ASU chapter of MEChA roped into debate surrounding controversial name change

An intergenerational debate ensues among the Chicanx community for the future of MEChA's name

Members of Mexican American student group MEChA, of which ASU has a chapter, are facing scrutiny for considering changing the name of the group, with critics of the name change arguing that it could diminish the connection that the group has to its history. 

The name change for MEChA, which stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, comes after current members cited concerns that the name was not inclusive of members who do not identify as Chicano or the controversial idea of Aztlán.

MEChA at ASU has proposed "Movimiento Estudiantil for Change in Abya-Yala," as a new name, hoping to reference a more inclusive history in this name.

“Abya-Yala is a word that comes from a tribe in Peru, the Guna,” said Diego Labrada Sanchez, a fourth-year ASU student majoring in computer science and treasurer of MEChA at ASU. “They encourage everybody, every nation, every indigenous person to use the word Abya-Yala when (referring) to the Americas because to describe your lands, to describe yourself in the words of the colonizer is continuing the work of the colonizer."

The term Chicano is used to refer to Mexican Americans born in the U.S., rising in popularity during the Chicano movement in the 1960s. Aztlán is the mythical homeland of the Aztec people that was lost to the U.S. following the Mexican American War, often used as a symbol for unity among the Southwest Chicanx population.

Student leaders at the group's 2019 national conference in Los Angeles voted to drop the references to "Chicano" and "Aztlán," raising concerns that the terms were homophobic, anti-indigenous and anti-black.

Labrada Sanchez said that the vote followed a resurgence in interest for a name change that was sparked by a workshop during the group's last national conference in 2018.

He said the presenters of the workshop argued "about how any concept or thing that you do for a movement that lets white people or the colonizer absolve (themselves) of the guilt or the responsibility of colonization is bad for the movement.”

He said the ideas from the workshop brought into question the validity of the idea of Aztlán. 

To proponents of the name change, the term Chicano is not inclusive of women and non-binary people, who are included under the term Chicanx.

They also point to the idea of Aztlán declaring a homogeneous culture owns the Southwest, while failing to recognize the diversity of indigenous cultures who claim the land as home.

Here in Arizona, the original people of the Southwest include a multitude of tribes with different traditions and histories.

Before the workshop, discussions at ASU, Maricopa Community College and around the region brought up the idea of changing the name to better reflect the diverse identity of the Southwest, Labrada Sanchez. However, the idea has been floating around since the 1990s, he said.

But not everyone was on board with the name change. 

Members of the national organization, including the ASU chapter, faced backlash online from the group's alumni, Labrada Sanchez said. In some of the posts online, alumni and community members expressed disapproval regarding the name change regardless of the reason.

Any new name for the group will not be implemented until more planning occurs. On April 27, the national group will hold a two-day conference known as the “Encuentro.” It will only be open to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in an attempt to ensure their voices will not be lost in the restructuring of the student movement. 

The name change probably won't happen for another two to three months after the "Encuentro" conference, Labrada Sanchez said, adding that the national organization wants to be sure about what the new name of the organization would be.

To understand why it is that people are at extreme opposites on the name change, it is important to revisit the history of MEChA.

MEChA was born out of major school walkouts in Los Angeles as well as separates ones in Phoenix, by Chicanx students in the late '60s. The students protested inequity in public education and demanded change, becoming one of the guiding principles of the organization.

Christine Marin, professor emeritus and founder of the Chicano/a Research Collection in Hayden Library at ASU, said that the ideas birthed out of the original California movement influenced Mexican American students in other states, like Arizona, to begin identifying as Chicano.

Marin said the students introduced them, “into the thinking of calling themselves Chicanos instead of Mexican American students."

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Mexican American Student Organization was a collective of Mexican American student activists at ASU seeking to call attention to political actions such as civil rights and bilingual education. 

Marin said these students, along with those from other states, began to go to conferences in California where they met other Mexican American students focused on political action and were introduced to the idea of Chicano identity.

Those students then came back to their campuses and began calling themselves MEChA, forming a collective of political action groups in universities and community colleges in Southwest states.

Marin said ASU's chapter of MEChA was formed around the early 1970s.

Vanessa Fonseca Chavez, an assistant professor of English at the Polytechnic campus and former adviser to a MEChA chapter at the University of Wyoming, said there are efforts being made by the Chicanx faculty to provide some aid in the process.

“At (the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies) conference in Albuquerque ... one of the suggestions we made is that we offer ourselves to MEChA for the next year to hold discussions with them,” Fonseca Chavez said.

This move will hopefully create a better sense of unity in the community, she said. The goal of the Chicanx faculty is to make sure that this new phase of MEChA is well thought out by providing academic support.

“MEChA is in a position to shift significantly in some direction over the next year,” Fonseca Chavez said.

Editor's note: This article was updated at 9:56 p.m. on April 22, 2019, to remove a repeated reference in the 7th paragraph.


Reach the reporter at rjromer8@asu.edu or follow @RaphaDeLaG on Twitter.

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