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Illustration by Robert PokornyIn the Aug. 22 Orange County Register, longtime local Republican gadfly Art Pedroza Jr. used the better part of a 655-word guest editorial to argue from stereotypes that Cruz Bustamante would be very, very bad for Latino Californians.
Bustamante, remember, is our lieutenant governor, a Democrat and one of 135 gubernatorial candidates in the Oct. 7 recall election. He is also, if you believe Pedroza's take on Latinos, a dangerous man. Bustamante's proposal to raise taxes on cars valued at more than $20,000 "hurts Latino families, which tend to be large, as they need minivans and SUVs more than the rest of the California public," Pedroza wrote. Latinos "will be more enticed by the machismo and fame of Arnold Schwarzenegger" and turned off by the appearance of "the pudgy and unimpressive Bustamante"—a particularly ironic prediction, given Pedroza's roly-poly physique. Latinos will identify with Schwarzenegger because "he continues to have an accent as thick as his muscles"; meanwhile, Bustamante will lose respect among Latinos when it is revealed that he "actually had to take Spanish lessons in order for him to more fully pander to Latino voters."
Pedroza saved his most forceful swipe for the end: "Bustamante is known best for his indecision, his affiliation with labor unions and Indian gambling tribes, and his loyalty to MEChA, a college student organization that advocates the recovery of the U.S. Southwest by Chicanos."
"I was trying to dig Cruz a deep hole and throw him in it with that last comment," Pedroza told me with unmistakable satisfaction. "And I did."
As the recall nears, Republicans are whittling down their anti-Bustamante talking points: he's a Democrat, he's fat and mustachioed, and he was once a member of MEChA. Opposite Pedroza's attack, the Register's readers page that same day featured a letter by Westminster resident Marvin Tuomala. "I want the Register to investigate and report on the alleged connection of Lt. Gov. Bustamante to Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA," Tuomala wrote. "It is time to expose him for the imposter that he is."
Bustamante joined MEChA—a Chicano college student organization notable for ethnic pride and activism—while a student at Fresno State in the 1970s. Until now, such an association was an obsession only of fringe conservative groups. During the 1990s, they warned anyone who would listen that former MEChA members—some of them, like Bustamante, now elected officials—were "rabid reconquistas" working to return California to Mexican rule by any means necessary.
Now the major media want in on the game. It's not just Fox News asserting on Aug. 28 that "Bustamante's membership in MEChA is certainly more relevant than Arnold Schwarzenegger's father being a Nazi." It's also KTTV-TV 11 running an Aug. 27 newscast purportedly "exposing" Bustamante's membership in MEChA. Local conservative radio broadcasters John and Ken on KFI-AM and Larry Elder on KABC-AM no longer hold a monopoly on castigating Bustamante as a Mechista, as members of MEChA refer to themselves. Now there's KLSX-FM entertainment reporter Sam Rubin, whose Aug. 28 program featured callers demanding that Rubin speak out on Bustamante's connection with what one caller identified as "the brown Klan." While guest-hosting for a talk show on San Diego radio station KOGO-AM, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom McClintock claimed Bustamante belonged to "a radical and racist organization," and that membership in MEChA is like saying "you're a member of the Klan." Registereditorial writer Steven Greenhut weighed in with an Aug. 30 contribution for the libertarian website LewRockwell.com (www.lewrockwell.com) that "there is incredible hypocrisy in the way Bustamante gets a free pass on his past association with [MEChA}, and the way Republicans get treated for their past associations." In an Aug. 20 editorial, the respected financial paper Investor's Business Daily warned against Bustamante's candidacy because of "his links to the radical group MEChA, the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan…Members of MEChA are committed, according to their group's constitution, to the 'liberation' of Aztlan—whatever that means."
What is MEChA? And why are Republicans betting it's their H-bomb in the coming governor's race?
In 1969, the student and ethnic-pride movements of the 1960s had enraptured young Mexican Americans, who now proudly labeled themselves as Chicanos and left their hometowns in search of the activist life. Some traveled to California's Central Valley and joined the United Farm Workers to organize migrant laborers. Others protested against the Vietnam War because the draft disproportionately selected Chicanos. Regardless of specific cause, nearly everyone in the nascent movimiento agreed on the necessity of an overarching vision. In the spring of 1969, about 1,000 Chicanos from across the country attended the National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver for that purpose. A month later, a larger conference took place at UC Santa Barbara.
From these conferences emerged two documents—El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and El Plan de Santa Barbara. Together amounting to a sort of Port Huron Statement for the Chicano movement, el Plan Espiritual explicitly laid out a call for Chicano empowerment:
"In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal 'gringo' invasion of our territories, we [emphasis in the original], the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare [emphasis in the original] that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny."
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."
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."
Pedroza is right, which is why the MEChA card easily jumped from the far-right fringe to the mainstream. Take the case of Los Angeles city council member Antonio Villaraigosa. Most pundits figured the former Assembly speaker was certain to become Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in over a century during the 2001 mayoral race. Villaraigosa had secured the backing of various unions, progressive activists, Westside millionaires and other community leaders, and was favored by a majority-Latino city aching for one of its own to assume the mayor's seat.
But to the surprise of many, Villaraigosa lost. A host of reasons factored in the result—a vicious campaign by Jim Hahn supporters associating Villaraigosa with a former crack dealer and the overwhelming African American support for Hahn were two crucial aspects. But perhaps just as critical was the media's focus on Villaraigosa's MEChA past. The media followed the lead of anti-immigrant activist Hal Netkin, who devoted an entire website (www.mayorno.com) to depicting Villaraigosa as anti-American and even conducted an automated voter campaign to thousands of Valley residents telling voters of Villaraigosa's MEChA past.
"Those guys did an all-out attack against me," said Villaraigosa, who headed the UCLA MEChA chapter during the 1970s. "They tried to take out a giant ad in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News painting me as a rabid Chicano activist, and then sued both papers when each refused to run it. They would show up at mayoral debates and say that I was the leader of the reconquista while passing out info about MEChA and Aztlán. It was ridiculous."
But it worked. The 2001 election results showed that Villaraigosa lost thanks to an unlikely coalition of conservative white San Fernando Valley voters and otherwise-liberal African Americans voters. The only other time such a coalition occurred was in 1994, when each constituency overwhelmingly voted for Prop. 187. Not coincidentally, this is also the last time MEChA received such prominent coverage in the press.
Villaraigosa isn't the only politician to suffer from the MEChA paintbrush. Former Santa Ana school board member Nativo Lopez was reviled by his opponents because of his close MEChA ties, and similar accusations now plague Arizona freshman congressman Raúl Grijalva. Now, it's Bustamante's turn.
"It's reprehensible what they're doing to Bustamante and other Latino candidates," Villaraigosa said. "I think these people that attempt to portray Latino candidates as out of the mainstream are doing so for the purpose of injecting race or ethnicity in a campaign where it's clearly not relevant."
Apodaca says accusing Latinos of subversive leanings because of their MEChA links is like Herbert Hoover's supporters speculating that 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, a Catholic, would take orders from the pope.
"Smith's Catholicism really functioned as anti-immigrant rhetoric," he said. "Politics is all about the code talk. Anti-MEChA statements are simple code for anti-Mexican sentiments by resentful whites."
And resentment grows as Latinos, already the largest minority group in the United States, gain increasing political clout. Pedroza—the man who purposefully used the MEChA smear against Bustamante because he knew it would turn Registerreaders against the candidate—believes it's useless to think something so effective will ever go away.
"Until these [Latino politicians] disavow the more disturbing portions of MEChA, until they put the fire out, it's going to keep on smoldering," Pedroza said. "And a bit of gas will set it off."