups like the Brown Berets, a small Chicano group that aped the militancy of the Black Panther Party. But the overwhelming majority of Mechistas I knew, as is the case today, were hard-working kids of blue-collar backgrounds. And because they were usually the first in their families to attend college, they were not about to undermine their futures by getting into radical politics.

In fact, one of my most vivid memories of college is of a large antiwar protest on the CSUN campus where I and a handful of other senior MEChA members moved through the crowd looking for younger Latinos or Latinas, urging them to leave. We didn't want them to jeopardize their slots in college or any scholarships by getting arrested. And most of them complied.

As this anecdote may reveal, I was a pretty conservative Mechista. I even opposed changing the name of what once was called United Mexican American Students, or UMAS, to MEChA in 1969 but lost out to majority opinion. But so did a loudmouthed transfer student from UC Berkeley, who wanted to change the name to Partido Popular Estudiantil (the Students' Peoples Party). I knew that leftist proposal would lose after I got a big laugh by pointing out that UMAS would be mocked if it started referring to itself as PPE - deliberately pronouncing the acronym.

When adults who should know better try to demonize a legitimate student group - and the idealistic young people who join it - they're just PPEing in the wind, too.