At the end of March, the 50-year-old student organization MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) voted to change its name. But over a month later, a determination on just what the new name will be is still up in the air, according to a former chair of one the organization’s campus chapters who has been closely following and chronicling the story.
Additionally, since the resolution took place, the San Diego State University (SDSU) and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) MEChA chapters have separated from the national structure. Cal Poly Pomona, Bakersfield College, and several high school chapters have stated that they will keep the original name, said Ron Gochez, who led the SDSU chapter back in 2001 and is currently the political secretary of La Unión del Barrio.
Latino Rebels reached out to several many members and the current chairs of the SDSU and the UCLA MEChA chapters to request an interview, but did not get a response.
The Chicano movement of the 1960s (MEChA being its student wing) rose as the civil rights wave of the immigrant community in California, which at the time was largely composed by people of Mexican heritage. But at MEChA’s national conference in March, the majority decided —with 29 votes in favor, three oppositions and two abstentions— to eliminate “Chicanx” and “Aztlán” from the name, considering they were exclusionary terms that did not represent Black, Indigenous, Central American, South American, and Caribbean identities.
The decision was met with a lot of commentary and a strong pushback from the chapters that opposed the decision (Cal State University Dominguez Hills, Maya Angelou High School in LA, and UCLA), as well as by MEChA alumni. Some who opposed the name change believed it was a political move to splinter the organization and distance itself from the movement’s blue-collar origins.
The criticism led to a statement from MEChA national board members defending the name change vote.
Gochez —who is in fact Salvadoran and not Mexican— said that in slighting terms like “La Raza” or “Aztlán” as being “too Mexican-centric,” the younger MEChistas were fostering a general animosity toward Mexican identity.
“There is nothing wrong with being a Chicano or Chicana nationalist. People have a historic right to be proud of their identity, to defend their culture, their people, their history,” he said.
Gochez added it was immoral to go into an organization with a legacy of 50 years and want to change that organization’s history. “Talk about erasure, that’s crazy,” he said, drawing an imaginary comparison to the Black Panther Party.
“That is as if back in the day, César Chávez went to the Black Panthers and said, ‘Hey you guys are just a little too Black, what about me? What about my people, my cause, you should change the Black Panthers to be more like us.’ That’s wrong, that would be completely wrong,” Gochez explained.
On April 7, MEChA de UCLA’s issued a statement announcing their secession from the national structure. The Californian chapter said that in recent years infighting and inaction has dominated the national MEChA structure.
“We understand that “Chicana/o/x” is a political identity, not a cultural identity, and has been depoliticized. We recognize that ‘Aztlán’ is a concept birthed by resistance and rejection of assimilation, with which Chicanas/os/xs are able to acknowledge their belonging to the land of this hemisphere, despite colonial efforts to strip us of that fact. It is important to understand the hxstorical use of Aztlán in imagining a spiritual homeland that grounds and guides us within our organizing,” the statement says.
Gochez echoed this sentiment in simpler terms, when he said that the name change move gutted the historical legacy of the movement and turned it into a “sanitized safe-sounding” concept that modified the character of the organization politically and philosophically. He expressed concern that the fight for representation overrode the fight for land in the public sphere.
“That’s abstract. You need land, you need physical land, and that is what the fight was for in the beginning. And now these folks are saying, ‘No, it’s not about the land, it’s a concept, it’s a state of mind,’ all that only benefits the people in power,” he said.
Although Gochez kept silent as the debate and voting happened back in March (“it wasn’t the place for me to speak”), he nevertheless felt frustrated that he couldn’t speak his mind about what he considered a “very sad scene.” In conversation with Latino Rebels, Gochez believed the young people who voted were “extremely misled” in what was essentially a political co-optation aimed to benefit liberal nonprofits tied to foundations are linked to Democratic Party groups. He also bemoaned what he saw as a historical ignorance of MEChA’s legacy as an ally in the political struggles of communities extraneous to the Chicano movement.
“If they knew the history of MEChA, they would see that MEChA has a long history of working with many native American organizations on the various campuses. MEChA has a very long relationship with the American Indian Movement [AIM]. The Chicano movement as a whole has a long history with the AIM, so for them to say that,” he said. In mentioning that all of the MEChA chapters are currently run by women or by members of the LGBT community, Gochez remembered that when he chaired the MEChA chapter at SDSU in 2001, they worked closely with the Black Study Union against Apartheid in South Africa.
Finally, and pushing the argument that the name change was part of a strategy aimed at gutting the organization of its radical militancy nature, Gochez said the day the voting took place (March 31), “Discussion on Capitalism” and “Discussion on Venezuela” were the second and third items contemplated on the agenda. “Conversations about Aztlán” came last. But as the Unión del Barrio reported on April 4, the original agenda was moved aside and the national MEChA Co-Chairs skipped discussing taking a political stance either on capitalism or on U.S. intervention in Venezuela, instead diving headfirst into talk about the name change
But that conversation took so long, that by the time they were done, “they never again spoke about Venezuela or MEChA’s position on capitalism,” Gochez noted. “That in itself is a huge political defeat for the organization—that MEChA would not take a position on capitalism or Venezuela.”
Emily Corona is a digital intern at Futuro Media. She is a journalist and translator from Mexico City, pursuing a master’s in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. She tweets from @daminijo.