MEChA Supporters Defend Group

In 1975, a young Cruz Bustamante (search) joined a student group at Fresno State College (search) that advocated bold moves to empower Mexican-Americans.

Nearly 30 years later, with Bustamante a candidate for governor, he has come under fire from critics who say the organization agitated for a separate Chicano homeland in the United States.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican rival, recently likened the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan, also known as MEChA (search), to the Ku Klux Klan (search).

"It's like saying, `Oh, I was a moderate member of the Klan,"' McClintock said last month on the San Diego radio station KOGO. "It's incumbent on Cruz Bustamante to clearly and completely renounce the organization and its tactics and its views."

Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, is hardly the first public official to have his youthful politics come back to haunt him. Former President Clinton and President Bush both had to defend themselves against accusations of draft-dodging, and former state Sen. Tom Hayden came under fire for his role in the riots that disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Bustamante, 50, has refused to back away from his past.

"The students who are MEChA today are just like the students when I was there," he said. "Pretty much, they are trying to get an education. Most of the friends I went to school with are now either graduates from college or raising families."

Unlike other radical groups of the 1960s, such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, MEChA was never associated with violence. It supported Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement, and its founding members received support from then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

"Right before he was assassinated, he sat down with Chicano students who walked out of classes," said Susan Green, a Mexican-American studies professor and MEChA faculty adviser at California State University, Chico.

But the group also had a revolutionary spirit, embodied in one of its 1960s slogans, "For the race everything. For those outside the race, nothing."

Critics, including immigration officials, have pointed to language in MEChA documents that calls for the liberation of the Southwest. The plan — written at the National Chicano Youth Conference in 1969, a month before MEChA was created — calls for Mexican-Americans to reclaim or liberate Aztlan, the mythical lands of their birth.

MEChA members say it is an ideological rather than a literal statement.

"When we use the term `liberation,' we are talking about the liberation of one's mind," said Edward Gomez, a former member who is now a faculty adviser for MEChA at San Bernardino Valley College.

Tom Rivera, an associate professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and MEChA faculty adviser since 1970, said the language was a reflection of the times.

"I see this as lofty language. It was not meant to be taken literally," he said.

Today, MEChA has about 300 student clubs nationwide and is known more for trying to help poor Hispanics get a college education than for radical politics. Using the motto "Unity creates power," the group promotes tutoring, community outreach and political advocacy, such as mobilizing voters against a 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny services to illegal immigrants.

In recent days, many of California's leading Hispanic elected officials have acknowledged their membership in MEChA or voiced support for the group.

"Most of us attended a meeting or more. Nearly everybody was involved with it some way," said Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state Assembly speaker who was a member of MEChA from 1972 to 1975 at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (search), D-Calif., said she was never a member but supported the organization. "I can understand why nobody is stepping away," she said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of. To do that would be to deny MEChA is doing a good job."

Among other former members of MEChA are John Loredo, the current Arizona House minority leader, and Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif.

Bustamante joined as a student at Fresno State, now CSU, Fresno, then ran unsuccessfully for student body president.

Hispanics "still lead the state in high school dropout rates, teen pregnancy. We want to stop that," said Fatima Cristerna, 23, a MEChA member at CSU, San Bernardino. "In that sense, we are revolutionary."