It would be tempting to dismiss the recent media flap around the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and his membership in the student organization Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) as much to do about nothing. But for those of us who have been following over the last decade the political propaganda of anti-Mexican hate groups, the controversy indicates just how far the rhetoric and tactics of the extreme right have entered the media mainstream.
As Bustamante’s poll numbers began to rise, his affiliation with MEChA over twenty-five years ago surfaced as a hot topic on FOX news. Bill O’Reilly used his “No Spin Zone” to do a spin on MEChA that was straight out of the far right’s playbook. According to O’Reilly, MEChA was a racist and violent organization that hated the United States and advocated the ceding of the Southwest back to Mexico. O’Reilly’s ideological great uncle, Rush Limbaugh, had introduced the topic in mid-August. Lesser neo-con talking heads, columnists, and websites ran with it and soon the same charges appeared in otherwise reputable newspapers and across cyberspace.
In fact, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and the rest were merely sampling the rantings of their slightly loonier right-wing cousins. Fueled by rapidly shifting demographics, especially in California but also in the Deep South and Northeast where there are now sizable Mexican communities, an upgraded form of white fear has been taking shape for several years. Drawing upon the repetoire of racist images created by the John Birch Society and other extremist groups during the Cold War, these new nativist ideologues sense the impending end of their white privilege.
Writing for the internet newspaper World Net Daily in 2001 (home to the media conservatives O’Reilly and Joe McCarthy apologist Ann Coulter) two months after September 11th, Joseph Farah described a radical Chicano group called “La Raza.” According to Farah: “Activists who see themselves as ‘America’s Palestinians’ are gearing up a movement to carve out of the southwestern United States–a region called Aztlán including all of Bush’s home state of Texas–a sovereign Hispanic state called the República del Norte. The leaders of this movement are meeting continuously with extremists from the Islamic world.” The fear of a brown planet so muddles the neo-con mind that Mexican Americans move easily from being radical separatists to covert al-Queda operatives.
The MEChA student organization has been a particular obsession of Glenn Spencer, founder and lead storm trooper for his “American Patrol” and “Voices of Citizens Together.” Spencer has been at the forefront of leading vigilante groups whose stated objective is to “protect” the U.S. southern border, and he popularized the idea of MEChA as a “Ku Klux Klan-type” organization determined to take back the Southwest.
A Washington Times article reported on Spencer’s words of wisdom delivered to a group of conventioneers in Virginia in 2002: “With hundreds of Mexicans illegally crossing the United States’ southwest border daily, Mr. Spencer said, conflict between the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican authorities could touch off strikes, protests, and riots by Hispanic militants in the United States-a combination border war and civil war that “could happen any day,” he said.” (Washington Times, 2/25/02).
The fantasy of MEChA as a key element of a Mexican American fifth column within the United States found its way into Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan 2001 bestseller The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. MEChA, warned Buchanan, is “a Chicano version of the white-supremacist Aryan Nation…and is unabashedly racist and anti-American.”
When student activists created the MEChA organization in April of 1969 at a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it was in the context of educational reform. Numerous Chicano student organizations had already appeared as part of an emerging political consciousness among Mexican youth in the United States. Issues of access to higher education, racism, sexism, economic injustice, Cesar Chavez and the farm workers’s struggle, and the war in Southeast Asia contributed to the increase in activism.
Educational reformers decided that MEChA could serve to consolidate the diverse student groups under one banner. Today, former mechistas include elected officials, teachers, attorneys, doctors, publishers of business magazines, and heads of corporations. Far from being exclusionary and racist, MEChA chapters have been at the forefront of establishing coalitions with other ethnic groups (including white folks) on college and high school campuses across the country.
One month before the Santa Barbara meeting, at the First Denver Youth Conference in Denver, Chicanos and Chicanas heard for the first time the “Plan espiritual de Aztlán.” A plan of action that included demands for bilingual education and appeals to “love and brotherhood,” the “Plan” was preceded by a lyrical prologue written by the poet Alurista. As he recounts in the PBS documentary series Chicano!, Alurista had written the prologue as a poem designed to instill ethnic pride and hope for the future. Whatever political claims might have existed in the prologue, they were imprecise at best.
It is not surprising, however, that the prologue to the “Plan” is what sends right-wingers into a frenzy. What the prologue asserts is the basic historical fact that indigenous and Mexican peoples inhabited the Southwest before the arrival of the United States. There is no denying this important detail, and there is nothing that those who would “seal the border” or foolishly equate MEChA with the Klan can do to change it.
And so the prologue to the “Plan,” a poem written almost thirty five years ago in a period of increased social activism and high-flying rhetoric, is presented as exhibit number one in the nativists’s paranoid attack. One need look no further than the 2001 campaign for mayor of Los Angeles to find an early example of the use by Republican operatives of fringe group slander against MEChA. In that race, candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, who had been a member of MEChA as a student, was similarly tarred and feathered.
Now the far right has trotted out the same ridiculous charges in an attempt to undermine Bustamante and influence a democratic election with distortion and innuendo. Whether or not one is a Bustamante supporter, what should concern every citizen is that the hate literature of the extreme nativist right is now required reading in the FOX newsroom.
JORGE MARISCAL is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, a Vietnam veteran, and a former mechista. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org