50 years ago, thousands walked out of East LA schools. Now, they say ‘the fight isn't over.'
On March 6, 2013 — just like she did almost every year on the 6th of March — Paula Crisostomo called her former teacher, Sal Castro, to wish him a "happy anniversary." That year, it was the last time they ever spoke.
Castro was dying of thyroid cancer. "He did not have a voice any longer," Crisostomo remembered; a phone call with "Sal" meant speaking to his wife, Charlotte Lerchenmuller, who would read her husband's written replies aloud.
But this phone call was important. She called Castro every year on the anniversary of the day in 1968 that students first walked out of Crisostomo’s alma mater, Lincoln High School. That year, Castro was central to organizing walkouts at Lincoln and four other East Los Angeles high schools to protest the unequal education Latino students received — and Crisostomo, a senior in 1968, had helped organize too.
"Tell Paula," Castro dictated to his wife, "it's been a great ride, but the fight isn't over." Castro died a month later.
"Those were his last words to me," Crisostomo said.
All this month, politicians, dignitaries, educators, students and community leaders will hold various ceremonies and gatherings to mark the 50th anniversary of the student walkouts — or "blowouts," as some students called them — at Lincoln, Wilson, Garfield, Roosevelt and Belmont high schools.
The blowouts were pivotal moments in the history of the L.A. Unified School District. Some historians even argue the walkouts, led by teenagers, were the beginning of an urban Chicano rights movement to parallel the political awakening already underway for rural farm workers.
In measuring how far the city, the schools and Latinos have come in the fifty years since, Crisostomo says Castro's last words still ring true — the fight isn't over.
"We still have to be vigilant," she said. "We still have to resist."
KPCC spoke with three walkout participants — Crisostomo, Mita Cuarón and Luís Torres — who shared their reflections and experiences.
Why Organize • Paula • Lincoln
Perhaps a year before the walkouts, Crisostomo got out of her seat to ask her geometry teacher a question about an assignment.
The teacher rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Paula," she remembered him saying. "We all know you're never going to college. You and your girlfriends back there are going to be pregnant by the end of summer. Go and sit down. Don't waste my time."
Five decades ago, many L.A. schools unfairly relegated many Latino students to the wrong academic "track," excluding them unfairly some of them from classes that would prepare them for college.
Crisostomo was relatively lucky to be in that geometry class — it was considered to be on the best track — though she now realizes her geometry teacher's comment betrayed exactly how little teachers expected even of the "best" students. But Crisostomo, who was a junior at the time, did not protest or object to the racist slight. She didn't even take silent offense.
"We were used to being told things like that all of our lives by teachers," she said. "It had become so internalized and normalized for me."
Crisostomo, who's of Mexican and Filipina descent, has fond memories of her childhood in Lincoln Heights. But she also remembered growing up aware of inequity and injustice in the world — from issues as global as the Vietnam War and as local as harassment her neighbors received from police. She remembers helping her mother, a community activist in her own right, to make phone calls soliciting donations for various causes.
Her world opened further when she was assigned to Castro's government class at Lincoln. He was different from her other teachers. Unlike the others, Castro "was known to listen — really listen — to what his students had to say … He had high expectations which other teachers did not."
Through Castro, Crisostomo first gained an appreciation of how unequal conditions at Lincoln were from other L.A. Unified schools. He took a small group of students on a drive to Fairfax High School — a gleaming, new school at the time. She was floored just to see green grass on the campus; at Lincoln, "what grass there was was not very green."
"I remember Sal saying, '[Fairfax] is part of LAUSD,'" Crisostomo said. "'It's part of the same school district Lincoln is part of.' And of course, I said, 'But why is it so different? Why is this?'"
At 16, Crisostomo's world expanded further when Castro invited her to take part in the Mexican-American Youth Leadership Conference, a gathering where Chicano college students mentored kids from high schools across L.A.
Together, these students began realizing gripes they had about their own schools were, in fact, systemic problems: high dropout rates, decrepit facilities, prohibitions on speaking Spanish and suppression of students' ability to explore their own cultures.
"We took it upon ourselves to try and do something," Crisostomo said. They organized surveys of East L.A. high school students. When those surveys showed widespread discontent among their peers in a neighborhood dominated by kids of color — Latino, black and Asian students — students like Crisostomo brought the results to various elected officials and the L.A. Unified School Board. The complaints were essentially ignored.
"I felt angrier and angrier and angrier," Crisostomo remembered.
The Struggle • Mita • Garfield
On the afternoon of March 5, 1968, the fire alarm went off at Garfield High School — and students began streaming out.
Four days earlier, Wilson High had become the first East L.A. school to stage a walkout. The Wilson walkout on March 1 was been unplanned; students upset that the principal had canceled a school play spontaneously called for the protest.
Now, Garfield students were themselves about to "jump the gun." Among them was Margarita "Mita" Cuarón, a sophomore who had met Castro two months earlier.
With the fire alarms ringing and students standing outside of Garfield buildings, Cuarón made a spontaneous decision.
"I pick up a cone on the street," she remembered. "I jump on a car and start yelling, 'Walk out!'"
This was not exactly part of Castro's plan. "What I really wanted," Castro wrote in a 2011 book, "was to bluff the school board and school officials. I wanted to use the threat of a mass student civil disobedience as a way of forcing them to listen to the kids and to change their attitudes and practices about our students."
With Garfield and Wilson, "there went our bluff. The walkouts had started."
Cuarón had her reasons for wanting to walk out. When she started at Garfield, she was dismayed to discover that she'd been "tracked" into non-college courses at Garfield — which was confusing, because she remembered being a decent student in middle school.
After meeting Castro, Cuarón began helping to organize the blowouts. Her parents were also especially active, hosting organizing meetings at their home. They owned a mimeograph, and Cuarón remembered printing leaflets of the students' demands.
On March 5, outside Garfield, Cuarón's peers were quickly met by L.A. County Sheriff's deputies, lined up, she remembered, "with their billy clubs and their pistols and their helmets in full force." Cuarón decided to leave, walking down a few blocks and catching a bus home.
Cuarón would encounter law enforcement again that first week of the walkouts. First, while at a protest on the Garfield campus — perhaps after the walkouts began in earnest on March 6 — Cuarón felt herself being pulled by the arms by two white men.
"Who are you?" the men shouted at Cuarón. "Who sent you here? And why are you doing this?" She couldn't tell for certain whether these men were undercover policemen.
Castro had recruited students from nearby colleges and activists known as Brown Berets to help organize the walkouts and protect students from law enforcement. Whoever these men were grabbing Cuarón, they thought she was one of them: "They thought I was an infiltrator."
Later that same day, security guards approached her, began "manhandling" her, pushing her up against a fence. "Why are you doing this?" she recalled them demanding of her. "I was crying and upset and scared."
Ten days after Garfield first walked out, Cuarón and her father went to the school's office in hopes of meeting Garfield principal Reginald Murphy.
"As we entered the office, the principal comes out," she recalled. "He doesn't address my father even by his name."
"Buster, if you don't leave my campus," Cuarón remembered him saying, "I'm going to have you arrested … You should be ashamed for depriving your daughter of an education."
Her father refused to budge. Deputies came and arrested them, taking them off to jail.
In a way, the walkouts rattled Cuarón — she was dismayed by the treatment she received and eventually dropped out of Garfield after a separate on-campus incident the next year. (She later earned a GED and recently retired after a long career as a nurse.)
But in other ways, the walkouts fortified her. She feels lucky to have been part of an important moment.
"I feel so blessed to have been there in this time of history — that I was chosen," she said. "I feel so proud. I'm proud. But I also carry the human element of the traumatic experiences."
Resonance • Luís • Lincoln
The East L.A. walkouts were Luís Torres' first big story.
Torres was editor of the Lincoln High School newspaper, The Railsplitter, in 1968. When students started streaming out of classes at 10 o'clock on March 6, he grabbed his tape recorder and his notebook.
"We were not a bunch of politically-sophisticated folks," Torres remembered. "We knew something was wrong. We knew we were mistreated to some degree."
As a young man, walking out that first day "was a very invigorating feeling.” And as a young journalist, he was caught up in trying to get the story, grabbing students for "man-on-the-street" interviews — "which are all baloney in a way, but no, they're good for capturing the emotion of the moment."
But Torres needed to get "the other side," too — the school administration's point of view. When Lincoln principal George Ingles appeared near the gates on the edge of the school property, Torres saw his chance. But the principal waved him away — not disdainfully, Torres remembered, just with an air of finality. A counselor gave him a "no-comment" as well.
"So I never got the other side," Torres said.
Torres — raised mostly by his mother in Lincoln Heights, the youngest of nine kids — was uniquely positioned to tell not only the story of what happened during the walkouts, but of how those walkouts rippled forward through history.
After graduating from college and making films for a few years, Torres went to Columbia Journalism School and returned to Los Angeles to work for most of the next 27 years as a reporter at radio station KNX.
"It had been several years since the walkouts," said Torres, who started at KNX in 1981. "But the sort of spirit and momentum … you could feel it still resonated.
"There were wonderful things going on — with murals, with poetry, with music. There was a different consciousness. The world was beginning to realize that Chicanos, Mexicanos, Mexican-Americans were here and were valid, legitimate and important."
Torres notes there are more people of color in the teaching forces of East L.A. high schools. Latinos now are represented in state and local elected offices.
In his view, there have been setbacks. "As we made progress, as Latinos made progress, people were freaked out about it and responded negatively … as the talking heads on CNN and Fox say, 'pushback.'"
For instance, he remembered interviewing California Gov. Pete Wilson about Proposition 187, the 1994 statewide ballot measure eventually thrown out in court that barred immigrants living in the country illegally from accessing education or other non-emergency public services.
"At one point," Torres remembered of his interview with the governor, "I was a little frustrated and I said, 'What have you got against Mexicans?' which was not a very professional way to do it, but I had already asked in more diplomatic and polite terms."
"But," Torres added later, "let's look at that as a catalyst that galvanized Latinos, many of whom had become legal residents and were on the path to citizenship" because of Reagan-era immigration legislation.
Those Latinos — newly-empowered as citizens — "eventually threw people they didn't like out of office … It showed that this group of people — although they're not always acting in unanimity — were a force to be reckoned with."
Torres noted one of the last big stories he covered in his time at KNX was May Day of 2006, when one million people flooded into the streets of Los Angeles for pro-immigrant demonstrations.
"It takes big stuff to make things change," said Torres, who retired from KNX in 2008 and is now in the midst of several book projects.
"We were hoping that the walkouts would be, on its own level, a big thing that would make people take notice and that change would begin. I think it probably has, but glacially slow. Some things are improving significantly, but goodness — it's taken fifty years!"
"So it's a struggle," Torres added. "It's a struggle. Always has been."
Take Two looked at the lasting legacy of the East L.A. walkouts. To listen, click the play button below.
- Raul Ruiz, former editor for underground student newspapers in 1968
- Mario Garcia, author of “Blowout: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice”
- Maria Brenes, executive director of Inner City Struggle, a group working to empower families on L.A.’s Eastside