An Association with MEChA

The campaign to slur Cruz Bustamante is disgraceful

By Carlos Mu?oz, Jr.
Published on LatinoLA: September 19, 2003

An Association with MEChA

The Republicans in California are getting desperate. Seeing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante take the lead in the polls against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the recall election, they have taken the low road. They are accusing Bustamante, a Mexican-American moderate Democrat of rural working-class origins, of being a racist. They base this inflammatory charge on his association with MEChA, a Chicano student organization he belonged to during his undergraduate years at Fresno State University.

MEChA is the acronym for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, which translates into the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan. It was founded in 1969 at a statewide conference hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Chicano Coordinating Council on Higher Education, of which I was a member, organized it.

The majority of conference participants were idealistic student activists but also included the handful of Mexican-American faculty and staff then in existence in California's state college and university systems. The purpose of the conference was to help create Chicano Studies programs and to recruit and retain Mexican-American youth throughout the state and university system.

According to rightwing mudslingers, MEChA supposedly a racist, anti-U.S. group because it called for the return of the U.S. Southwest to Mexico and because it has used the slogan "Mi Raza Primero" in its literature. The slogan literally translates to "my race first." But in fact, "mi raza" simply means "my people" when Latinos use it in reference to their ethnic pride and their cultural identity.

As was the case with many of the social movements organized by people of color during the turbulent decade of the 1960s, MEChA was a product of the times. It emerged to confront the racism that has victimized Latinos since the beginning of U.S. history. In general, it was an anti-racist movement that emphasized the issue of identity as central to its ideological framework. In particular, it promoted the indigenous roots of the Mexican-American people.

To a large extent, it was the Mexican-American equivalent of the civil-rights movement's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced "snick"), as it was popularly known. MEChA student activists were instrumental in the creation of progressive Mexican-American community organizations, which emerged in the late '60s and early '70s throughout the Southwestern United States.

One of those organizations was La Raza Unida Party, a Chicano political party that challenged both the Republican and Democratic parties in local and state elections. The party's electoral successes were largely limited to South Texas, in cities where Mexican Americans were the predominant population.

But educational change was, and remains, the major focus of MEChA.

MEChA opened the doors of higher education for Mexican-American and other Latino youth in California -- and elsewhere throughout the nation -- before affirmative-action policies were created.

Bustamante is one of the thousands who later benefited from the struggles to open those doors. Like him, many former MEChA activists who have graduated from institutions of higher education since the late 1960s have made their mark as political leaders, distinguished scholars and writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, community organizers, teachers, doctors, health workers, social workers and even corporate executives. Few, if any, can be labeled radicals or anti-American.

It is important to place the attacks on Bustamante and MEChA in the context of the Republican conservative strategy to revise the history of the 1960s. By slurring the civil-rights movements of that era, they are trying to legitimize their current anti-civil rights cause.

Proposition 54 is the latest Republican effort in that disgraceful cause. It calls for an end to identifying Californians by race. Bustamante is an outspoken critic of Proposition 54, which is another reason Republicans attack him.

While it's perfectly legitimate to challenge Bustamante on the issues, it is way beyond the pale to call this moderate man a racist.

Such venom has no place in our political system.

About Carlos Mu?oz, Jr.:
Carlos Mu?oz Jr. is the author of the award-winning book "Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement" (Verso Press, 1989). He is professor emeritus of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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