How did the Chicano Student Movement and cultural nationalism inform the declarations made in El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan?

Written by Erik Guillen

The Chicano Student Movement

The Chicano Student Movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s was a campus-based phenomenon mostly centered around states in the Southwest. It was founded on the need to fight against exploitation, oppression, and discrimination against Mexican American communities. A silenced political voice, lacking economic opportunities, and disadvantages in the education system were few of the reasons that demonstrated the need for Chicanos to push forward their movement.

The movement was originally composed of a large number of loosely-connected organizations that mostly worked with localized communities. Examples of the organizations that existed during this period included the Mexican American Student Confederation, United Mexican American Students, Mexican American Student Organization, the Mexican American Youth Organization. Early in the movement, these groups struggled to gain momentum. The organizations had little to no communication with one another. Each organization was small in numbers and, as a collective, they had no clearly defined long-term goals or a sense of purpose.

This lacking interconnectedness prevented the organizations from effectively uniting. However, student activism did have greater impact on community activism in which they challenged older leadership and existing political practices.

Chicano Youth Liberation Conference

In March 1969, over two-thousand Mexican-American youth came together from all across the country to attend the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado. The conference captured the sense of unity in the Chicano Student Movement and it showed that Mexican-Americans were determined to break away from an assimilationist mentality that had prevailed up to that point.1 The major outcome that resulted from this conference was the drafting and adoption of a document called El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan.

Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan

By April 1969, most student organization united under the name Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA). This new organization had a strong commitment to confronting social inequities and held a firm stance in rejecting the of assimilation of Mexican Americans to mainstream society.1

At the Denver conference, the group adopted a sense of national Chicano identity. This shift in identity was captured in El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, which captured a spirit of liberation and self-determination for Chicanos in the United States. The document they adopted served as a foundation for MEChA and it helped demonstrate the national organization that was occurring within the Chicano Student Movement.

These commitments were to be accomplished through student militant activities on college campuses and in nearby communities. This organization began to build a sense of unity and pride surrounding a Chicano identity and allowed the movement to gain strength and numbers.

The Mythical Land of Aztlan

Before beginning to analyze the Plan, it is important to understand what Aztlan meant to the Chicano community. Aztlan is defined as the spiritual and political homeland of Chicanos. It represents the a “utopian imagination of a mythical Aztec homeland” from which the Aztecs originated before they found their prophesied home in Tenochtitlan.5

Though all that was known about this mythical land of origin is that it lied north of modern day Mexico City, Chicano activists declared that Aztlan lied in what is now the Southwest of the United States. In referring to the Southwest of the United States as the ancient homeland of Aztlan, they stake their claim as rightful owners of the land deserving of control and influence over the territory. This idea validated their ability to “claim space, rights, and belonging”(31)5 in a space that has been denied to them in a social and political sense.

As Ignacio Garcia explains in Chicanismo, “those who crossed the river came not as strangers but as the sons and daughters of the former Aztecs, seeking to reclaim what was once theirs” (95)2. Though Aztlan was nothing more than mythical site, it validated the Chicano experience in the United States. It functioned as a site of origin for the formation of a Chicano identity and empowered youth as being deserving of securing justice and self-determination for their communities.5

El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan

At this time, many Chicanos believed that too many from their community felt the need to repress aspects of their Mexican heritage in order to integrate and succeed in American society. The document expressed a shift away from this believe. It expressed the need to awaken those in La Raza that were “lost and confused when trying to become Anglo and relate to the European way of life” (86)3. Such activists claimed that their ancestors had passed on to them a heritage that was too deep to be transformed and forgotten.

Chicano Nationalism Takes Root

In El Plan Espiritual De Aztlan, Chicanos call for a sense of ownership and pride over their indigenous heritage. They call for building a stronger sense of nationality and culture around the Mexican-American experience in the United States.

The document opens by characterizing a new group of people that is “conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal “gringo” invasion of our territories.”4 This opening sets the tone for a sense of Chicano cultural nationalism that was gaining momentum at the time. The document expressed nationalism as an “organizational glue” necessary for advancing the Chicano movement.2

As stated in the Plan, Chicanos perceive Nationalism to be “the key to organization transcends all religious, political, class, and economic factions or boundaries. Nationalism is the common denominator that all members of La Raza can agree upon.”

Conclusion

Under this the ideology expressed in the Plan, Chicanos view “social, economic, cultural, and political independence is the only road to total liberation from oppression, exploitation, and racism.”4 Though in modern day one can see the proclamations they make as being very idealistic in nature, one cannot not deny the influence the Plan had in encouraging the Chicano youth of the time to push for self-determination in side of their education system and with their local communities in a way that had not been seen with this population before.

In other words, the Plan Espiritual established the foundation which allowed political and cultural developments to take place around a youth Mexican American identity that focused on Chicano nationalism and student activism.

Footnotes:

1. Juan Gomez Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise 1940-1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 101–155.
2. Ignacio M. Garcia, Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 86–116.
3. Lorena Oropeza and Dionne Espinoza, Enriqueta Vasquez and the Chicano Movement (Huston: Arte Publico Press, 2006), 83–88.
4. Rodolfo Gonzales, Alberto Urista, and the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference,
El plan espiritual de Aztlan (Alburquerque, El Grito del Norte, 1969).
5. Jaqueline M. Hidalgo, Revelation in Aztlan (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 29–39.

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