Fear of a Brown Planet

Cruz Bustamante, along with many other California Latino politicians, belonged to a Chicano student organization in college. And conservatives are livid.

The Plan de Santa Barbara contained similar rhetoric, and both documents went on to delineate what conference attendees thought important to rally the marginalized Chicano masses toward a better life: control of political and economic institutions, a love of one's raza(literally "race," but here taken to mean cultural heritage), even the formation of a national political party "since the two-party system is the same animal with two heads that feed from the same trough."

The national party, La Raza Unida Party, fizzled out after a couple of victories in Texas during the early 1970s, but the other result of the Denver and Santa Barbara conferences was the formation of MEChA.

There had been other Chicano student organizations during the late 1960s—UMAS (United Mexican American Students) and MAYO (Mexican American Youth Organization) among them—but the explicitly activist message of the plans and the need for a common group led to the rise of MEChA. Almost all existing Chicano student associations eventually transformed into MEChA chapters, still running on hundreds of college and high school campuses across the United States. There's no overarching central body, however—no MEChA national headquarters, no budget, no supreme leader. The Plans called for each MEChA club to be an autonomous group that interacts with other factions only in monthly regional and yearly national conferences. It is, in essence, the very model of self-governing local control that Republicans dream about.

Since MEChA was set up as a student organization, its clubs tended to concentrate on recruiting Chicano students to higher education and asking for Chicano Studies programs at universities, rather than implementing the economic or political visions of the plans. This isn't surprising: the Plan de Santa Barbara made sure to state that education was the primary goal of all Chicanos:

"Chicanos recognize the central importance of institutions of higher learning to modern progress, in this case, to the development of our community. But we go further: we believe that higher education must contribute to the formation of a complete person who truly values life and freedom."

"MEChA walks in concert with the same goals of any other student academic organization—good citizenship, values, and promotion of scholarship," says Paul Apodaca, professor of sociology at Chapman University and advisor to the college's MEChA chapter since 1995. "Our goal is to strengthen colleges in their effectiveness to create global citizens by increasing the number of Chicanos on campus. We see students arrive at Chapman from high schools that never sent a student to college. We use the collective of MEChA to promote the students in their desire to better their lives and communities."

He uses me as an example. I had been apprehensive about joining MEChA when I attended Chapman University in the 1990s. I had heard about the obsession with protests, the vitriolic speeches bashing everyone who wasn't brown, the infamous MEChA clap that ends every meeting by having members clap in unison, progressively faster, until someone shouts out "¡Qué viva la raza!" (Long live the raza!)

But then I actually attended a meeting. I encountered some extremist rhetoric—but it was aimed at increasing Latino enrollment on our minority-deficient campus. It was about mentoring high school students and about creating a support network for those of us who were the first in our families to graduate from high school, let alone college. And it wasn't just Latinos involved in this radical clique. We had African Americans, Asians, gabachos,even a Kazakh student named Amir who proudly wore his MEChA shirt emblazoned with the MEChA logo, an eagle gripping a stick of dynamite. We cared about bettering the world, and MEChA allowed us to do something about it.

We protested Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he appeared on campus; we supported striking janitors and held events for all the major Mexican holidays. Mostly, we spent our free time recruiting high school students to Chapman and tutoring elementary kids.

Chapman administrators loved our dedication, holding us up as models of what others could aspire to. My fellow Mechistas went on to work for nonprofit organizations, scored consultant positions with the Democratic Party, became bankers, turned into psychologists, made it in Hollywood, interned at the Cato Institute, were hired by Chapman to recruit students—and this Mechista went on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA. Not a single Mechista dropped out.

The academic portion of MEChA is always lost, however, in mainstream media depictions of the organization. To most non-Latinos at colleges and beyond, MEChA is that noisy Mexican club that protests every grievance imaginable and stages disruptive classroom walkouts, always waving the Mexican flag.

"UC Irvine wraps the MEChicans with love and affection to protect them from the rough and tumble world of racists and bigots," went a typical criticism of MEChA, this one in the June issue of the UC Irvine conservative newsletter The Irvine Review. "In honor of Cinco de Mayo, the Sigma Pi fraternity threw a 'Drinko for Cinco' party and held a few events that made light of the Mexican culture. This was so offensive that MEChA complained and UC Irvine rushed to rescue the powerless MEChicans. Of course, it mattered little to MEChA that there were a bunch of raging drunk Chicanos walking around campus housing after their little fiestas, doing much more harm to the Mexican culture in general than a few white kids could ever do dressing up in sarapés [sic] and drinking crappy Corona beer with that stupid lime wedged on top."

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