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An identity issue for Bustamante

September 06, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

There are few rules in life that admit no exceptions. Here is one: The pursuit of identity politics ends in an intellectual swamp that inevitably drains into a moral sewer.

That's why Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is wrong not to speak more clearly to the issues raised by his one-time membership in a Chicano student organization whose founding credo is a mind-numbing amalgam of quaint revolutionary rhetoric and pseudo-mystical racialism. It's also why the mainstream media's off-handed treatment of this issue is one of the avoidable shortcomings in their coverage of the recall campaign.

While a student at Fresno State in the 1970s, Bustamante joined Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), the country's largest Latino student organization. Today, MEChA has 300 chapters on college and high school campuses, a third of them in California. Since its founding in the late 1960s, the organization has been an advocate for more open admissions, ethnic-studies programs and a larger student role in campus governance. But from the start and increasingly as the years have gone on, its major focus has been on promoting the importance of education in Latino communities, on helping Latino college students finish school and on mentoring high school students willing to pursue academic advancement.

It is, in other words, mainly a conventional self-help group. Membership also has become a widespread rite of passage among Latinos with public-service ambitions. Today, a Mechista interlude is the old-school tie that binds together many -- perhaps most -- of the members in Latino legislative caucuses from Washington to Sacramento.

So what's the problem?

MEChA is one of a handful of 1960s student organizations to survive into this era, and for inexplicable reasons it continues to carry some of the rhetorical baggage of that turbulent and extravagant time.

There is, for example, the notion that the American Southwest once was the site of the Aztecs' legendary homeland, Aztlan. What's the evidence? Don't ask. There isn't any, but in the 1960s that didn't matter.

More problematic are MEChA's founding documents -- El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan and El Plan de Santa Barbara -- both of which are impenetrable screeds. They're the sorts of things that occurred to people who'd read too much Carlos Casteneda and then smoked too much weed while staring for too long at the Che Guevera poster on their dorm-room wall. The difficulty is that embedded within all the liberation foolishness are irredentist rumblings about "reconquering" the American Southwest for Mexico. Moreover, while awaiting the reconquista, faithful Mechistas were supposed to resist assimilation through racial separatism.

The latter sentiment was summed up in a slogan -- what would a '60s document be without a slogan? -- that appears in El Plan Espiritual and continues to repeated in many MEChA chapters' literature and on their Web sites: "Por la Raza todo. Fuera de la Raza nada." (For the race everything. For those outside the race nothing.)

The neonativist organizations that maintain frenetic Web sites and dog the steps of elected Latino officials like hungry coyotes have long displayed a virtual obsession with MEChA. From the moment Bustamante entered the recall race, they began jumping up and down about his Mechista past. A couple of minor columnists on the right wing's fringe took up the issue. There the matter might have died, but two of the bloggers who have played a particularly influential role in this campaign's coverage -- Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee and Slate's Mickey Kaus -- began to argue correctly that even kooks can have a point.

In this case, the point is that candidate Cruz Bustamante owes the voters a clear explanation of his feelings about the slogan still widely propagated by MEChA and about the other thoroughly objectionable tenets in its founding documents.

The problem is that Bustamante still has not given a straight answer to any of these questions. When presented four opportunities by a Fox News interviewer last Saturday, the best he could come up with was: "Racial separation is wrong.... You have to look at what people do, not just what they say, and I think I've demonstrated my ability."

Nobody in their right mind believes Cruz Bustamante wants to return California to Mexico, just as no rationale person believes that Arnold Schwarzenegger's ceremonial presence on the board of U.S. English means he subscribes to the sinister sentiments advanced by some of those who lurk among the group's leaders. The point with Bustamante is that, like many politicians mindful of an ethnic base -- which is to say, practitioners of identity politics -- he flirts.

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