Why Student Group MEChA’s Proposed Name Change Has Set Off a Fierce, Multi-Generational Debate

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

It began in the last few days of March as internet whispers about a possible name change for the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA), and by this week had transformed into contentious, multi-generational debates about the past and future of the Chicano movement. On Wednesday, the Associated Press confirmed that 50-year-old organization MEChA might change its name after several chapters voted in favor of removing the terms “Chicanx” and “Aztlán” from its designation. While there is currently no final decision on the change or what the new name would be, many are putting forth words that are more inclusive of Afro-Latinos, Indigenous Latinos, Queer Latinos, Latinos from different Latin American countries, and more.

To understand why this has set off such a firestorm in the community, we must first revisit the history around how these terms came to be adopted and what they represent.

In the 1960s, younger, US-born citizens of Mexican descent started to identify as Chicana and Chicano to distinguish themselves from an older, more traditional group of political and social leaders who had called themselves Mexican-American since the 1920s. At that time, politicians, policy makers, and many Mexican-Americans believed that their poverty and inequality could be attributed to their own defective or flawed culture. For them, the answer was cultural assimilation into an American ideal that was overwhelmingly understood as white. Very few condemned capitalism or other American social structures as the source of inequality or discrimination.

However, a new generation of Chicanas and Chicanos rejected those ideas and adopted the term “Chicano” as a way of resistance and cultural affirmation. For most of the 20th century, the term was associated with low-income individuals, and was often used as an insult. In the ’60s, Chicanos and Chicanas reclaimed and embraced the term, since they supported and were descended from some of the most marginalized people in the country.

These young activists also used the concept of Aztlán, the mythical Aztec homeland to the north, to assert their place of belonging. If the US Southwest was, indeed, Aztlán, then Chicanas and Chicanos could not be immigrants and their culture couldn’t be foreign to the country. It meant they had a right to claim it and demand cultural, economic, and political recognition. At the time, several Indigenous scholars agreed with this claim.

MEChA was born in this environment and founded in 1969, at a historic meeting at the University of California Santa Barbara. At that meeting, students, activists, and professors came together to issue a document called the Plan de Santa Barbara. In it, they outlined the role of higher education in the Chicano struggle for social justice and equality. Chicano Studies would not be a detached academic discipline, but would instead create the knowledge necessary for the community to achieve “liberation” and “self-determination.” MEChA would be responsible for carrying out the “political activity of the Chicano Movement at colleges and universities.” Students would carry out the actions and ideas of Chicano Studies from the university and into the community.

In the midst of the movement itself, Chicanas regularly called out the sexism of the male leaders and sexism in the organization. The relegation of women to cooking, cleaning, and office work was common. Sexual harassment was also widespread. Many of the images and symbols of the Chicano Movement were masculine and infused with sexual virility. At the 1971 Conferencia de la Mujer, more than 600 Chicanas from across the nation came to Houston to address the issues they confronted. Themes of racism and sexism permeated the conference, and Chicanas debated what was the more pressing issue: “the gabacho or the macho.”

In the last 50 years, the rhetoric, ideas, and organizations of the Chicano Movement have been criticized, for good reason. The images of Aztec warriors and princesses associated with Aztlán often equated male Chicano liberation with female sexual domination. The movement also failed to acknowledge the actual violence acted out upon women in families and marriages.

Building upon the critiques of the movement as sexist, queer activists and academics also pointed out the homophobic nature of the Chicano Movement. In doing so, they identified the oppressive nature of heteropatriarchal social structures in the essentialized portrayals of community. The concept of Aztlán, which was used to reject immigrant narratives, was criticized as nationalistic. Not everyone with ties to Mexico has or feels a connection to the Aztecs. There are dozens of Indigenous groups in Mexico.

It also excludes other Latinos. As debate about the name change took hold on social media, a widely circulated essay by Nicolás Cruz about the Chicanx Student Movement and Aztlán clarified some of the thinking behind it: “Mechistas with Central and South American ancestry have pointed out countless times the Mexico-centrism and Mechistas with non-Aztec Indigenous ancestry have pointed out the Aztec-centrism within our organization and the Chicanx movement at large. Alurista himself, many years after writing the Plan has agreed that there are dangers in idealizing the Aztec empire and its ideologies. It is true that since its inception, MEChA has established that Chicanx ‘is grounded in a philosophy, not a nationality’ and that it ‘does not exclude anyone.’”

But many feel that the organization has not lived up to that assertion. They believe the concepts and ideas of the Chicano Movement were too flawed and rooted in sexism, homophobia, and appropriation from the beginning, meaning it fell short then and continues to do so now. They believe that social movements must evolve over time and that strategies and slogans of the past must be revised or discarded depending on our current needs. And though they see a name change as necessary, they also believe that the organization needs to push further so that those who are Indigenous, Black, queer, and from other countries can feel welcome.

On the other side are many who don’t support the name change because they think it signifies an abandonment of their history and accomplishments. They have tied their identities to the term Chicano – one that was forged in the face of oppression – so this move makes them feel like they’re being erased from a movement they started.

Ultimately, the heated, multi-generational debate is reflective of shifts happening elsewhere in the Latino community. In 2017, The National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy organization, changed its name to UnidosUS, in an attempt to be more inclusive and appeal to younger generations. Likewise, the growing adoption of the gender non-binary term “Latinx,” is an effort to create a label that is inclusive of women and the LGBTQ community (recently, MEChA also adopted the X, changing Chicano to Chicanx.) These proposed shifts in language represent the changing lens through which younger generations view diversity and inclusion, and also remind us that there has never been consensus around the terms that should define our complex communities. After all, the young Chicanos of the ’60s rebelled against Mexican-American terminology they felt didn’t represent them or their values.