The Michigan State University chapter of the Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlan (Chicano Aztlan Student Movement - also known as MEChA) played host to the group's 1997 national conference. Meeting at East Lansing from Thursday, April 10 through Sunday, April 13, the theme of the meeting was "Breaking the Chains of Colonization - Self-Determination."
I attended the Mexa conference during its entirety, except for those small strategy sessions to which one had to be invited. I was obviously the only non-Chicano present. In spite of my easily detected European descent most were very pleasant, with an occasional cold "what are you doing here" stare from hardliners.
Here are some observations.
What struck me most was weakness. They were in disarray with constant back-biting and bickering among the conference speakers, each criticizing other aspects of the program. Those speaking about indigenous peoples claimed that sections on the Aztec heritage were worthless, that all indigenous peoples should unite. Some proclaimed the Spanish language as all-important, but the conference was conducted in English and the party-line seemed to be that Spanish, being as European as English, is to be disdained.
David Payne, Ph.D. teaches logic and philosophy at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan. He is a frequent contributor to The Social Contract. "We are not American. We are not Mexican. We are not Spanish. We are not Latin. We are Mexica" - which means of the Aztec heritage. When one well-dressed non-Indian male confronted the speaker with the point that most were of mixed Indian/Spanish descent and "wasn't it a matter of choice which slice of your past you wanted to identify with?" - he was shouted down. Others piped up, "Let him speak, let him speak." The leader on the platform was not amused.
"We are not American.
We are not Mexican.
We are not Spanish.
We are not Latin.
We are Mexica.
(Meaning: of the Aztec heritage)."
I couldn't help comparing this movement to aspects of some African-Americans' agendas to disavow everything European. Both groups try to trace the important aspects of their heritage to non-European origins; both want to show that they have made important contributions to civilization for which Europeans have taken all the credit. Poor young Hispanics growing up in barrios and poor young blacks growing up in ghettos need to be drawn to such ideas in order to bring some kind of meaning to their lives. Gangs are probably the most furious competitors of these movements.
I thought it would be most helpful for the immigration reform activists in California if I attended the session on "working in the schools." This was the only session in which the leader, complete with brown beret and a cluster of medals, asked why I was there. "To learn," I said, and he grunted acquiescence.
The main problem this group talked about was "apathy." They couldn't get anyone to come to their meetings. The speaker belittled piņata parties, but others defended them as the only way to get someone to attend. Still, no sign of interest from one party to the next.
The session degenerated into political back-biting on such issues as how to keep Hispanics from taking control of Mexa organizations, how to organize the funding away from such coups, etc. Very petty stuff.
The Saturday options seemed to hold the most promise with topics such as "Eagle Eyes: Government Surveillance of the Chicano Movement" and "Surviving a Radical Demo." These degenerated into story-telling sessions with most of the stories coming from the sixties and seventies. The hard-liners seemed to come from that era and were disappointed that the current youth could not be stirred.
All in all I was disappointed. On the basis of my own college days I was hoping to see and hear some good old-fashioned Marxist fist shaking and revolutionary rhetoric. But I could identify with the complaints about people leaving the movement after college. It reminded me of my companions who had driven around in VW beetles with McGovern bumper stickers and are now conservative Republican stockbrokers. "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"
Despite the seeming lack of unity at the conference, the very fact that there were over 150 members gathered gives one pause. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Chicano movement, for even those who are at odds over details on the surface may be deeply united in underlying ideals.
For more information about the Aztlan movement, MEChA, and the Chicano Mexicano Mexica Empowerment Committee visit their websites at www.aztlan.org