By Natasha Karunaratne
50 years ago this week, during the first week of March 1968, over 10,000 students throughout East Los Angeles high schools walked out of their classrooms to stand up for the educational rights of Mexican-American students. Some of the leaders insisted that it was more than a walk out, it was a “Chicano Blowout.” Mexican-American students in Los Angeles were attending schools with some of the lowest graduation rates in the country. Moreover, classrooms were overcrowded, and students were frustrated. Something had to change.
The 1960s were a time of intense civil rights activism in the U.S. and the world – the Black Led-Civil Rights movement led to profound legal and social change, the Stonewall riots in New York have come to be recognized as a turning point in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, and protests against the Vietnam War were spreading across the country. It was in this context that the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement began. Instead of focusing on a single issue, activists targeted a broad cross-section of issues—from the restoration of land grants to farm workers rights, to voting and political rights, and to education. Sadly, outside of the names of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, there has been very little attention given to this important American story.
The Los Angeles Times explains:
Although the walkouts seemed spontaneous, they grew out of years of social activism. Since 1963, Camp Hess Kramer, a Jewish summer camp in Malibu, had hosted motivational programs for outstanding East L.A. students, who shared grievances about their underperforming high schools and neglected neighborhoods.
At the forefront of the battle for education was Sal Castro, a Mexican-American East L.A. native, hired as a high school social studies teacher and determined to change the fate of his predominantly Mexican-American students. Castro instilled in his students a sense of cultural pride. One of his students’ notes “he made me feel like loving Mexican culture and our own heritage was actually cool. That was both unsettling and revolutionary and exciting.” As they learned about Mexican American culture and their indigenous roots, many began adopting a new name for themselves – Chicano. Moreover, he was able to give them a sense that they were not the problem, but rather it was the school system that was failing them. Castro and others hoped to organize a student walkout to focus attention on the issue.
An opportunity arose in early March when student anger was aroused over the cancellation of a play at a local high school. Taking advantage of the situation, walkouts were scheduled at Wilson and Garfield High Schools for March 5. The next day, other students at Lincoln and Roosevelt High Schools joined in.
On March 6, 1968, 10,000 students poured out of their East L.A. high schools to stand in protest, demanding an education. According to the Los Angeles Times:
“Students carried American flags and signs reading, “We demand schools that teach,” “School not prison” and “We are not ‘dirty Mexicans.’”….
The unrest continued for about a week, with protests erupting at a few other campuses — even two junior highs — not originally included in the walkout plans. At a raucous school board meeting 10 days into the protests, students presented 36 demands. Some seemed excessive: Only pass/fail grades. Student lounges with jukeboxes. Mexican dishes in the cafeteria prepared by local mothers.
Others were very basic: Smaller classes. New libraries. More bilingual counselors, teachers and principals. Improved testing to distinguish between a lack of English proficiency and lack of intelligence. More lessons on Mexican American culture, art and history. And no corporal punishment.
The L.A. school board agreed to meet many of the student’s demands, promising to hire more bilingual teachers and to reduce class size. The board claimed that many of the other changes the student’s sought were already under consideration.
The L.A. walkouts were followed by similar student walkouts in San Antonio and 39 cities and towns across Texas. What impact did they have? According to PBS, “the decade of the 1970s would see more Latinos attending colleges and universities than ever before.”
However, some argue that the biggest change the walkouts brought was how Chicanos see themselves.
“Before the walkouts, the word Chicano did not have the charge of claiming our identity in the country and saying yeah I’m an American and that means being Chicano. After the walkouts, being Chicano meant you were going to stand up for who you were and own it.”
- What tools do young people, too young to vote, have to inspire social change?
- Why might Chicano students have been inspired to list demands and carry out a walkout particularly in 1968? What else was happening at the time that might have inspired them?
- Review the student demands listed in the article. Consider why student protesters might have included them? What do they reveal about the student’s concerns?
- The LA Times describes some of the student demands as excessive. What do you think? Why do you think the writer would have classified those specific demands as excessive? How do you think the student protesters would have defended their inclusion?
- Research the long-lasting effects of the L.A. walkouts? What demands were met and what changes did the country see for the education rights of Mexican-Americans? What challenges remain?
- Arguably one of the biggest changes that the walkouts brought was a change in the way Mexican Americans saw themselves and their history. Symbolizing that change was the use of the word Chicano for Mexican-Americans to identify themselves. What word(s) do you use to identify yourself and how would you describe the choices and meanings of this word?
- Consider using the 10 Questions for Changemakers to explore the choices organizers of the protest made.