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Apodaca doesn't deny that MEChA agitates, but stresses that the confrontation of racism or exploitation is of secondary importance to educating students. "MEChA is nota political organization," he said. "We never endorse political candidates. But MEChA does take up causes that match its goals of empowering students and letting others know of injustices. The politics of the times creates MEChA's actions, not the other way around. . . . We don't promote an agenda—we promote the student. And MEChA has put more Chicanos through college than any other organization."
Even Art Pedroza Jr. gave MEChA a chance during his time at UCLA. "I tried attending a meeting once, but I immediately heard the whisperings that I didn't look very Latino," he told me. "I was put off immediately." He says "belonging to MEChA isn't particularly negative. What MEChA has done the most is support Chicanos as they go to college. To me, it's a fraternity more than anything else."
Nevertheless, think tanks like the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR, authors of Proposition 187), the Hoover Institute and the American Enterprise Institute have ranted against MEChA in policy papers for years, warning that its spread signifies nothing less than a conspiracy aimed at destroying the United States. Most of the attacks focus on the language of the plans and the name of MEChA itself.
The "A" in MEChA stands for "Aztlán," the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs that supposedly existed in the Southwestern United States. During the 1960s, Chicanos took up the Aztlán legend as a spiritual solidarity point. The writers of the Plan de Aztlán incorporated the origin myth into the document, albeit in a rather militaristic tone:
"We are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlán belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.
"Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggle against the foreigner 'gabacho' who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our mestizo nation. We are a bronze people with a bronze culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán[emphasis in the original]."
"Substitute 'Aryan' for 'mestizo' and 'white' for 'bronze,'" wrote syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin on Aug. 20. "Not much difference between the nutty philosophy of Bustamante's MEChA and Papa Schwarzenegger's evil Nazi Party."
Almost all the attacks against Bustamante and other former MEChA members operate under the assumption that Mechistas faithfully follow such inflammatory guidelines. But Apodaca points out that such language was never meant to be taken literally.
"The language reflects the period in which MEChA was created," he said. "The repudiation of 'gabacho' and 'European' in the statements is a call for rejecting dominance and intolerance by mainstream society. These statements were never against whites or American society any more than anti-Nazi statements are anti-German. They're not talking about white people, they're talking about gringoism—the oppression of the era against Chicanos and Mexicans."
Even Pedroza agrees with Apodaca on this. "I knew this Cuban student at UCLA during the 1970s—rich, full-on Republican type," he said. "I remember vividly this guy trying to join a fraternity. They ended up leaving him passed out drunk in the middle of a road one night far away. They had no intentions of letting him into the frat. If you wanted to get into a club, for many Latinos, MEChA was it.
"The stuff talked about in the documents are legitimate grievances that are out there held by Chicanos," Pedroza continues. "They're family stories.
"But rhetoric about brown pride and love for Chicanismo drives people crazy," he adds. "If Bustamante and other politicians don't repudiate language like that, they'll hurt their reputations permanently."
When asked about his involvement with MEChA during the 1970s at Fresno State at an Aug. 28 press conference, Bustamante was unapologetic. "The students who are in MEChA today are just like the students when I was there: pretty much they are trying to get an education," Bustamante said. "The actuality of what takes place in these organizations is to provide student leadership."
But in a 1999 interview, Bustamante tried to distance himself from being seen as too revolutionary during his stay at Fresno State. "I wasn't the most radical Mechista," he told a Latino wire service. "At the same time, there were a lot of Vietnam veteranos attending school. They were like big brothers, and they taught me a lot."
"If he has any intentions of winning, he has to deal directly with MEChA and be upfront. He can't have it both ways," Pedroza said. "The great unknown in this election is the middle—and the middle doesn't like hearing things like that."