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Defining 'Chicanismo' Since the 1969 Denver Youth Conference

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This article was originally published March 23, 2012.

The 1969 Denver Youth Conference was the first time that a generation of Mexican American youth gathered on a large scale to discuss common issues of oppression, discrimination and injustice. Organized on March 23, 1969, as the National Youth and Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado, by Chicano activists leader Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, it was attended by approximately 1500 Mexican American youths from throughout the United States. The conference resulted in branding of the term "Chicanismo," a philosophy of cultural nationalism that united Mexican Americans under the term "Chicano," with El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan as its advocating manifesto and MEChA, a nationwide student organization, to promote Chicano nationalism in college and university campuses as well as their extended networks in the Latino community.

Today, MEChA exists as over 400 loosely affiliated chapters within a national organization. Typical activities of a MEChA chapter includes educational & social activities, such as tutoring, mentorship, and poetry recitals. MECHa conferences are held several times a year at regional, statewide, and national levels. Just as it operated historically, many chapters today are involved in political actions, such as lobbying school administrators for expanded bilingual education programs and Chicano-related curricula. The organization has also evolved. During the 1999 National Conference at Phoenix College, MEChA adopted a new document entitled The Philosophy of MEChA which expressed a more moderate view: "all people are potential Chicanas and Chicanos", and that "Chicano identity is not a nationality but a philosophy".

Over time, MEChA moved away from the militant nationalism of the 1960s promoted by El Plan de Aztlan. In June 2006, journalist Gustavo Arellano commented in a Los Angeles Times op-ed article, "few members take these dated relics of the 1960s seriously, if they even bothered to read them." However, in the same article, Arrallano also noted that all MEChA members of his class graduated from college and have gone on to successful careers, a rarity at a time when only a small percentage of Latinos were earning a college degree.

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Chicanismo Today

Many of the organizations and ideas that resulted from the 1969 Denver Youth Conference still remain. But they have been shaped, criticized and utilized differently as Chicanismo transformed over time. We talked with Sybil Venegas, Chair of the Chicana/o Studies Department at East Los Angeles College, who discussed these changes in the interview below:

How are youth engaged in fostering and promoting Chicanismo today? Is MEChA still relevant?

MEChA is still relevant but there are other latino student groups engaged in a multitude of struggles. What seems to be driving a lot of student activism these days are the AB 540 students and the politics affecting undocumented students. These are the activist students today. While many of these students are in mecha there are also other groups more focused on these struggles. On campuses today its no longer about chicanismo but achieving basic human rights and educational rights. Not that Chicanismo isn't important, its just not as relevant.

Poetry and the arts played a pivotal role in shaping the Chicano Movement, including Alurista's poem, which became the preamble for El Plan Espirtual de Aztlan. Does poetry and the arts have the same influence today?

I think poetry and the arts are critical in any struggle to achieve justice, or social change. They humanize the process and engage people in reflective or spiritual ways. Today music, poetry, spoken word, public art, murals have the same influence but society is different. There is so much control of media as compared to the 1960s-70s when the early movement was happening. Instead of funding murals in public places, government is either removing or requiring certain criteria be met. Yet there is music, it's accessible through the internet, much more politicized, conscious music, and spoken word always around.

In this video Sybil Venegas discusses the important role of art in the Chicano community.

Sybil Venegas is an art historian, professor, and chair of the Chicana/Chicano Studies department at East Los Angeles College.
Shifra Goldman - Sybil Venegas - Recognizing the Chicano Art Movement

If not the arts, what is influencing and shaping Chicanismo today?

Right now, the issues galvanizing Chicana/o youth are those in response to the post 9/11 world. Immigration and how it shapes our communities from the inside out and the outside in. Self perceptions and the perceptions of the greater society. The attacks on ethnic studies has created a movement more concerned with maintaining what was achieved in the 1970's than being able to create more. But because of the earlier activist generation much more knowledge in the arts, culture, danza, spiritual and healing practices, etc is available to youth from their 'elders' and many events and activities are organized around this.

How has Chicanismo changed or evolved since the 1969 conference?

In the '70s the movement was concerned with achieving social justice on a variety of fronts and was largely identity driven. Much of what has become institutionalized forms of Chicanismo, like Chicana/o studies, Chicano political organizations, Chicano art in museums, collections, galleries, cultural festivals like Dia de los Muertos, etc. are part of our society in ways they weren't 40 years ago. So, the struggle is no longer about institutionalizing these programs or art forms; they now exist. The struggle now is to keep them from being dismantled, or defunded or removed. The situation in Arizona is a good example. 40 years ago, students rallied around the ideologies of chicanismo to create chicano studies curriculum in the schools. Now those programs have become targets in our post 9/11 world. Immigration from Mexico is another issue.

Who are the Chicanos today? What does Chicanismo mean to them?

Our world is so much more global and diverse than it was in the 1970s. Many in the "Chicano" community are mixed race, or central American, or Mexican/Salvadoran, Mexican/Guatemalan, etc. And while, if educated, they understand the label Chicano, they often don't use it. Youth see the world differently than 40 years ago. It's not that we live in a post racial world, but the word Chicano is not all that commonly used. Mostly youth today don't know anything about the movement, even things that happened in their own backyards. The schools don't educate about the movement. The government demonizes Mexican immigrants and distinctions about undocumented Mexicans vs. those with ciitzenship is blurred, maligned, misunderstood. Mexican American youth are impacted by this still, but unless they go to college and take chicano studies courses they are largely uninformed. A large percentage of Chicano youth in the colleges are second generation children of immigrants, and their families are often uninformed of Chicano history who see the word Chicano as a negative. In many ways it's ironic that we have so much more Chicano culture visibility in the mainstream, yet a greater lack of awareness in chicano/latino communities.

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