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THE STATE

Chicano Student Group Defended

Critics have pounced on Bustamante's ties in the 1970s, calling the organization racist.

August 30, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

A Chicano student organization that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante belonged to at Fresno State University in the mid-1970s has its roots in a nationalistic protest movement but is better known on college campuses for working to recruit and retain Latino students.

When it was founded in 1969, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), or MEChA, emerged from a broad effort by Chicano students to achieve better economic and educational conditions for Latinos.

Critics have pounced on Bustamante's participation in the group, calling MEChA a racist organization that promotes the return of the southwestern United States to Mexico. State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a candidate in the recall election, equated the group with the Ku Klux Klan.

Ralph De Unamuno, a UCLA graduate student who served as an advisor to the university's chapter, called those charges "extremely slanderous."

"It makes everyone feel pretty bad because, if you talk to most people in MEChA, most of their time is spent mentoring high school students or doing cultural events on campus," he said.

Current MEChA chapters still use the 1960s symbol of an eagle clutching dynamite, but do not subscribe to separatist or nationalistic ideas, according to members and faculty who work with the organization.

"Yes, MEChA went through a nationalist period, but most people in this country went through a nationalist period," said Rodolfo Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge who has worked with the local chapter.

Acuna and others said MEChA is not affiliated with La Voz de Aztlan, which some have criticized as anti-Semitic, and does not advocate creating a separate "Aztlan" nation, despite reports to the contrary. Rather, references in MEChA literature about "liberating Aztlan" refer to improving the Latino community, they said.

Still, several MEChA Web sites link to a document called "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan," which was written at the National Chicano Youth Conference in Denver in March 1969, a month before MEChA was created.

"Nationalism is the common denominator that all members of La Raza can agree upon," the document states, adding later: "For the very young, there will no longer be acts of juvenile delinquency, but revolutionary acts."

Supporters of the group say the document is merely a historic one and does not reflect the goals of the organization now.

Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, a Los Angeles-based group that works to improve race relations, called some of the original rhetoric "troubling." But he added that Bustamante should not be penalized for belonging to a campus organization that draws many.

"There are many Latino students who flood college campuses, join MEChA, participate in demonstrations and do not have some kind of anti-white sentiment," Hicks said.

MEChA grew out of a meeting of students at UC Santa Barbara in April 1969 who drew up a plan aimed at attracting more Latino students into higher education and creating Chicano studies programs, according to MEChA Web sites. Since then, the organization, which has no national headquarters, has grown into a network of more than 300 loosely affiliated chapters.

According to the group's national constitution, the organization is dedicated to "social empowerment," "furthering our cultural awareness" and "mobilizing Chicanos and Chicanas through higher education."

"MEChA is not a racist organization -- it's completely the opposite of that," said San Diego State student Marcelle Alvarado, a spokeswoman for MEChA's Southern California region. MEChA chapters form coalitions with other campus organizations, she added, and the group is open to everyone.

MEChA's motto is "La Union Hace La Fuerza," which means, "Unity Creates Power." MEChA members said another slogan that translates as "For the race, everything. For those outside the race, nothing" is not the group's motto, as reported by some news organizations, but was used by Chicano activists before MEChA was founded.

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