Recently, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán – better known as MEChA – made waves after local chapters of the group decided to drop the words “Chicanx” and “Aztlán” from their name. Given all the contentious debates going on online, Remezcla wanted to give people familiar with the organization, its mission, and its history a platform to weigh in on MEChA’s evolving goals and objectives. Below, check out three different perspectives about the name change.
Why MEChA Burned Out After 50 Years
When leaders of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) voted to change the organization’s name, some MEChA alumni claimed that by dropping “Chicano” and “Aztlán,” their history would be erased. But students are not fleeing their history or disavowing the struggles of past generations. The terms “Chicano” and “Aztlán” have always been disputed, meaning that today’s students are participating in the student organization’s practices of conscientization and self-determination.
In March 1969, with his preamble to El Plan de Aztlán, the poet Alurista effectively renamed the southwestern United States as “Aztlán,” the Aztecs’ homeland. This inspiring utopian vision stated that ethnic Mexicans couldn’t be foreigners within the US’ borders and drew attention to how they had been displaced and erased from US land and history.
50 years ago, several student groups came together at a Santa Barbara conference to become El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán: a collective mecha (matchstick or fuse). They were not “Mexican American,” but Chicano. They were not in California, but Aztlán. In the organization’s founding, Mechistas sought out names that better spoke to who they were and wanted to be. MEChA’s contemporary leadership is engaging in this same process.
Chicano/a/xs are a diverse group that has been divided over their name and platform since the 1960s. Santa Barbara steering committee member Anna Nieto-Gómez has observed that the Plan de Santa Barbara made little room for a large number of voices and visions. We too easily forget how internal contestation has been central to the histories of Latina/o/x activism.
Even though some Indigenous ethnic Mexicans embraced it, Aztlán has long faced criticism, particularly from certain Indigenous populations in Mexico and the United States. Earlier generations have asked: Does Aztlán help or hinder solidarity with Indigenous non-Mexicans’ rights to land, sovereignty, and self-determination?
Appeals to Aztlán drew upon a Mexican nationalist revolutionary mythos that valued racial mixture – mestizaje – appropriating Indigenous imagery while opposing Indigenous rights, and excluding Mexicans of African and Asian descent. Alurista responded to already present critiques in 1972 with his Nationchild Plumaroja by being more gender inclusive and emphasizing Indigenous traditions rather than mestizaje.
Struggles around gender and sexuality are also not new. Scholars Maylei Blackwell and Richard T. Rodríguez have described feminist Chicanas’ and LGBT* Chicana/o/xs’ creation of non-patriarchal and queer spaces within and beside the movement. Feminist newspaper Hijas de Cuauhtémoc was in print by 1971. While Cherríe Moraga said, “Aztlán gave language to a nameless anhelo inside me,” she also pointed out how the Chicano movement upheld heterosexism and the patriarchy.
Earlier generations can’t help feeling attached to a name that transformed their consciousness. Chicano scholar and activist Alvaro Huerta has movingly described how important MEChA was in his life. Having benefited from MEChA’s support of Chicano/a/x studies programs, I will also miss this historically important name.
Yet, generations of criticism may have left the name MEChA too burnt out for today’s anhelos. Students of today have learned from Aztlán’s contested history and embraced earlier generations’ quests for self-determination. They know that names are contingent, and utopias are always unfinished.
Jacqueline M. Hidalgo is associate professor of Latina/o Studies and Religion at Williams College. She is the author of Revelation in Aztlán: Scriptures, Utopias, and the Chicano Movement and the co-editor (with Efraín Agosto) of Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration.