You Say Chicano, I Say... When members of the nation's oldest Mexican-American student organization voted to change its name, it revealed generational tensions around the past, present, and future of the Chicano movement.
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You Say Chicano, I Say...

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You Say Chicano, I Say...

You Say Chicano, I Say...

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out this week reporting, but Adrian Florido is here in her stead. What's good, Adrian?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Hey man, how are you?

DEMBY: So, Adrian, this week, you've brought us this story about an intergenerational fight over Latino identity.

FLORIDO: Yeah. Actually, a very specific Latino identity.

DEMBY: OK.

FLORIDO: But to understand what this fight is all about, let me introduce you to...

MARGARITA BERTA-AVILA: Margarita Berta-Avila.

FLORIDO: She's a professor at Sacramento State University.

BERTA-AVILA: And I'm a Chicana.

FLORIDO: Gene, when you hear Chicana or Chicano, you think of what?

DEMBY: I think of someone who is Mexican American or - that's what it means, right? It refers to Mexican American people, right?

FLORIDO: Yeah.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

FLORIDO: It's a little more complicated than that.

DEMBY: OK.

BERTA-AVILA: I'm a Chicana (speaking Spanish). My family migrated here from those areas before I was born, and I was born in...

FLORIDO: So you're not Mexican at all?

BERTA-AVILA: I'm not Mexican at all. I'm not Mexican at all.

DEMBY: OK. So she's not Mexican, but she's calling herself Chicana.

FLORIDO: Right. So in many ways, when she was growing up, she felt like, as a brown kid in California, as a Latina, she could identify with Mexican Americans - right?...

DEMBY: Gotcha.

FLORIDO: ...The discrimination, the not fitting in. And that feeling only got stronger when she enrolled at the University of California at Davis in the '90s and was surrounded by white students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERTA-AVILA: It was during those school years that I was in the most pain. The things that I would do to try to fit in - like, if you would put lemon all over your body, you would become whiter, dyeing your hair lighter.

FLORIDO: One day on campus, she learned about a Mexican American student group called M.E.Ch.A.. She joined, and she got really involved. And she said it was good. It was good to be with other students who understood, you know, that feeling that she had, that isolation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERTA-AVILA: And through M.E.Ch.A., I realized that I could be proud of who I was and where I came from. I actually felt free.

DEMBY: All right. So wait a second, Adrian. What is M.E.Ch.A.?

FLORIDO: M.E.Ch.A. (laughter)...

DEMBY: M.E.Ch.A.. OK, my bad.

FLORIDO: ...Was founded during the civil rights movement of the 1960s when Mexican Americans started organizing for social and political rights.

DEMBY: Yeah. I feel like we've been spending a lot of time lately talking about that moment when it comes to student activism.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And M.E.Ch.A. was a part of that sort of moment and that movement, right?

DEMBY: Uh-huh.

FLORIDO: It's an acronym. It means Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, which in English is the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan - Chicano because, you know, obviously Chicanos. And Aztlan - this is an Aztec concept. It's the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztec people. And many Chicanos have come to understand Aztlan to essentially be the U.S. Southwest, the land that Mexico lost to the United States in the 1800s.

DEMBY: OK. Got it.

FLORIDO: So again, they started calling themselves Chicanos, and this movement became the Chicano rights movement. And the term Chicano itself sort of came to me not only Mexican American, but really, like, it was a term for a politically empowered one, you know, kind of radical.

DEMBY: Ah, Gotcha.

FLORIDO: And so M.E.Ch.A. was the student arm of this whole movement.

DEMBY: OK.

FLORIDO: It organized protests. You know, M.E.Ch.A. pushed for the creation of ethnic studies and Chicano and Chicana studies programs. It encouraged just, you know, brown students to embrace their identities, to be themselves. And so it became a really important part of the Chicano rights movement. And for a lot of people like Margarita Berta-Avila, it really became the gateway to the Chicano movement. And it was in college that she started calling herself a Chicana. And she said it wasn't because, you know, she was declaring, OK, now I am Mexican American.

BERTA-AVILA: But that it was a choice I was making with respect to a way of life. That to identify as a Chicana was saying to my colleagues in struggle that I had dedicated my life to the movement and that I was going to work for the liberation of our communities. And what I meant by communities and what I still mean by communities - it's all of us.

DEMBY: So the Chicano movement became a really big part of her identity.

FLORIDO: As it did for a lot of people. And has really as - it still does that today because there's still a lot of M.E.Ch.A. chapters at high schools and college campuses all across the country. There are hundreds of chapters nationwide.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, Berta-Avila - she got a group text from a friend.

BERTA-AVILA: And said, hey, did you all hear - is this true?

FLORIDO: The day before, the student who'd gathered for M.E.Ch.A.'s national conference at UCLA had made a pretty major decision. They voted to change the organization's name.

DEMBY: OK. Change it how?

FLORIDO: So they voted to eliminate two words from the name - Chicano or Chicanx and Aztlan.

DEMBY: Get rid of those two words completely?

FLORIDO: Absolutely. Just completely get rid of them. And Berta-Avila says that she was shocked

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERTA-AVILA: Like, it felt like a death. Like, what? Yeah. It takes the breath out of me to even explain how I feel.

DEMBY: Because that word Chicana, Chicanx, is specifically literally what she calls herself.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And she was not alone in feeling this way. I mean, the decision to eliminate those two words from M.E.Ch.A.'s name sparked this huge backlash among Chicanos. And this backlash sparked a debate - right? - like, this broad debate about what being Chicano or Chicano or Chicanx, what that even means and where the Chicano movement is headed.

GABRIELA GUILLEN: It's not just Mexican Americans that have been leading the fight. It's also been Central Americans, South Americans, Caribbeans that have been working alongside Chicanx people.

DEMBY: And we're going to get into that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: What's good, y'all? So if you're a fan of the advice we give on our Ask Code Switch segment, I've got a podcast recommendation for you. OK? It's called Life Kit. And Life Kit is actually a whole collection of podcasts on how to get your whole life together. So think of it as that good friend of yours who always has excellent advice on things like how to invest or how to get a great workout. You can subscribe to Life Kit: All Guides if you never want to miss an episode, or you can just subscribe by topic. Check it out. It's Life Kit. That's two different words - Life Kit. Or just go to npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene - just Gene. Well, I guess Adrian's here. CODE SWITCH. All right, Adrian, we're talking about this group, M.E.Ch.A. Did I say that right?

FLORIDO: Yeah, M.E.Ch.A.

DEMBY: OK. M.E.Ch.A. is this student group for Chicanos. It's all over the country. And it recently voted to change its name - to take Chicano out of its name.

FLORIDO: Chicano and Aztlan, yeah.

DEMBY: Chicano and Aztlan out of its name. OK. So have they picked a new name yet, though?

FLORIDO: No, not yet. I mean, they know they're going to change it, but they haven't decided what the new name is going to be yet.

DEMBY: All right. So tell us about that vote then.

FLORIDO: What happened was that back in March on the last day of M.E.Ch.A.'s national conference at UCLA, the group's leaders called this big meeting of all the chapters. It's a meeting, you know, where the organization votes on important matters, so, like, for example, what kind of stance is it going to take on a big political issue, right? Gabriela Guillen is a student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She's one of M.E.Ch.A.'s national co-chairs. And so she was there when this meeting got started.

GUILLEN: That's when that resolution was brought up by University of Oregon.

DEMBY: So this was the resolution to eliminate Chicanx and Aztlan from M.E.Ch.A.'s name, right?

FLORIDO: That's right. They took a vote.

GUILLEN: And 29 out of the 33 chapters present voted in favor.

FLORIDO: So it wasn't even close...

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: ...Which Guillen said signaled something really important - right? - that among M.E.Ch.A.'s current membership - not among alumni but among current students at this conference - there was actually, you know, very little opposition to the idea that those two terms had to go. And so as soon as this vote happened, the news started to spread across the Chicano community. A lot of M.E.Ch.A. alumni started lighting up Facebook and Twitter. Some of them accused the current student members of trying to erase the history of their movement. But Gabriela Guillen said that for the students who voted for this change, this was actually about something else.

GUILLEN: It's a very beautiful history. I think that it's a very beautiful identity as well, and people should be proud to have it. But I think in a greater push to bring people of marginalized backgrounds to the movement, I think this name change is a good first step.

FLORIDO: So here's what she means. The term Chicano/Chicanx she feels leaves out many Latinos who've been involved with M.E.Ch.A. but are not Mexican American. It's something that she and other student leaders say that they've been talking about for a long time.

GUILLEN: It's not just Mexican Americans that have been leading the fight. It's also been Central Americans, South Americans, Caribbeans that have been working alongside Chicanx people.

FLORIDO: Guillen's national co-chair is a student named Emilio Balderas. He's from the University of Chicago's M.E.Ch.A. chapter, which he said has a lot of Central and South American members.

EMILIO BALDERAS: It's wrong, in my eyes, to work alongside people, have them contribute their labor, their time, you know, and their love to an organization and have that organization not reflect that.

DEMBY: That seems to make a lot of sense to me, Adrian.

FLORIDO: And he said that the overwhelming feeling among current students in the organization is that in order to keep M.E.Ch.A. relevant, it has to become more inclusive of other Latin American identities. Within days of the vote to change the name and the backlash that followed, M.E.Ch.A. chapters across the country started calling meetings to discuss what this all meant. And these meetings were open to both current members and to alumni, and a lot of alumni actually came out. So I went up to one of these meetings that was held at Sacramento State University.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

FLORIDO: And like most M.E.Ch.A. meetings, this one began with an invocation. The chapter's leaders asked me not to record the meeting itself, but I did speak with a few people afterward. And one of them was Nancy Huante-Tzintzun She's a former mechista and a current lecturer at Sacramento State. And she said that she disagreed with this name change.

NANCY HUANTE-TZINTZUN: For me, we have to live with our difference and understand how to build coalitions based on difference and not on sameness. And instead of creating a name that is inclusive of everyone, we need to just deal with the realness and build coalitions. And that takes work and time.

FLORIDO: What is the danger of a more inclusive name?

HUANTE-TZINTZUN: That we lose our identity as Chicanos, right? So we're no longer Chicanos, then what are we, right? Are we then going back to national politics where we have to pick a nationality? But because we're mestizo and because we are constantly migrating, like, that becomes a very difficult task.

FLORIDO: But that is not how Yumira Perez (ph) feels. She is a current student Sacramento State. She's one of the leaders of the M.E.Ch.A. chapter on campus, and she supports the change.

YUMIRA PEREZ: Because we are really low on numbers in our M.E.Ch.A. right now, and it's that same reason because people don't identify as an Chicanx.

FLORIDO: How do you know that's why people aren't joining?

PEREZ: Because usually I speak with other students around the campus, and I tell them, you know what? I'm in M.E.Ch.A. And when I tell them, why don't you join M.E.Ch.A, it's, like, because I don't identify as Chicanx.

DEMBY: So the professor we heard - right? - she says that Chicano/Chicanx is necessary to maintain this vital identity - right? - as they try to build this community. But the student is saying, no, in real life, like, on the ground, it's exactly why we can't build community because people feel like this is exclusive. It makes them not want to join because it's not for them.

FLORIDO: Yeah, exactly. And so, look; I mean, talking to a lot of current and former M.E.Ch.A. members, they all say that membership was a huge factor in their academic success and really in the fact that they even finished school. That is true Gabriela Guillen, the national co-chair.

GUILLEN: And honestly, it's probably been one of the reasons why I've stayed in college - right? - because my school, Cal Poly, compared to many other schools in California, it is, like, the whitest school in - of public universities in California.

FLORIDO: Guillen thinks that a lot of the response to this name change is really an emotional response from people who are afraid to see this movement go in a different direction.

GUILLEN: And I don't think the movement is dying. I know that some people are saying that the movement's going to die, and M.E.Ch.A.'s going to die. But I don't think that's what's happening. I think M.E.Ch.A. has always meant to be this progressive and - space that was led by young people to bring change, to amplify the voices of Latinx people.

FLORIDO: And so, Gene, you know, we've been talking about this one word, Chicano/Chicanx, but there are actually layers to this debate. Another one is a big one, and it's over this word Aztlan. It's a name for this mythical Aztec homeland, like I mentioned earlier. But what about Latinos whose ancestry is, say, Zapotec or Mayan?

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

FLORIDO: Now, another issue that students have with Aztlan as a concept is that within the Chicano of movement, it sort of became over time sort of shorthand for Chicanos to refer to all the land in the U.S. that used to be Mexico. So calling this land Aztlan sort of became how Chicanos claimed this land that they feel is rightfully theirs.

DEMBY: So these students take issue with that claim to that land?

FLORIDO: I mean, yeah, right? Because, you know, what about all the Indigenous groups that lived there long before Mexico even existed?

DEMBY: Right, right, right, right.

FLORIDO: And then there's another layer to this debate, which is that - and this is something that no one denies - that historically there was a lot of sexism and even homophobia within the Chicano movement as there, you know, has been in many social movements. And so students say that this name change is also a way to sort of recenter the movement on groups, like women, like queer people who in the past may have been pushed to the side and might see Chicano as an inherently toxic term.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Chicano Park.

(APPLAUSE)

FLORIDO: OK. So, Gene, a couple of weeks ago, I went down to San Diego to the 49th annual Chicano Park Day.

DEMBY: Chicano Park Day.

FLORIDO: It's this big Chicano gathering at this very important park for the Chicano rights movement. And that is where I met Roberto Hernandez. He's a professor of Chicana/Chicano studies at San Diego State University. And I asked him why he thought this critique of M.E.Ch.A.'s name, this decision to change it - why this is all happening right now.

ROBERTO HERNANDEZ: On the one hand, one could argue that, you know, as Frantz Fanon famously argued, every generation must find for itself its own challenges.

FLORIDO: But he thinks the feeling, among current students, that the name is exclusionary is actually based on a misunderstanding.

HERNANDEZ: Unfortunately, part of that argument rests upon a really misconstrued history of M.E.Ch.A. itself, right? So the only way you could argue about its inclusivity is if you accept the premise that M.E.Ch.A. was ever only about Mexicans.

FLORIDO: Which it wasn't, he said. I mean, he said that M.E.Ch.A. has always embraced non-Mexicans. And he actually ticked off a long list of prominent non-Mexican mechistas in the group's history. And so while Chicano has over time become synonymous with Mexican American, he said that the term itself has always, you know, referred more to this philosophy of struggle. If you remember Margarita Berta-Avila, who we met earlier, she is a Peruvian and Salvadoran woman who has no problem identifying as Chicana. And that's the same idea, right?

DEMBY: OK. For that generation, I understand how they understand this term - right? - to, like, refer to this philosophy of struggle. But, you know, we talk about this all the time - language changes, meanings shift. So if in 2019, if the contemporary understanding among young people is that Chicano means Mexican American, isn't it easier to just change the name of the group than to try to convince all these people that the way they understand this term is wrong and that the name actually means something else? Like, isn't it just easier to just rebrand it?

FLORIDO: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, that's something that Hernandez is very aware of.

HERNANDEZ: And I have to admit this is an uphill battle. I would say that the dominant understanding of it now is associated with Mexicans, but that's already conceding terrain to Webster's Dictionary and McMillan where if you look up Chicano, you have an American of Mexican descent. That's actually limiting what Chicano/Chicana was always about, right? So to me, that's the dominant story, but that's not the original story. That's not the original spirit of Chicano.

FLORIDO: So it's interesting, Gene, is that Hernandez told me that back in the '90s, a lot of veterans, veteranos of the Chicano movement, started to suspect that the movement's original principles were sort of being lost within M.E.Ch.A. And so there was this move, at that time, to create what they were going to call a council of elders to basically be, like, the keepers of history - right? - so that there was a sense of continuity within the organization.

HERNANDEZ: And the passing down of stories, the passing down of history, institutional memory, because M.E.Ch.A., as a student org, relies on students that come and go. Students graduate.

FLORIDO: But Hernandez said this proposal to create this council of elders caused rifts within the organization because some people said, no, no, no, our founding documents say we are a student-run group.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: And so that idea just died. And Hernandez said, you know, look, he understands - right? - that students are dealing with a new reality, a new sense of identity politics. They have new language to describe themselves in more nuanced ways than even existed decades or even just a few years ago. And so they are. They're finding ways to try to make the organization meet the needs of today.

HERNANDEZ: So to me, that's a tricky highline, that we're walking on a tightrope, if you will, between wanting or respect the new generation trying to find itself on the one hand but also making sure that we don't erase and impose in the process.

DEMBY: OK, Adrian, when are the mechistas going to start this process of finding a new name?

FLORIDO: Right. So they're still figuring out what this new name is going to be. And in the next couple of months, they're going to start holding meetings to decide. And interestingly, the first meeting is only going to be open to women and queer people. But one thing that Emilio Balderas, the co-chair of M.E.Ch.A., told me was that what they're trying to do is figure out if there's a way where they can kind of keep the acronym, you know, change the underlying words but choose words that would still basically make the acronym spell out to M.E.Ch.A. so people can keep calling it M.E.Ch.A. as they have for 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS DE LA ISLA")

LOS PLENEROS DE LA CRESTA: (Singing in Spanish).

DEMBY: So, Adrian, you're in the studio right now with us. You were going to give us the song that has given you life. You were in Puerto Rico for a while before you got back.

FLORIDO: About a year, yeah.

DEMBY: About a year. OK. So I'm assuming your song has something to do with your travels.

FLORIDO: So there's this interesting, great song from Los Pleneros De La Cresta. And the style is plena.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS DE LA ISLA")

LOS PLENEROS DE LA CRESTA: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: And, really, it's a song about what Puerto Ricans on the island call themselves. Do they say that they're from the island, or do they say they're from the city? But it's, like, a broader, like, sort of reflection on Puerto Rican identity. It's called "Los De La Isla."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS DE LA ISLA")

LOS PLENEROS DE LA CRESTA: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Sami Yenigun. And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. For Shereen Marisol Meraji, I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS DE LA ISLA")

LOS PLENEROS DE LA CRESTA: (Singing in Spanish).

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