I first learned about MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) during UCLA’s Freshman Summer Program (FSP) in 1985, as a 17-year-old freshman. Many moons later, when I became a member, I still stand by MEChA’s mantra: “Once a MEChista, always a MEChista.” (To pretend to be younger, I usually joke that I was “actually” a 7-year-old math prodigy at UCLA in 1985!)
When I shockingly learned of the proposed name change of MEChA at the MEChA National Conference 2019 at UCLA, I didn’t know whether to cry or yell. Given that I was raised in one of the most dangerous/toughest public housing projects/neighborhoods in the country, the notorious Ramona Gardens housing project or Big Hazard projects in Boyle Heights, where I don’t want to lose my “street cred,” I resorted to the latter. As a result, the cops paid a visit to me at my home. After assuring them that all was well, and that I had “accidentally hit my foot” on the corner of my metal bed frame, I decided to write down some short reflections about the state of MEChA (or lack thereof in terms of its future?) to express what this important organization means to me and its significance for students (current and future) and alumni from our high schools, colleges and universities.
While there are many racist lies, state-sponsored misinformation actions and reactionary views towards MEChA, for someone like myself —a Chicano kid from the projects— represented a haven in a white-dominated space. At my undergraduate years, there were few Chicanas/os at UCLA, including other elite universities and colleges in the country. In my case, given that I grew up in the project and on welfare, food stamps, Medical, etc., there were even fewer of us. In fact, many of the Chicana/o students at UCLA that I met hailed from the middle-class with parents who spoke English, graduated from college and owned property (e.g., home). This created a greater sense of alienation for me, which is very common among first generation university/college students from America’s barrios. In this context, MEChA became a “safe space,” where I belonged, despite being a brown street kid from the “wrong side of the tracks.”
Apart from being a haven or “safe space,” I learned about my people’s history and to be proud of my identity. I became so involved in MEChA that I changed majors from mathematics to history, where I “minored” in “Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones Studies.” By taking courses from Dr. Gómez-Quiñones —one of the greatest intellectuals of our time— for the first time in my life, I learned about my people. I learned that the Mexican people in el norte also had a history, that we mattered and were worthy of studying at elite universities like UCLA and UC Berkeley. Prior to learning about the Mexican people and their/our contributions to this country, growing up, my heroes consisted of Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Dr. J (legendary basketball pro from the 76ers). To paraphrase from one of Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña’s book titles, as a kid, I wanted to be “anything but Mexican.” Once I joined MEChA, I didn’t want to be anything else but a Mexican or Chicano! I still don’t!
As a MEChista, I also gained political consciousness. While I didn’t normally read or write during my poor/inadequate K-12 education, apart from my assigned Chicana/o studies books, I began to read the great works of Marx, Che, Chomsky, Gramsci, Fanon and others, allowing me to acquire a better understanding of the world in general and, particularly the inherent contradictions of capitalism. In MEChA, we debated these great thinkers —unfortunately, mostly male— and how their ideas and theories applied to us as Chicanas/os in a land that once belonged to us or, as the saying goes, as “strangers in our own land.” Essentially, as MEChistas, while we were taking our own courses and studying different subject matters, simultaneously, we were teaching ourselves about these influential thinkers, and others, under the premise that it’s not enough to understand the world, but to transform it (Marx).
Moreover, I learned to become a highly successful community activist/organizer. While West Point trains young cadets/minds to become leaders for the empire, MEChA’s mission has historically been to train young organizers/minds to become leaders for los de abajo. This is not to imply that MEChA (or individual MEChA chapters) has (or have) always been successful, where, based on its leadership at any given time, it can be a place to party and “hook up” or a place to liberate and educate or other options. For me, MEChA represented the foundation to become a leader for my people and other oppressed peoples—domestically and internationally. In doing so, it taught me to be self-confident and outspoken. For example, as MEChistas during the mid-1980s, we organized and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, U.S. intervention in Central America, police abuse in Los Angeles and many other causes at the cost of our own education (e.g., lack of focus on courses, grades, etc.). Essentially, our activism betrayed or jeopardized many of our immigrant parents’ dreams or sueños for us to become abogados, doctores y ingenieros!
On campus, we organized conferences and events to recruit more Chicanas/os and Latinas/os to higher education. We also defended the most vulnerable among us. For example, when then-UCLA Chancellor Charles Young decided to cut financial aid to undocumented immigrants, we organized an eight-day hunger strike (November 11-19, 1987). Led by then-student leader Adrian Alvarez, a total of five hunger strikes went on a liquid-only fast in defense of our undocumented brothers and sisters. This historic hunger strike, as I’ve previously written about, “… provided an organizing model for other Chicana/o student activists to stage similar hunger strikes at UCLA (May 24-June 7, 1993), UCSB (April 27-May 5, 1994) and other colleges/universities.” The 1993 hunger eventual led to the creation of the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.
Once I left UCLA to organize at the community (and national) level, I successfully co-founded the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles (ALAGLA) to challenge the City of Los Angeles’ 1996 draconian leaf blower ban. If convicted, under this ban, Latino immigrant gardeners would be subject to outrageous penalties: misdemeanor charge, $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. The other co-founders included MEChistas from UCLA, along with Mexican gardeners like Jaime Aleman, whom we met at UCLA. I’ve written about ALAGLA in periodicals, online outlets and journal articles. I’ve also held talks and symposia about this historic campaign, along with being profiled in magazines.
In addition to ALAGLA, as a then-lead organizer with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), I led the efforts to defeat a proposed power plant in South Gate, California. As I noted in my Z Magazine article (2001), “… Sunlaw Energy Partners’ proposal to build a 550-megawatt power plant in South Gate, (one of seven cities in SELA), as a demonstration of environmental racism. If built, this plant would have emitted over 150 tons of pollution per year, including particulate matter (PM10). PM10 (fine particles of soot) has been linked to premature death, including heart failure and respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis. The plant (the size of Dodger Stadium) would have impacted hundreds of thousands of residents, including over 100 schools, 13 hospitals, numerous convalescent homes, day care centers, and parks.” I’ve also written about this historic campaign in periodicals and journal articles, where it has also been documented in books and short documentaries.
All of the aforementioned student-led and community-based campaigns couldn’t be possible without MEChA. Period!
On a more personal note, I met my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Antonia Montes, through MEChA. As a wise Chicana, an educator and a fellow activist, Antonia has been instrumental in all of my organizational/activist struggles since the mid-1980s. It’s because of her that I returned to the university to pursue my master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA and doctorate in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley. As I state in my forthcoming book, Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond, for me, everything starts and ends with la familia. During the past three decades, Antonia and I have not only dedicated our lives to the well-being of our extended families, but also to the Mexican people of el norte.
I end with a loaded and clear statement: ¡Viva MEChA!
Dr. Alvaro Huerta holds a joint faculty appointment in Urban & Region Planning (URP) and Ethnic & Women’s Studies (EWS) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Among other scholarly publications, he’s the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm (San Diego University Press, 2013) and forthcoming book Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond (Hamilton Books | Rowman & Littlefield, June 2019). He holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley. He also holds an M.A. in Urban Planning and a B.A. in history from UCLA.