AILSA CHANG, HOST:
At its annual conference earlier this month, the nation's oldest Mexican American student group decided to change its name. Student leaders said it's a push to be more inclusive of other Latin American identities. As NPR's Adrian Florido reports, that has sparked a big debate among Mexican Americans.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: In 1969, Mexican American students got together in California and founded MEChA as a way to advocate for themselves on their mostly white college campuses. The students called themselves Chicanos. And MEChA is a Spanish acronym. It means the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan. Margarita Berta-Avila joined the UC Davis chapter in the 1990s.
MARGARITA BERTA-AVILA: It was during those school years that I was in the most pain. The things that I would do to try to fit in - like, if you would what put lemon all over your body, you would become whiter, dyeing your hair lighter.
FLORIDO: Joining MEChA changed that.
BERTA-AVILA: And through MEChA, I realized that I could be proud of who I was and where I came from. I actually felt free.
FLORIDO: Berta-Avila is now a professor at Sacramento State University. She's not herself Mexican American. Her parents are from El Salvador and Peru. But she identified so closely with the struggle of her Mexican American classmates and their search for belonging that she adopted their term. She started calling herself Chicana. And so it came as a surprise when she heard a few weeks ago that MEChA's national board had voted to change the group's name
BERTA-AVILA: Like, it felt like a death. Like, what? Yeah, it's, like - it takes your - it takes the breath out of me to even explain how I feel.
FLORIDO: MEChA's members voted to drop the terms Chicanx and Aztlan from the name. Aztlan is a reference to a mythical Aztec homeland. Berta-Avila felt like the group's current student leaders had lost sight of how pivotal those two concepts were. Generations of students had embraced them to organize, resist assimilation and progress in their careers.
BERTA-AVILA: And you erase, in my personal opinion, Chicana, Chicano, Chicanx from these - from MEChA, you're eventually erasing - and that context and that narrative and that story of where we're at.
FLORIDO: At MEChA's national conference, though, the vote to drop Chicanx and Aztlan passed overwhelmingly. Gabriela Guillen is a co-chair of MEChA's National Board and a student at Cal State San Luis Obispo.
GABRIELA GUILLEN: It's a very beautiful history. I don't think that - I think that it's a very beautiful identity as well. And people should be proud to have it. But I think in a greater push to bring people of marginalized backgrounds to the movement, I think this name change is a good first step.
FLORIDO: Guillen said she and her MEChA colleagues wanted to change the name because the term Chicano and Aztlan are too Mexican-centric. Her co-chair, University of Chicago student Emilio Balderas, said they're no longer a good reflection of MEChA's membership, which also includes Central and South Americans.
EMILIO BALDERAS: It's wrong in my eyes to work alongside people, have them contribute their labor, their time, you know, and their love to an organization and have that organization not reflect that.
FLORIDO: But many MEChA alumni have accused current students of misunderstanding the history of the terms, their true meaning. One argument is that Chicano, rather than refer to a specific nationality, refers more to a philosophy of struggle and therefore includes anyone who can relate to that struggle. Diego Paniagua is a graduate student of Chicana-Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge. He says he understands that perspective but also says MEChA has changed in the last 50 years.
DIEGO PANIAGUA: As time went on and the brown identity started getting very diverse and not so Mexican, things started splintering. And I think a lot of the stuff that's going on right now, it's - folks want to be able to be seen an identity that they are.
FLORIDO: It's a shift that's happening at many levels within the U.S. Latino community as some institutions whose work has traditionally been oriented toward Mexicans have recast themselves to be more inclusive of non-Mexicans, women and LGBTQ Latinos. At MEChA, this process is just beginning. While students have already approved a name change, they haven't decided what the new name will be. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.