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History of MEChA de UW

In the late 1960s, Mexican-American youth, inspired by the farm workers’ strike in California, the African American freedom struggle, and the youth revolts of the time, began using the label ‘Chicano’ to denote their cultural heritage and assert their youthful energy and militancy. In appropriating a word that previously had a negative connotation, Mexican-American youth turned ‘Chicano’ into a politically charged term used for self-identification. Though there was activism at the individual level at Yakima Valley College and the University of Washington, the establishment of a movement organization did not take place until the fall of 1968, when the first large group of Chicano students arrived at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The new Chicano presence at the UW owed a great deal to the Black Student Union's (BSU) militant efforts to promote campus diversity. On May 20th 1968, BSU members occupied the offices of University of Washington President Charles Odegaard. The group organized a four hour sit-in where they voiced their demands for making the University more relevant to people of color by improving the recruitment of minority students, doubling black enrollment, increasing funding for minority student programming, and creating black studies courses. The BSU would lay the foundation for the recruitment of students from throughout the state, including Mexican-Americans. According to Jeremy Simer, "this connection between the BSU and Chicano students would later be strengthened by collaborative efforts on campus.” Of the thirty-five students that were recruited in 1968, most were from the Yakima Valley, the area that had the largest concentration of Latinos in Washington State.

At this time, the Yakima Valley had already seen the emergence of Chicano activism. Inspired by the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee’s (UFWOC) grape boycott, two students from Yakima Valley College, Guadalupe Gamboa and Tomas Villanueva, traveled down to Delano, California in 1967 and met with UFWOC leader Cesar Chavez. Upon returning, Gamboa and Villanueva co-founded the United Farm Worker’s Co-operative (UFWC) in Toppenish, Washington.

The UFWC is credited as being the first activist Chicano organization in the state of Washington. Founded amid several War on Poverty efforts in the Valley, Tomas Villanueva recalled that the UFWC was "completely non-governmental." "I convinced people to give $5 into their shares and I got very successful. I got enough that would build a little store. It was very small to start with and we started running a sort of service defending people when growers did not pay their wages or when people got injured. We got people to get food stamps and those things. Then we found a bigger building for the co-op.”

In the summer of 1968, the UFWC solicited the assistance of the Washington American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a project that provided legal aid to people of farm working background. The report that emerged from the project underlined the conditions present in the Valley that forced Chicanos into a state of political and economic subjugation. As a result of various lawsuits filed through the ACLU, Yakima County was forced to take measures to ensure that Chicanos were afforded voting rights and bilingual ballots, as well as other considerations given to all people under the law. Though the UFWC organized workers during the wildcat strikes in the hop fields of Yakima County in 1970, the organization would not receive official recognition until the mid 1980s when it became the United Farm Workers of Washington State.

In addition to the UFW Co-op, there were other forms of activism in the Yakima Valley. The Cursillo Movement was organized through the Catholic Church. Though politically moderate, its purpose was to engage people in social action and encourage participation in church life. Another group formed in 1967, the Mexican American Federation (MAF), pointed toward a new direction in Mexican-American community organizing. In previous decades, most associations were social and cultural in nature. MAF was one of the first groups to advocate for community development and political empowerment in the Yakima Valley.

The fall of 1968 was characterized by social upheaval throughout the nation and the world. Universities at this time were hubs for political activity and discourse. Chicano students at the UW, few as they were, were inspired by this activity. They already possessed an understanding of the plight of farm workers as well as of the repressive, race-prejudiced system of power. Soon after setting foot on the UW Campus, the thirty-five Chicano students, led by Jose Correa, Antonio Salazar, Eron Maltos, Jesus Lemos, Erasmo Gamboa, and Eloy Apodaca, among many others, formed the first chapter of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) in the Northwest. Modeled after the group that was founded at the University of Southern California in 1967, UW UMAS worked to establish a Mexican-American Studies class through the College of Arts & Sciences.

UMAS also engaged in a campaign to halt the sale of non-union table grapes at the University of Washington. Working alongside other activist organizations such as the BSU, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and members of the Associated Students of the University of Washington Board of Control and the Young Socialist Alliance, the group first petitioned the dormitories to stop selling grapes in their eating facilities, and quickly secured an agreement. But efforts to persuade the Husky Union Building (HUB) to cooperate proved more difficult. Nevertheless, on February 17, 1969 the UW Grape Boycott Committee was victorious as the HUB officially halted the sale of grapes. The victory made the University of Washington the first campus in the United States to remove grapes entirely from its eating facilities. Even more notable was the organization’s skill at building coalitions among other undergraduate groups, as evidenced by the diverse array of student groups on the boycott committee. At the national level, the grape boycott organized by the UFWOC achieved success in 1970 when the union won a contract.

In addition to the boycott, UMAS also called a conference in Toppenish to generate support for the creation of Chicano youth groups at the high school and college levels. With the assistance of UW faculty, UMAS created ‘La Escuelita’ in Granger in 1969, which in turn led to the creation of the calmecac project (school in Nahuatl), a program that taught history and culture to Chicano youth in Eastern Washington.

The student movement was also spreading to other campuses. Following the lead of UW UMAS, Chicano students organized at Yakima Valley College to form a chapter of the Mexican American Student Association (MASA) in 1969. MASA, like UMAS, had its roots in southern California, originating out of East Los Angeles College. Later in 1969, Chicano students who had made their way to Washington State University in 1967 via the High School Equivalency Program organized another MASA chapter in Pullman.

1969 was a watershed year in activism at the national level as well. The Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, hosted by Corky Gonzalez’s Crusade for Justice in Denver, Colorado, laid the framework for a youth-initiated Chicano Power Movement. The conference produced one of the key documents of the period, “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan,” which rejected the earlier stance of most Mexican-American organizations and instead advocated a separate, third political space, away from both the political mainstream and the white-dominated student Left, which initially marginalized people of color. The conference also urged cultural regeneration, the negation of assimilation into the dominant society, and Chicano self-determination. This emphasis on cultural nationalism would persist well into the late seventies before the concept of activism ‘sin fronteras’ (without borders) and Marxist critiques of empire transformed the Chicano Left and laid the foundation for the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s (EZLN) revolution against neo-liberal economic doctrine in Chiapas, Mexico on New Year’s Day 1994.

The Chicano Movement focused considerable attention on educational issues, especially access to higher education. Conscription and the Viet Nam war raised the stakes for young Chicanos. Because of the availability of student deferments, access to higher education often times had literal life or death implications for Chicano youth who were at risk of being conscripted. As a result of many of the concerns associated with higher education, the Chicano Council on Higher Education, formed after the Massive East Los Angeles High School Walkouts of 1968, organized a conference at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The resulting document, "El Plan de Santa Barbara," laid the framework for a master plan related to curriculum, services, and access to higher education. It became a blueprint for the implementation of Chicano Studies and EOP programs throughout the West Coast, including the University of Washington, and also outlined the role of the University in the community and in issues of social justice. The conference also transformed the way Chicano students organized themselves. The delegates decided to merge the many activist organizations – UMAS, MASA, MASO, MASC, MAYO, among others – under the umbrella of El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (The Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan). MEChA soon became the primary vehicle for student activism on campuses throughout the United States.

In the fall of 1969, UW UMAS officially adopted the name MEChA. This reflected a shift in consciousness as well as a generational change as members rejected the term ‘Mexican-American’ in favor of the label ‘Chicano.’ Over the next two years, Yakima Valley College and Washington State University would follow suit. Throughout the 1970s, numerous MEChA chapters emerged in Washington State, including groups in the Columbia Basin, at Seattle Central Community College, Central Washington University, A.C. Davis High School in Yakima, and various other communities. In April of 1972, students organized the first statewide MEChA Conference at Yakima Valley College. The conference resulted in the creation of a statewide board authorized to facilitate communication between all MEChA chapters in Washington about activities at the state level. Chicanos near the Spokane area waited until 1977 to organize at Eastern Washington University, and it wasn’t until 1978 that the organization affiliated with MEChA.

According to Jesus Rodriguez, in the few years after the organization was established, “MEChA became more diversified and developed subgroups to deal with specific problems in health, women’s issues, community concerns, graduate students and so forth.” In effect, MEChA became an umbrella organization that housed such groups as Las Chicanas, the Brown Berets, the National Chicano Health Association, and the Chicano Graduate and Professional Student Association. In fact, many students were involved in multiple groups at one time, as there was participation across the several entities presided over by MEChA.

The information above was gathered and written by Oscar Rosales Castañeda, a MEChA alumn. The complete document can be found at Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project

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