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Garfield High School principal appealing to students to return to classes, March 7th 1968. 
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


UMAS: United Mexican American Students


     In 1967 Mexican American students throughout the Southwest held a 60% high school dropout rate. If they did graduate, they averaged an 8th-grade reading level. Due to Anglo-centric internal school policies many students were fielded to vocational training or classes for the mentally disabled. Prejudice from teachers and administrators, both liberally-minded and outright bigoted, instigated stereotypes of Mexican Americans that discouraged the students from higher learning. These inequalities in education led to the 1968 East Los Angeles Walkouts, also known as the "Blowouts," which displayed the largest mobilization of Chicano youth leaders in Los Angeles history.


     In the midst of this and the civil rights movement throughout the United States, the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) group was formed. Their main objective was to promote unity amongst students on campus and ensure graduation. The group was one of the first to arise in California, with the ultimate goal of uniting all Mexican American organizations, groups, and clubs under a single banner.

     The antiwar sentiment amongst the Mexican Americans was growing, along with the student movements that began to occur in East Los Angeles. UMAS used this momentum to mobilize on various school campuses. In March of 1969, Various Mexican American student groups across the southwest were invited by Rodolfo "Corky" González to the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado where students developed the philosophy and the identity of being a Chicano.



Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, 1975. Courtesy the Denver Post Archive


1969 National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference


     In March of 1969, at Denver, Colorado the Crusade for Justice organized the first National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference that drafted the basic premises for the Chicanx Movement in El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. The movement was led by a local activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzalez.

     This was the first time, on such a large scale, that a generation of Mexican American youth met to discuss common issues of oppression, discrimination and injustice. After much debate and discussion, the conference formulated a philosophy of cultural nationalism, calling for all Mexican Americans to unite under the banner of the term “Chicano” and calling for self-determination in all spheres of life.

     The conference participants looked to the past of their indigenous ancestors and discovered that the Aztecs who settled in the Valley of Mexico and created the Aztec Empire had originated somewhere in the Southwestern United States in a place called “Aztlán”. The youthful activism embraced the concept of Aztlán as their spiritual homeland and hammered out El Plan Espiritual De Aztlán, written by Chicano poet and activist Alurista, as the “common denominator for mass mobilization and organization.”


 

     The following month, in April of 1969, over 100 Chicanas/Chicanos came together at University of California, Santa Barbara to formulate a plan for higher education: El Plan de Santa Barbara. With this document they were successful in the development of two very important contributions to the Chicano Movement: Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) and Chicano Studies.

    The adoption of the name Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan signaled a new level of political consciousness among student activists. It was the final stage in the transformation of what had been loosely organized, local student groups, into a single structure and a unified student movement.

     Adamant rejection of the label "Mexican-American" meant rejection of the assimilation and accommodationist melting pot ideology that had guided earlier generations of activists. Chicanismo involves a crucial distinction in a political consciousness between a Mexican-American (Hispanic) and a (Chicanx) mentality. El Plan de Santa Barbara speaks to such issues of identity politics by asserting:

     "The Mexican-American (Hispanic) is a person who lacks respect for his/her cultural and ethnic heritage. Unsure of her/himself, she/he seeks assimilation as a way out of her/his "degraded" social status. Consequently, she/he remains politically ineffective. In contrast, Chicanismo reflects self-respect and pride on one's ethnic and cultural background. Thus, the (Chicanx) acts with confidence and with a range of alternatives in the political world. She/he is capable of developing an effective ideology through action"
     MEChA played an important role in the creation and implementation of Chicana/o Studies and support services programs on campus. Chicana/o Studies programs would be a relevant alternative to established curricula. Most important, the Chicana/o Studies program would be the foundation of MEChA's political power base. Today many Chicana/os Studies Programs would have difficulty operating if it were not for the enthusiasm and dedication of Mechistas to Chicana/o Studies.

     Today Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) is a student organization that promotes higher education, cultura, and historia. Each word in MEChA symbolizes a great concept in terms of la causa. Movimiento means that the organization is dedicated to the movement to gain self-determination for our people. Estudiantil, identifies the organization as a student group for we are part of our Raza's future. At the heart of the name is the use of the identity: Chicanx. At first seen as a negative word, now taken for a badge of honor. In adopting their new identity, the students committed themselves to return to the barrios, colonias, or campos and together, struggle against the forces that oppress our gente. Lastly, the affirmation that we are Indigenous people to this land by placing our movement in Aztlán, the homeland of all peoples from Anahuak.



     On campuses across Aztán, MEChA and Mechistas are often the only groups on campus Raza and non-Raza alike that seek to open the doors of higher education para nuestras comunidades and strive for a society free of imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. An inspirational statement in El Plan Santa Barbara that speaks to this notes:

     "MEChA must bring to the mind of every young Chicana and Chicano that the liberation of her/his people from prejudice and oppression is in her/his hands and this responsibility is greater than personal achievement and more meaningful than degrees, especially if they are earned at the expense of her/his identity and cultural integrity. MEChA, then, is more than a name; it is a spirit of unity, of sisterhood and brotherhood, and a resolve to undertake a struggle for liberation in society where justice is but a word. MEChA is a means to an end"