The resistance against growing anti-immigrant sentiment is happening on the University of Washington campus.
One organization central to this fight has been the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, or the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán. Better known by its acronym, MEChA, the student group has put an emphasis on higher education, engagement in the community, activism, history and culture since officially forming in 1969. Chapters can be found in high schools and colleges across the nation.
Recently, the UW chapter hosted a workshop aiding youth with the Washington Application for State Financial Aid, supported a fundraiser for Puerto Rico and co-hosted a panel with United Students Against Sweatshops discussing the unfair working conditions of the UW’s custodial staff. Some members of MEChA recently went to Tacoma to protest the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detaining an undocumented student, too.
“We always say that we learn more in MEChA than we do in college, and I think that’s very true,” second-year student and Community Outreach and Recruitment Chair Katya Robles said. “We grow a lot as people. Not just in activism, but in our own views.”
To place attention on local and nationwide issues, UW’s MEChA has collaborated with other campus organizations such as the Black Student Union, First Nations and United Farm Workers, among others.
For decades, the organization has stressed advocacy and interpersonal relationships, especially within each chapter’s community. For UW student Guadalupe Mendoza, who transferred to the university at the end of 2016, joining MEChA has been largely beneficial.
MEChA has given Mendoza an opportunity to be involved with the community and define her voice as an activist since she became a member.
MEChA has given Mendoza an opportunity to be involved with the community and define her voice as an activist since she became a member. One thing Mendoza has learned during her time at MEChA is how to recognize and use her privileges to aid marginalized communities.
MEChA has also helped her build strong friendships with other members.
“It’s funny because it’s an organization,” she said. “But the way in which we have relationships with one another definitely has family values.”
Like many activist groups, MEChA was established in the face of civil unrest. In 1967, Mexican American students living in the Southwest region of the United States had a 60 percent high school dropout rate, perpetuated by racially skewed policies within school districts that often placed marginalized students in vocational training courses or classes for the mentally disabled.
As a result of these prejudices, as well as institutionalized inequalities and stereotypes, many Mexican American students were discouraged from going to college. Frustrations came to a head in 1968 with the East Los Angeles “Blowouts.”
These protests, aided by the anti-police-brutality organization the Brown Berets, were vital in the formation of several student groups, such as the United Mexican American Students and the Chicano Coordinating Committee of Higher Education.
The inaugural Chicano Youth Liberation Conference gave myriad Mexican American student groups an outlet to discuss the oppression, prejudice and racism they’d faced. Following that, more than 100 of those groups met at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1969 to make a plan for higher education, El Plan de Santa Barbara.
This plan helped implement Chicano Studies in education, and officially formed MEChA, which unified the various student groups into a single entity.
It was in the fall of 1969 that UW’s United Mexican American Students branch adopted the MEChA title, with Yakima Valley College and Washington State University following the example soon afterward.
Passion for service
Like its widespread activism and advocacy, MEChA’s positive influence on the lives of its members has not waned.
Now in the midst of her fifth year as part of the UW’s MEChA, Treasurer Michel Baños said she owes her knowledge about systems of oppression, community organization and identity to the spaces created by the organization.
“I think my life and my experience in college would have been completely different had I not been involved with MEChA,” Baños said.
For Guillermo Madera, a third-year UW student and the commission director for La Raza, the organization has been a constant in his life. He joined his high school’s MEChA branch his freshman year, and made the transition to the UW’s branch after finding out about it during the RSO Fair on Red Square.
Because his high school’s MEChA mostly focused on heightening cultural awareness and promoting higher education, Madera said it wasn’t until he joined the UW branch that he gained more experience in social justice work and building community.
“It gave me a passion to help other folks,” he said.
Robles has found herself similarly affected.
Though she joined relatively late, in April 2017, Robles said becoming a part of MEChA was something she felt like she needed to do, as she is a community-oriented person.
She first got involved last spring by volunteering at the national conference hosted by the UW branch. And seeing the university’s chapter have such a big impact nationwide made an impression.
“That was really amazing to see,” she said. “It was a group of MEChA at UW — maybe 20 — hosting about 500 students.”
In the months since becoming a member, Robles has been embraced with open arms, and said that each meeting is akin to going home.
“When you’re in MEChA, you know it is OK to cry, to be angry, to be sad, to be scared, to admit that you’re not sure what will come next.”
While UW’s MEChA has a strong sense of community, the organization is still vulnerable to political and cultural opposition regionally and nationally. Within the last two years, local conservative student groups have threatened to report undocumented MEChA members to ICE, for instance.
In response, Baños said members of MEChA have turned to other organizations in the community for support.
Mendoza said that being part of the organization has given her, as well as fellow members, an outlet to voice any frustrations.
“MEChA has been a safe space for a lot of us,” she said.
Robles has also found like-mindedness to be valuable in the midst of the President Donald Trump’s administration. Most people in MEChA are on the same wavelength, she said.
“MEChA has provided me with a space to process and sit in my feelings,” Baños said. “When you’re in MEChA, you know it is OK to cry, to be angry, to be sad, to be scared, to admit that you’re not sure what will come next.”
As the years progress, Baños wants MEChA to keep providing opportunities for students to learn about the importance of giving back to their community, as well as standing in solidarity with communities fighting oppression.
“I hope MEChA continues to be a space in which students feel at home and where folks are pushed to grow and succeed individually,” she said.
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