THE REVOLUTION always finishes the same way: Someone claps. Then someone else. Someone else. Others join. More. Faster. More. Everyone in unison. Rhythmic. Louder. Faster. Finally, someone shrieks, “¡Que viva la raza!” (Long live the Mexican race!). "¡Que viva!” (May it live!), everyone screamed in response. And then we go off to continue the reconquista.
The above scene ends just about every meeting of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), the high school and college club for Mexican American students that scares the bejesus out of everyone else. Frankly, I don’t blame everyone else.
Starting with the name (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan, “Aztlan” referring to the mythical Aztec homeland that prophecy held was north of Mexico and would be repopulated by descendants of the People of the Sun), continuing with slogans like Entre la raza todo; fuera de la raza, nada (Within the race, everything; outside of it, nothing) and concluding with that tribalistic clapping circle, the average MEChA meeting might look to outsiders like a gathering of brown-skinned brownshirts.
That’s at least how anti-MEChA alarmists see it. For them, MEChA is what the Communist Party was for McCarthyites -- a boogeyman of an organization you can use to spook citizens away from the aspirations and causes of its ex-members. The casualties include Antonio Villaraigosa in his first mayoral race, Cruz Bustamante in his unsuccessful 2003 gubernatorial run and Gil Cedillo every time he tries to get the Legislature to approve driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Now KABC-AM (790) is playing the MEChA card against the Academia Semillas del Pueblo, a charter school in Lincoln Heights. Because the MEChA chapter of Pasadena City College supports the school, goes KABC’s reasoning, Academia Semillas del Pueblo is obviously a racist school teaching kiddies to reconquer the Southwest, one Nahuatl lesson at a time.
It doesn’t help MEChA’s case that Semillas del Pueblo Principal Marcos Aguilar, a former UCLA Mechista, once dismissed the importance of Brown vs. the Board of Education during an interview, adding that “the white way, the American way, the neoliberal, capitalist way of life will eventually lead to our own destruction.” Or that members of Pasadena City College’s MEChA chapter recently destroyed an entire run of the campus newspaper because they considered the paper’s coverage of one MEChA event inadequate.
But, as in Islam, a few indige-nazis are stains sullying a noble organization. I should know. I am a Mechista.
As both a member of the invading army and a proud son of Mexican-hating Orange County, I can testify that, without a doubt, MEChA is harmless.
Sure, the organization’s founding documents, the Plan de Santa Barbara and the Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, call for a Chicano homeland. But few members take these hilariously dated relics of the 1960s seriously, if they even bother to read them. Little of the modern-day MEChA remains separatist, other than the occasional Che-spouting junior and a few cute mestizas with Aztec names like Citlali who sport Frida ponytails, black-frame glasses and Chuck Taylor high-tops.
MEChA’s primary objectives are not secessionist but educational (get as many Latino high schoolers into the universities as possible and help them stay there) and cultural. For many Mexican American students, MEChA is their family by proxy, a support network for those of us who were the first in our families to graduate from high school, let alone college.
The open-borders philosophy expressed by many Mechistas isn’t born from an irredentist ideology but from their experience of having relatives divided by borders. All that raza clatter isn’t racism, it’s the traditional way immigrants climb the success ladder -- through solidarity and education. The loaded term itself is better understood as representing the immediate community, not as a proclamation of Mexican superiority to all other races.
Look, I get the widespread skepticism about MEChA’s intentions. I myself was apprehensive about joining the club when I attended conservative Chapman University in Orange. I had heard whispers about the obsession with protests, the vitriolic speeches bashing everyone who wasn’t brown, the infamous MEChA clap.
But then I actually attended a meeting. I encountered some extremist rhetoric -- but it was aimed at increasing Latino enrollment on our minority-deficient campus and mentoring at-risk high school students. And it wasn’t just Latinos involved in this radical clique. We had African Americans, Asians, gabachos ... even a Kazakh student named Amir who proudly wore his MEChA shirt complete with the organizational logo: an eagle gripping a stick of dynamite and looming over a banner that reads “La Union Hace la Fuerza” (Strength Through Unity). We cared about bettering the world, and MEChA allowed us to do something about it.
We protested Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he appeared on campus; we supported striking janitors and held events for all the major Mexican holidays. But mostly we spent our free time recruiting high school students to Chapman and holding educational carnivals for elementary ninos y ninas.
Chapman administrators loved our dedication, holding us up as models of what others could aspire to. My fellow Mechistas went on to work for nonprofit organizations, consulted for the Democratic Party, became bankers and psychologists, made it in Hollywood, interned at the Cato Institute -- and this Mechista went on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA and work for a free newspaper. Not a single Mechista in our group dropped out.
Years later, I proudly call myself a Mechista. To be a Mechista is to care for those who face the same struggles you once did, to preach the gospel of education to immigrants so they can prosper and assimilate. To be a Mechista is to be American -- an American with sore hands from so much clapping, that is.