The 20th anniversary commemoration of a 1995 student-led hunger strike started at the beginning of the finals week, Monday, May 4. The commemoration was hosted by the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), who also staged the strike back in 1995.
MEChA is a nation wide student organization born out of the student and civil rights movements during the 1960s. According to MEChA’s website, a group of over 100 Chicana/Chicano students gathered at the University of California Santa Barbra and drafted a plan for higher education called “El Plan de Santa Barbara.” The plan created MEChA and helped to create Chicana/Chicano studies departments in universities across California.
MEChA’s goal is to improve the educational and civil rights of Chicana/Chicano students, to help preserve their cultural identify, and increase awareness of their struggle, according to the organizations website.
Their website also lays out the student organization’s current philosophy, “Chicano is a term not grounded nationality, Chicanismo does not exclude anyone, rather it includes those who acknowledge and work toward the betterment of La Raz.”
Also according to their philosophy they fight for change in society, through education and political involvement and want to promote the construction of an enlightened community.
St. Cloud State’s MEChA chapter was founded in 1992, only three years before they staged the hunger strike.
The 1995 hunger strike permanently left its mark on SCSU’s history and led to substantive changes for the university’s multicultural communities.
With a list of 15 demands, including the “implementation of a mandatory Cultural Awareness Training Program for all students at SCSU,” and “the hiring of a legal advocate for all students.” The strike resulted in the creation of the Multicultural Resource Center in the Miller Center, the Student Cultural Center in Atwood, as well as a plan to create a Chicana/Chicano studies major. Also according to the original list of demands left by protesting students, the university had to commit to recruiting and retaining more students and faculty of color, with a focus on faculty who would be supportive to students of color.
The 20th anniversary recognition of the hunger strike featured an array of events, starting on Monday with MEChA putting signs up of their 15 demands in the space between Centennial Hall and the Administration building, where the original site of the hunger strike was located. Then, Monday night a special screening of the documentary made about the hunger strike, produced by Jerry Lopez, alumnus of St. Cloud State.
Tuesday at noon, the main event of the celebration and the recognition ceremony was hosted between Centennial Hall and Administration where the signs were put up the day before. The ceremony featured former and current SCSU members of MEChA individually describing each of the 15 demands and the meaning behind each demand. The ceremony also featured a performance by Danza Mexica Cuauhtémoc, a traditional Mexica/Azteca dance group. And, as their performance started they announced that they were there to celebrate change and reflected this in the traditional dance ceremonies they preformed.
The performers featured vibrant traditional costumes as well as Chachayotes, noise-making instruments made out of seeds that are strapped to the dancer’s ankles. As the performance stated the leader of the group announced that the dances they performed celebrated the change that students were able to bring to the university. The leader of Danza Mexica Cuauhtémoc also narrated the group’s last dance at the end of the performance, saying “normally we collect the energy that we created in dancing, but today we will leave the energy here for the students to use, to help continue change.”
The last part of the ceremony featured a few keynote speakers and a chance for the crowd to voice their opinion as well. One of the speakers was the university’s President Earl H. Potter III, whose office was a sponsor of this years event as well. In his speech, President Potter said even with all of the change “we have much work to do” and to “not accept the status quo… push for change.”
After his speech, when asked what the hunger strike accomplished for the university, President Potter said that “It was a watershed turning point for the university, I think one of the strongest aspects of our culture is the Multicultural Student Services and the strong community of color we have here. We have the smallest gap between the academic success of white students and students of color, overall it was a turning point in our history.”
President Potter was not at SCSU during the time of the hunger strike so he could not fully comment on the conditions leading up to the strike, but he did say that the situation was like “a pot of water boiling over.”
Neri Diaz, one of the students involved in the original hunger strike, was able to comment on the situation before the strike.
“There were very few of us, and we were new to the community, but there was a lot of prejudice and racism that we faced, but we tried to help combat [that] with by spreading cultural awareness,” Diaz said. He also said that MEChA was very helpful in organizing students of color, and in helping them gain access to rights that the rest of the community have had for years.
One of the events main organizers from MEChA was Jessica Luis. Luis commented on the importance of student organizations saying, “If it wasn’t for our different cultural organizations, students of color would have no other place to go, fit into a cultural space and these organizations bring most of the changes to the university.”
While the celebration has ended, every 5 years they will celebrate again, to serve as a longstanding reminder that students and organizations at this university can be the agents of change. When Jessica Luis was asked why they celebrate the hunger strike every 5 years she said, “It serves a reminder of the culture that once existed at SCSU, and to ensure that it will never go back to the way it was before.”