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Mexican American student group MEChA considers name change amid controversy

Most student leaders voted to drop references to “Chicano” and “Aztlán” from the name over concerns the words are homophobic, anti-indigenous and anti-black.
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and Candy Angel
Mexican opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, left, of the Democratic Revolution Party, with Candy Angel, president of the Mexican American student group, MEChA, during a visit to the Chicano Studies Department at California State University-Northridge in Los Angeles on May 9, 2000.Damian Dovarganes / AP file

MEChA, a Mexican American student group founded 50 years ago at the end of the turbulent 1960s, is considering a name change, highlighting the divisions between older civil rights leaders and college activists who are shunning traditional modes of ethnic identity.

At a meeting Sunday in Los Angeles, student leaders voted almost unanimously to drop the reference to “Chicano” and “Aztlán” from the name Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán) over concerns the words are homophobic, anti-indigenous and anti-black.

Chicano, which refers to Mexican Americans, gained popularity during the militant Chicano Movement of the 1970s. Aztlán is the mythical home of the Aztecs, which some activists say is the present-day U.S. Southwest.

Students at a national conference for the group said Chicanx, the gender-neutral term used by young activists, symbolized an era when Mexican American civil rights groups excluded gays, lesbians and transgender people, according to people who attended the meeting.

They also said the concept of Aztlán excluded other groups such as black people and Native American tribes, attendees said.

Emilio Balderas, new co-leader of the group and a University of Chicago student, tweeted Monday that the name change “was the product of our organization’s work to right our past wrongs and stand with our indigenous (brothers and sisters) who felt hurt by Aztlán.”

He urged MEChA alumni to “hold your friends accountable for ageism & trust our student movement.”

Student leaders of the group did not immediately return emails and social media messages.

In its five decades, chapters of the group have been responsible for pressuring universities to create Chicano and ethnic studies programs. Chapters also raise money for scholarships and hold their own graduation ceremonies for Latino college students.

The group, which has dozens of members across the country, did not decide on a new name.

The vote drew a strong reaction from MEChA alumni who said the students were buying into corporate and university-sponsored rhetoric about inclusion while erasing the history of people of color.

Revo Grafia, 56, a former MEChA member in the 1980s, said the name change came from a lack of awareness about history and unfairly placed homophobia on the term Chicano.

“It negates the struggle of the Chicano people at the expense of inclusion,” said Grafia, a Los Angeles-based activist who spoke out against the name change at the meeting.

He questioned why students who didn’t agree with MEChA’s mission would join only to destroy it.

“They have a right to start their own group,” Grafia said. “I wouldn’t go to a Black Lives Matter rally and demand they change it to ‘All Live Matter’ because I’m Chicano.”

Historian Rudy Acuna, author of the pioneering 1972 book, “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” joined veteran activists to denounce the change.

“I respect MECHA but its current name changes are not going to further the building of a movement,” Acuna wrote on Facebook. “This is not done by wiping out the history of Chicanas/os, Aztlán, and rewriting the past.”

MEChA was founded in 1969 after militant Mexican American high school students in California and Texas began walking out to protest discrimination and the lack of Latino teachers. It developed into a coalition of loosely connected chapters on college campuses in California, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Arizona and Colorado.