Friday, October 15, 2021

A boycott, hunger strike forges Latino Studies program at MSU in 1990s

October 18, 2016
People sit and talk before the Latinx Students In Need of Solidarity Town-Hall on Oct. 13, 2016 in the Erickson Hall Kiva. The town-hall, hosted by Culturas de las Razas Unidas, included emotional stories from students who had experienced racism.
People sit and talk before the Latinx Students In Need of Solidarity Town-Hall on Oct. 13, 2016 in the Erickson Hall Kiva. The town-hall, hosted by Culturas de las Razas Unidas, included emotional stories from students who had experienced racism. —
Photo by Emilia McConnell | The State News

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series looking at important protests in MSU's history. Part one was about how the Vietnam War launched campus activism. Part three will run online on Wednesday.

The Chicano/Latino Studies program at MSU now resides in room 200 of South Kedzie Hall. What the current generation of MSU students might not know is another generation fought for half a decade to convince the university to found the program. Among them was Ernesto Todd Mireles.

Mireles helped reform the MSU branch of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MEChA, and also served as the group’s chairman for a time.

"The university took this whole thing very seriously, in a way. The way that they took it seriously was ‘how can we stop this from happening?’ They never wanted a Chicano studies program, they never wanted an African American studies program."

At the time a primary goal of MEChA, along with Culturas de las Razas Unidas, or CRU, was to convince MSU to join a 1984 boycott against table grapes. The boycott, one of several called by Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, or UFW, objected to the use of certain pesticides on grape crops, which were claimed to have caused cancer and other negative health effects among workers. Mireles said most MEChA members had families who either were or had been migrant workers, making the boycott personal.

When former MSU president M. Peter McPherson was presented the group’s demands, Mireles said he was unreceptive to them, with particular opposition to honoring the boycott. Video compiled by MEChA shows a meeting between the group and McPherson, featuring dialogue from Mireles and McPherson regarding the demands.

“He looked over all of them, and there were two parts of the demands that he was like ... ‘there’s no way that we’re ever going to do this,’” Mireles said. “One of them had to do with Chicano studies, and the other was about the grape boycott.”

In February 1994, students stormed McPherson’s office hoping to convince him to honor the boycott. McPherson made a comment that students were unhappy with, and the situation quickly escalated. A history of the movement written by former MSU students said the comments had to do with Native Americans and manifest destiny.

After a student slammed a bag of grapes on McPherson’s desk, two female students started ripping open their own bags and throwing grapes around the room, Mireles said. One student then began smashing grapes with her feet upon a table.

“The whole thing didn’t last very long, probably lasted like a minute,” Mireles said. “But it sort of set the relationship (between us and McPherson), that’s probably the best way to put it.”

Two years later, student interest in the protests seemed to wane, Mireles said. In order to reignite the movement and make a final push toward their goals, MEChA started to plan a hunger strike. Mireles believes around this time is when the university finally listened to the students.

“At that point, people were kind of losing interest in the community, in the grape boycott,” Mireles said. “And so we thought that we would try one last-ditch effort to force the university to capitulate.”

On Feb. 13, 1996, six students including Mireles began a hunger strike that lasted seven days. One student, Mark Torres, was sent to the hospital after four days.

The hunger strike proved successful. Shortly after the strike ended, Mireles said the university created a path for dorms to choose to join the boycott should they wish, as well as designating every March 31 as "No Grapes Day."

“In those (protesting) individuals in particular, I think that it really deepened their commitment to what was happening in their community,” Mireles said.

"These are all things that people remember, the real work… it’s the organizing of people on a daily basis, the education that happens, the way of moving the agenda forward that allows these explosions to actually take place, and to be meaningful when they do."

MEChA’s next big move took place in February of 1999. The group rented a U-Haul truck and proceeded to exploit a loophole in library regulations, allowing them to check out more than 5,000 books.

“The library staff was going nuts,” Mireles said. “The thing is, we had done the research ahead of time about this action."

Mireles said because of a rule in which students have a right to privacy in their studies, no one can ask why they check out a book. Also, there was no limit to how many books could be checked out in one semester. MSU alumnus Daniel Soza III said the books were returned soon after.

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“It was obviously what you would call now ‘grandstanding,’” Soza said. “It was within 48 hours, they were all back in the library where they were supposed to be. I remember some of the comments in the newspaper were from other students, ‘well, I need this or this and that,’ they were all right back where they were supposed to be a short time later. The point was, if we can’t study our history, why should you be able to study anything else? It wasn’t to deny people the books they needed for whatever class they were taking.”

Soza said the book protest was one of the last events he took part in with MEChA before leaving the university.

“This moment, this thing that happened here at the library, this was the thing that really made them think ‘these guys aren’t going to quit,'” Mireles said.

The Chicano/Latino Studies Program started to come into shape, beginning as a mentorship program in the late 1990s, becoming an undergraduate specialization, becoming an undergraduate minor before it finally took its current form with an added doctoral program in 2007, MSU Libraries Chicano/Latino studies subject specialist Diana Rivera said. 

Rivera, the librarian for the Cesar Chavez Collection, said students had been discussing the possibility of a CLS program with the administration as far back as the 1969-70 school year, under former president Clifton Wharton.

"In those (protesting) individuals in particular, I think that it really deepened their commitment to what was happening in their community."

”I think that every four to eight years you have a core of students who like to keep, who need to keep, the conversation and the issue of Chicano/Latino Studies on the administration’s table,” Rivera said. “It’s not anything that will go away, I think that they’re quite diligent about keeping track of their history that way.”

In 1994, the Lansing City Council voted to rename Grand River Avenue to “Cesar Chavez Ave.” in celebration of Chavez’s achievements. After a public backlash, the change was reversed a year later. A section of East Grand River in Lansing was honorarily named after Chavez in 2010.

Mireles said though all the flashy, exciting moments are remembered, the grunt work involved with everyday activism is what truly paves the way for changes.

“These are all things that people remember, the real work … it’s the organizing of people on a daily basis, the education that happens, the way of moving the agenda forward that allows these explosions to actually take place, and to be meaningful when they do,” Mireles said.

In 2007, MSU launched the second Chicano/Latino Studies doctoral program in the U.S. Mireles said he finished his dissertation in this program in 2014. In addition, the UFW grape boycott ended in 2000, with union officials citing the ended use of many of the afflicting pesticides.

Over the course of these changes, Mireles said the role of student activists changed from protesting to defending.

“The university took this whole thing very seriously, in a way,” Mireles said. “The way that they took it seriously was, ‘how can we stop this from happening?’ They never wanted a Chicano studies program, they never wanted an African American studies program. They wanted, at the very least, an ethnic studies program, and how that looked to them is very different than the things that we wanted or the things that we demanded. The reality is that MSU had the second PhD program for Chicano studies in the world. ... That’s the reality of the struggle that the students made, that’s what we were able to accomplish.”

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