In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, our blog is highlighting the archived collection of the University of Wyoming’s chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán, more commonly known by its acronym MEChA. As an organization, MEChA encourages cultural pride, dignity, and unity. The University of Wyoming chapter was founded in 1984.
According to MEChA documentation from our archives, Aztlán, the “A” in the organization’s acronym, refers to the legendary place of origin of the Aztec peoples. Within Chicana/o folklore, Aztlán is the name for that portion of Mexico that was taken over by the U.S. after the Mexican American War of 1846. The literal translation of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán from Spanish is “Chicana/o Student Movement of Aztlán”.
At the University of Wyoming, MEChA was the outgrowth of the UW Hispano American Student Organization, which began in 1969, and then the UW Chicano Student Coalition. Members of those early organizations provided a campus support system. Their activism included the involvement of UW Chicano Student Coalition members in a May 1970 student vigil on campus in solidarity with the students at Kent State University. (During the protest UW students faced off against members of the Wyoming National Guard who had been sent to Prexy’s Pasture to break up the vigil and lower the American flag. Unlike at Kent State University, the University of Wyoming face off was resolved peacefully.) Some early members of the UW Chicano Student Coalition were Vietnam War veterans.
At the beginning, club leadership positions were held primarily by men, although the club’s history notes that Lila Rodriguez, from Cheyenne, was the first woman to hold a club office, as Vice President, from 1972 to 1973. Then, during the 1973-1974 school year, the club had its first all-female team of officers.
The organization helped to coordinate a series of Chicano Conferences on Education at UW, a Chicano Leadership Conference and Chicano Student Days at UW. MEChA members were involved in establishing what is now the University of Wyoming’s Multicultural Resource Center. The group hosted social activities including participation in the UW Homecoming parade, study gatherings, group dinners and fiestas. MEChA members organized a whole slate of events for Semana Chicana and National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Additionally, MEChA sponsored activities during the Semana Primavera (Spring Week – a week of cultural festivities and performances) and el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead – a holiday widely observed in Mexico honoring the deceased). MEChA brought the first Cinco de Mayo (celebrations of the fifth of May remembering Mexico’s victory over the French Empire at the 1862 Battle of Puebla) to the UW campus.
By 2008, MEChA’s constitution outlined the organization’s purpose as follows:
- To strive for educational, cultural, social, political, and economical empowerment of our gente within our communities.
- To involve itself in social, political, and educational actions and events to help build Chicano pride, confidence, and identity.
- To encourage and support our gente in and through higher education.
- To bring cultural awareness into the University of Wyoming and our community.
- To implement plans of action that benefits the advancement of our gente.
Gente in Spanish translates to “people”.
Over the years, MEChA brought comedians Jackie Guerra and Cheech Marin, folk singer and educator Chuy Negrete, and actor Edward James Olmos to campus. The group organized speakers on a diverse array of subjects including US-Cuba relations, Chicano history in Wyoming and Racism at UW. MEChA arranged for Aztec dancers and the Ft. Collins Grupo Folklorico to perform in the student union. The organization sponsored refreshments for a bilingual mass at St. Laurence O’Toole Catholic Church in Laramie and organized a blood drive to honor labor leader and farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez.
Some years, the club sold traditional foods to raise funds. MEChA members also met periodically with UW’s President and Provost. They raised issues related to the teaching of their cultural history and the need for more faculty who could do so.
MEChA sponsored the University of Wyoming’s First Annual Hispanic Film Presentation in 1988 with a showing of La Bamba. The movie portrays the story of Ritchie Valens’ (Richard Valenzuela’s) meteoric rise to the top of the rock and roll world in the 1950s. Valens is credited with helping establish the genre of Chicano rock. MEChA coordinated scholarly speakers before and after the film who discussed the historical, cultural, and social themes raised in the movie as well as stereotypes portrayed. The film entertained and educated an audience of more than 100, including many off-campus members of the Laramie community.
In more recent years MEChA has organized seminars on immigration reform and marched for social justice.
The 1984 to 2016 records of the University of Wyoming chapter of Moviminto Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán (MEChA) are available at the American Heritage Center. They provide insight into the organization’s history, membership, and its contribution towards building a more diverse UW.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.