MEChA High School Conference at the University of Utah

Story and photos by IASIA BEH

Several hundred Latinx high school students came to the University of Utah on Feb. 27, 2019, for the 24th annual Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, or M.E.Ch.A, High School Conference. The conference consisted of workshops, a keynote and lunch.

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A high school student receives information from university groups at the M.E.Ch.A. High School Conference.

The students all had varying reasons for attending the conference. One student came to fulfill hours for his Latinos in Action club. Others came to learn about college. Some came to learn about how undocumented students can get funding and help for school.

There was a sense of excitement all around the conference. Students were rapidly chatting each other up and approaching students from other high schools. It was often hard for the presenters to get the students’ attention as they were getting to know other students who were like them.

Conferences like this, for many students, are a break from the whiteness and racism of the schools they attend, especially for students who are undocumented. About 10 Latinx Taylorsville sophomores and juniors engaged in a group discussion after the workshop “Erasure of African Roots in México.” One sophomore named Juan said the reason some DACA students might not know their options for after high school is “because most of the time they are scared to speak up about it so they don’t know what to do when they graduate high school.”

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Students attend an “Erasure of African Roots in México” workshop on Feb. 27, 2019.

The students were adamant that the current political climate is the reason that many students are afraid to speak up. The president was elected when they were in junior high school.

How has that affected the students and their ability to enjoy school?

“It has affected us in, like, that we get attacked either by the teachers or the students that they make racial jokes,”  Juan said.   

Their teachers would make jokes?

“There were a lot of teachers that would like, say racial jokes in our classes that we had in ninth grade,” he clarified.

Another sophomore, Marissa, who went to Eisenhower Junior High with Juan, said that her friend had a poor experience with her science teacher. A white student had lost a paper and the teacher believed that she had completed the assignment and gave her full credit. Her friend, who is Latina, lost the same paper. However, she was not believed and was accused of not really losing her paper.

This wasn’t the only Latinx student who had this issue with this teacher. Other students commented that they felt like he would glare at them and otherwise make them feel uncomfortable.

“He was like that. He did really bad things to all of us Latinos,” another sophomore, Andrew, said.

“He would try to keep it low-key,” Marissa said.

“He would even give us dirty looks!” Juan added.

They then talked about how they went to the administration about the situation, and how they found a safe place to talk about it: Latinos in Action (LIA). They said that other students had had similar incidents with other teachers and it helped to hear about them from peers. However, they mentioned that some teachers were not supporting the existence of LIA.

“There were a lot of teachers that didn’t support that program at Eisenhower just because we were Latinos and we weren’t the [student body officers] who were white kids,” Juan said.   

While these students’ stories are anecdotal, they are far from unusual. The university has been taking strides to overcome these obstacles that students of color may face when they get to the U, including offering high school conferences that bring underrepresented students to campus.

Martha Hernandez, who gave the “Erasure of African Roots in México” workshop, said these conferences are important because students have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in college students. 

M.E.Ch.A. provides a “space where they can celebrate their cultural identities and have a space on campus where they can do that,” Hernandez said. “And also for them to know there is a community on campus for them.”