The Knox College section of the national Moviemiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztln (MEChA) hosted a regional MEChA conference this weekend, attended by representatives from colleges around the MEChA region Tierra Mid-Atl, which corresponds to the Midwestern United States.
Founded in 1969 at universities in the Southwest, MEChA is a Chican@ nationalist student organization that currently has chapters at universities in all regions of the United States. Its political goals include working towards self-determination for the Chican@ people, improving access to higher education for Chican@s and preserving Chican@ culture.
MEChA distinguishes itself from the Latino cultural clubs present on many college campuses (such as Lo Nuestro at Knox) by its emphasis on political action.
“We do have social and cultural gatherings,” University of Wisconsin Mechista Michelle Gonzalez said. “But the majority of our activity is working on social issues that affect our people, like immigration and higher education.”
MEChA is a relatively new club at Knox. It officially became a club in the spring of 2012, has had a budget since fall 2013 and has been recognized by the national organization since spring 2014. However, it has quickly become one of the best-organized political clubs at Knox.
A few members each from University of Illinois, University of Illinois-Chicago, Depaul University, University of Wisconsin and St. Cloud State University attended the meeting. Some of the other universities have much older MEChA chapters than Knox — the University of Illinois chapter is at least 15 years old, and the University of Wisconsin chapter has existed for several decades.
However, the MEChA chapters at the large universities do not seem much larger than the Knox chapter; UW and U of I representatives say that weekly MEChA meetings at their schools have about 10-20 attendees, similar to those at Knox.
“We are actually the smallest school in the Midwest that has a MEChA chapter that’s recognized by the national organization,” sophomore Jose Guevara said.
The Knox chapter is excited to be hosting the regional meeting as a small college and also as a new chapter.
“A lot of what MEChA really is is hard to explain unless you’re really there, experiencing it,” senior and MEChA president Alma Jimenez said. “That’s why we decided to host the regional meeting, because we have a lot of new members who are underclassmen and it would be a good opportunity for them to have that experience.”
A theme of the conference was the affirmation of Chican@ heritage in the Midwest. Many Midwestern Mechistas feel looked down upon by Mechistas from the Southwest.
“Struggles of Chican@s in the Midwest get pushed to the side compared to the Southwest,” senior Sa’Misty Utley said. “Chican@s in the Midwest get the double immigrant status of not having ties to the land, unlike the Chican@s in the Southwest, who can claim to be living in Aztln.”
The Knox chapter gave a presentation on the history of Chican@s in the Midwest. It drew upon the history of Chican@ presence in the region since the 1920s and the possibilities of a history stretching back even further.
“Many have theorized that Aztln could be in the Midwest,” Utley said. “There are mounds in Illinois and Wisconsin, and there are extensive oral traditions that suggest that Chican@s have ties to the Midwest. We need to start opening ideas of who belongs to the land.”
Knox MEChA’s current political actions reflect the changes that have taken place in the Chican@ movement since the 1960s. According to Guevara, the founders of MEChA had a rather narrow focus, but since its founding the organization has expanded its fields of political action.
For example, Knox MEChA is supporting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. For many Mechistas, supporting Palestinian self-determination is quite compatible with the goals of Chicanismo.
“There’s a correlation,” Guevara said. “The Chican@ movement started in order to empower people to take back land that had been stolen from them. We feel that Palestine’s land was taken away. That’s why MEChA supports Palestine. We’re becoming a broader and more inclusive movement, and we’re supporting the struggles of peoples around the world.”