Ya basta, it’s time for a walkout

Walkout or drop out!

East Los Angeles is composed of the largest Chicano population in the nation. In the late 1960s, Chicano students from schools on the East side of Los Angeles made up nearly 75% of the student population. These local institutions served the Mexican barrios — the Mexican portions of town — of L.A. Still, Chicano students faced academic inequity, resulting in an estimated 60% dropout rate among Mexican Americans. Even for those who graduated, the reading level within the community was as low as an eighth grade level. 

In addition, these institutions could have only one counselor for a student body of roughly 4,000, depending on the school. Students complained they were being steered toward vocational and domestic training rather than pushed for academics and college preparation. Some schools even prohibited speaking Spanish on school grounds. The prohibition of speaking Spanish in the classrooms took this expression away from students and dismissed their language. It was reported that if students were caught speaking Spanish, they would be spanked. 

Chicanos demanded that their language, history, and culture not be dismissed but reflected in their schools’ curricula. At the beginning of March 1968, Chicano students could either walk out and demand change within the district or watch the walkouts occur — known as the East L.A. Walkouts or Chicano Blowouts. With the Chicano students being at a massive low in college representation, students demanded change. 

The question remains, how did over 15,000 students across seven high schools reach the point where no teachers or administration were aware of their planning and managed to do so simultaneously? 

Sal Castro was a Mexican American social studies teacher at Belmont High School, where he organized students to go on strike and take their demands to the school board. He recalls in one instant seeing a school bus pick up around 25 seniors to take them to the local city college for college credit; none were Mexican American. 

Castro began to notice further the lack of representation in education for Mexican Americans and the lack of college preparatory resources for the population. The student government at Belmont did not have any Chicanos holding a position. For this reason, Castro began to search for students interested in running for their student government; he also requested that students speak a little Spanish at the assembly. 

After this request was followed through with at the assembly, the school lashed out. Ultimately, the school-wide meeting ended once the selected student spoke Spanish. Castro was suspended from Belmont the next day and transferred to Lincoln High School. 

Transferring high schools was different from the ending Castro had in mind. Castro had gone to UCLA to discuss with the United Mexican American Students, who needed their help. From there, he started gathering students from different East Los Angeles high schools to teach them their history and useful college information, subsequently encouraging students to apply to UC schools. 

Students from Belmont High School, Theodore Roosevelt High School, James A. Garfield High School, Woodrow Wilson High School (now El Sereno Middle School) and Abraham Lincoln High School had planned their walkout with the help of Garfield High alumni Carlos Montes, a member of the Brown Berets — a Chicano organization modeled after the Black Panther Party created for combating police brutality, racism and education, job and housing equality. 

Montes was an East Los Angeles College student, and on the morning of the walk, he drove to Lincoln High School and banged on lockers to encourage students to walk out.

The East Los Angeles students were inspired by the simultaneously-occurring Civil Rights Movement. The marches and protests inspired students to take it to the school board. However, all 39 requests were rejected after the walkouts because of insufficient funds. Graduation rates did increase after the blowout. Schools began to integrate bilingual programs. Chicano Studies classes and majors were incorporated into the college curriculum. 

Spanish is no longer prohibited, and the history, culture, and language are being taught. The walkout is said to have had no immediate effect; it eventually influenced the demands for proper education for Chicanos and all Latines. In addition, Belmont High School integrated a middle school named Sal Castro — the educator fired from the same institution in 1967. 

An influential part of Chicano history, the walkouts represented a young group’s commitment to the Chicano identity, which continued to grow afterward. These walkouts expanded nationally — however, the fight is not over.