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Once a MECHista, Always a MECHista No Matter the Name

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Editorial by Álvaro Huerta, Ph.D

I first learned about MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) during UCLA’s Freshman Summer Program (FSP) in 1985, as a 17-year-old freshman. My humorous efforts to pass myself off as younger by joking that I was “actually” a 7-year-old math prodigy at UCLA in that year aside, I eventually joined the campus chapter. Many moons later, I still stand by MEChA’s mantra: “Once a MEChista, always a MEChista.”

No offense to my friends who graduated from historic Cathedral High in Los Angeles, where it seems a similar slogan had served as to stoke alumni pride long before MEChA was founded in 1969. Moreover, I’m certain being a proud, life-long Cathedral “Phantom” never precluded anyone from becoming an equally committed MEChista.

Shocked to learn of the name change to MEChA proposed during the MEChA National Conference 2019 at UCLA earlier this spring, I didn’t know whether to cry or yell. Given that my youth unfolded at one of the toughest and most dangerous public housing projects in one of the nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods, the notorious Ramona Gardens in the forgotten and neglected corner of Boyle Heights referred to by its denizens as Big Hazard, I opted for the latter. I didn’t want to lose my neighborhood “street cred.”

As a result, the cops paid me a visit at home. I assured them that all was well and that I had “accidently hit my foot” on the corner of my metal bed frame. Then I sat down to write down some short reflections about the state of MEChA to express what this important organization meant and still means to me. The writing, I hoped, would also reflect on the organization’s relevance for students—current and future—as well as alumni from our high schools, colleges and universities.

Counter to the fusillade of racist lies, state-sponsored misinformation campaigns and reactionary views directed towards MEChA from the beginning, for someone like myself—a former Chicano kid from the projects—MEChA represented a haven in a white-dominated space. During my undergraduate years, there were few Chicanas/os at UCLA, or at any other of the elite universities and colleges around the country, for that matter. There were even fewer who had been, as was the case for me in particular, been reared in public housing on public assistance via welfare, food stamps, Medi-Cal, etc.

In fact, many of the Chicana/o students I met at UCLA hailed from middle-class suburbs and parents who spoke English, had graduated from college and owned property (e.g., home). This created a greater sense of alienation for me, common for first generation university/college students from America’s barrios. In this context, MEChA became a “safe space,” where I felt I belonged, despite being a brown kid from the “wrong side of the tracks.”

Apart from being a haven or “safe space,” I learned to be proud of my identity. I became so involved in MEChA that I changed majors from mathematics to history, where I “minored” in “Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones Studies.” In courses taught by Professor Gómez-Quiñones— a scholar I believe to be one of the greatest intellectuals of our time—I began learning about my people for the first time in my life.

I learned that the Mexican people in el norte also had a history—that we mattered and were worthy of studying at elite centers of higher education like UCLA and UC Berkeley. Prior to becoming aware of important Mexican history and learning about Mexican and Chicano contributions to this country, my heroes growing up were limited to Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali and Dr. J. the legendary 76ers basketball pro. To borrow from the title of a book by Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña, as a kid I wanted to be “anything but Mexican.” Once I joined MEChA, I didn’t want to be anything else but a Mexican or Chicano. I still don’t.

As a MEChista, I also gained political consciousness. While I didn’t normally read or write during my less than adequate K-12 education, apart from my assigned Chicana/o studies books, I began to read the great works of Marx, Che, Chomsky, Gramsci, Fanon and others, through which I acquired a better understanding of the world in general and, particularly, the inherent contradictions of capitalism. In MEChA, we debated these great thinkers—mostly male, unfortunately—and how their ideas and theories applied to us as Chicanas/os in a land that once belonged to us or, as the saying goes, as “strangers in our own land.”

Essentially, as MEChistas—while we were taking our own courses and studying different subjects across a range of disciplines—we were simultaneously teaching ourselves about these influential thinkers, and others, under the premise that it was not enough to understand the world, but to transform it (Marx).

Just as significantly, I learned to become an effective community activist/organizer. While West Point trains young cadets and develops young minds in order to create leaders for the empire, MEChA’s mission has historically been to train young organizers/minds for leadership roles on behalf of los de abajo. This is not to imply that MEChA (or a specific MEChA chapter) has been consistently successful.

Depending on its leadership at any given time, MEChA could occasionally be a place to party and “hook up” or a place to liberate and educate or any number of other possibilities. For me, MEChA represented the foundation for becoming a better advocate and leader in our community and for other oppressed peoples—domestically and internationally. In doing so, it taught me to be self-confident and outspoken.

For example, as MEChistas, during the mid-1980s, we organized and voiced our opposition to apartheid in South Africa, U.S. intervention in Central America, police abuse in Los Angeles and many other causes at the cost of our own education (e.g., lack of focus on courses, grades, etc.). Our activism often betrayed or jeopardized many of our immigrant parents’ dreams or sueños for us to become abogados, doctores y ingenieros!

On campus, we organized conferences and events to recruit more Chicanas/os and Latinas/os to higher education. We also defended the most vulnerable among us. For example, when then-UCLA Chancellor Charles Young decided to cut financial aid to undocumented students, we organized an eight-day hunger strike in the fall of 1987. Led by then-student leader Adrian Alvarez, a total of five hunger strikers went on a liquid-only fast in defense of our immigrant brothers and sisters who had not gained citizenship status.

This historic hunger strike, as I’ve previously written, “… provided an organizing model for other Chicana/o student activists to stage similar hunger strikes at UCLA (May 24-June 7, 1993), UCSB (April 27-May 5, 1994) and other colleges/universities.” The 1993 hunger strike eventually led to the creation of the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.

Once I left UCLA to organize at the community (and national) level, I successfully co-founded the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles (ALAGLA) to challenge the City of Los Angeles’ 1996 draconian leaf blower ban. If convicted, under this ban, Latino immigrant gardeners would be subject to outrageous penalties: misdemeanor charge, $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

The other co-founders included MEChistas from UCLA, along with Mexican gardeners like Jaime Aleman, whom we met at UCLA. I’ve written about my organizing experience with ALAGLA for periodicals, online outlets and journal articles. I went on to become a lead organizer with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), which led the efforts to defeat a proposed power plant in South Gate, California.

As I noted in my Z Magazine article (2001),  “… Sunlaw Energy Partners’ proposal to build a 550-megawatt power plant in South Gate, (one of seven cities in South East LA), was a demonstration of environmental racism. If built, this plant would have emitted over 150 tons of pollution per year, including particulate matter (PM10). PM10 (fine particles of soot) has been linked to premature death, including heart failure and respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis. The plant (the size of Dodger Stadium) would have impacted hundreds of thousands of residents, including over 100 schools, 13 hospitals, numerous convalescent homes, day care centers, and parks.” I’ve also covered this historic campaign—the subject of books and short documentaries—in periodicals and journal articles.

All of the aforementioned student-led and community-based campaigns would not have been possible without MEChA. Period!

On a more personal note, I met Antonia Montes, the woman who became my girlfriend and is now my wife, through MEChA. As a wise Chicana, an educator and a fellow activist, Antonia was instrumental in all of my advocacy work from the mid-1980s onward. It’s because of her that I returned to the university to pursue my master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA and doctorate in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley.

As I posit in my forthcoming book, Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond, for me, everything starts and ends with la familia. During the past three decades, Antonia and I have not only dedicated our lives to the well-being of our extended families, but also to the Mexican people of el norte.

I’ll end it, simply, with a loud and clear statement: ¡Viva MEChA!

Dr. Alvaro Huerta holds a joint faculty appointment in Urban & Region Planning (URP) and Ethnic & Women’s Studies (EWS) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Among other scholarly publications, he’s the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm (San Diego University Press, 2013) and forthcoming book Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond (Hamilton Books | Rowman & Littlefield, June 2019). He holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley. He also holds an M.A. in Urban Planning and a B.A. in history from UCLA.

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Brooklyn & Boyle is a print and online magazine dedicated to Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The publication features Brooklyn & Boyle stories from the Greater Eastside LA arts scene, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, South Pasadena, Cypress Park, Arroyo Seco, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock, places every bit as creative and cultured as one another while aware and active in support of authentic arts and creative projects which support community integrity and respect for the history and heritage of the many Eastside neighborhoods.

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