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 (March 29 – 31, 2019), 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 former Chicano kid from the projects—MEChA 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.”
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).
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 8-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, apart from other campaigns, 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.
All of the aforementioned student-led and community-based campaigns couldn’t be possible without MEChA. Period!
Thus, I end with a loud 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.