COLUMN OF THE AMERICAS by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez

About once a week, someone calls us "Aztlanistas." It's supposed to be some sort of McCarthy-type insult. Aztlan, according to our accusers, is another Quebec.

Accordingly, we're also accused of supporting the "separatist" organization, MEChA, or Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan -- a national student organization that promotes education and defends the rights of Chicanos/Mexicans and Central and South Americans. We find their work honorable and their philosophy misunderstood.

Aztlan as a 1960s political idea sought to reclaim the original homeland of the indigenous Mexica or Mexican/Chicano people. Thirty years ago, Aztlan was symbolically represented by the lands lost by Mexico when the United States warred on its neighbor in 1846.

A generation later, a new idea of Aztlan is emerging, particularly among the young members, that they're part of a pan-indigenous spiritual nation, not necessarily part of a geopolitical entity. As an anonymous Xicana from Michigan wrote to us last year: "Aztlan is everywhere I've ever walked."

While some still cling to the 1960s expression of Aztlan, its new adherents are not nationalist, nor do they support patriarchal ideas that relegate women to supporting roles. Many are women who spell Chicana with an X, symbolizing their indigenous roots. Theirs is not a separatist movement. Aztlan has re-emerged in response to this population, Mexican/Latinos, being dehumanized to the point where today many of this country's problems are attributed to them. This feeling of being under siege has created a spirit of unity and a spiritual kinship with people from all of the Americas.

To some, the idea of Aztlan indeed sounds like Quebec's separatist movement. Yet, this population did not elect to be designated and treated by the government as a permanent lower caste of minorities and aliens. Nor have they chosen to be segregated by corporations as the "Hispanic market." Interestingly, this "segmentation," because it involves hundreds of billions of dollars, is not seen by mainstream society as separation, but rather as part of the American way.

For those who have been marginalized, viewing themselves as part of a spiritual nation is both dignified and liberating. Many view themselves as partaking in a process of self-identity, not bound by government or corporate definitions, which they see as contributing to the systematic eradication of their culture. Many consider the U.S. Census Bureau's designation of this population as "white" a throwback to an era of shame and a continued effort to obliterate the Indian or African within them.

To outsiders, the aforementioned ideas may seem unintelligible, but they aren't. All it takes is a little knowledge to understand why this population gets angry when the government and school textbooks erase their history. They view the ripping away of their roots as the first step toward their delegitimization and as lending credence to the idea that they're foreigners.

For many, Aztlan is simply about bringing a dignity to themselves at a time when they perceive a full-scale attack against their culture via an encirclement of forced assimilation policies. And the irony is that these policies -- which manifest themselves in national movements against immigration, affirmative action, bilingual education and ethnic studies, plus the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border -- are essentially fueling that quest for dignity.

Having a MEChA background should be a source of pride, not consternation. For example, not long after Norma Chavez led a six-mile march on behalf of the United Farm Workers Union -- in 110-degree heat in El Paso, Texas -- she was elected to the state house of representatives in 1996. And Antonio Villaraigoza, Joe Baca and Gilbert Cedillo -- MEChA members at UCLA in the 1970s -- are now California Assembly members. Villaraigoza, the speaker of the assembly, who is being honored at this year's national MEChA conference at UCLA this month, runs one of the nation's most powerful state bodies. And yet, he's been derided by foes as undeserving of the post because he was once a MEChista. Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (and former MEChA member), will be keynoting the conference.

All are examples of human beings who have not betrayed their principles and who today carry on their human rights battles in halls of power. There's no dishonor in that or in believing in Aztlan.


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