What Gun Violence Protesters Can Learn From 1968's Chicano Blowouts

May 30, 2018
Originally published on June 12, 2018 7:21 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This year's school walkouts protesting gun violence echo an earlier generation of high school students in East Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, they walked out of their schools to protest discriminatory conditions. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the day the organizers of those walkouts were rounded up and arrested. NPR's Mandalit del Barco revisits that time.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In March of '68, thousands of students streamed out of five East LA high schools to protest inequality in the public-school system. The Blowouts, as they were known, went on for weeks across the city. The events were chronicled in the landmark PBS series "Chicano!"

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHICANO!")

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: And all of a sudden, the chanting began. Chicano power. Chicano power. We demand change.

DEL BARCO: Chicano was the name the Mexican-American students gave themselves to express pride. They'd been galvanized by Lincoln High Social Studies teacher Sal Castro.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHICANO!")

SAL CASTRO: As the bell rang for the kids to go to school into the classroom, out they went with their heads held high, with dignity. It was beautiful to be a Chicano that day.

DEL BARCO: The East LA students boycotted their schools to get a decent education.

CASTRO: Moctesuma Esparza was a UCLA student who returned to his alma mater, Lincoln High, to protest.

MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: My job was to run onto the campus and to yell, walk out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKOUT")

BODIE OLMOS: (As Moctesuma Esparza) Walk out. Walk out. Walk out. Come on.

DEL BARCO: As a filmmaker, Esparza later reenacted the protests and what led up to run for the 2006 HBO movie "Walkout."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKOUT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Our schools are the back of the bus.

DEL BARCO: Tensions had been building for generations. Only half of the Mexican-American students in LA public schools graduated from high school, even fewer went on to college. Most of their teachers were white and never taught them about their history or culture. Forget bilingual education, students were being punished, even beaten for speaking Spanish at school.

BOBBY VERDUGO: I wasn't worth their time to teach me. I wasn't going to amount to much.

DEL BARCO: That's how Bobby Verdugo felt as a 17-year-old senior at Lincoln High. He and his classmates were steered to auto shop classes or home ec so they could become manual laborers like their parents. Before walking out of school, Verdugo and his friends met up with students from other East LA schools.

VERDUGO: I found out that both schools also had a 50 percent dropout rate or higher. There was something wrong here, and it wasn't just us - it was the school system.

DEL BARCO: He says teacher Sal Castro encouraged them to take pride in their heritage and to fight for their rights.

MITA CUARON: Sal called us los ninos heroes.

DEL BARCO: Child heroes, says Mita Cuaron. She was a sophomore when she walked out of Garfield High.

CUARON: We were fighting racist policies, racist curriculum, you know, the racism of teachers. And we were fighting to say that our souls were equal to all others.

DEL BARCO: Keep in mind students had already presented surveys to the school board to get reforms, but administrators ignored them. In 1968, Moctesuma Esparza says Sal Castro recruited him and other college students to help with the walkouts. After a few days of peaceful protests, police went to Belmont High with billy clubs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALKOUT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, screaming).

DEL BARCO: Esparza dramatized it in his movie and can still recall those days.

ESPARZA: I remember seeing the police hit young girls in the back of the head and then dropping like dogs. I remember seeing a young boy who was being chased by police on the campus of Roosevelt climbing up a fence to get away from batons, jumping onto the sidewalk and then being thrown to the floor and kicked and hit with batons until he was unconscious and dragged away. It kills me to think of it even now.

DEL BARCO: Police arrested some of the high school students, then released them. They and their parents presented the LA school board with a list of 39 demands, including bilingual bicultural classes, more Mexican-American teachers, new schools and no more corporal punishment. Two months later, on prom night, police rounded up Castro, Esparza and others, including members of the Chicano activist group the Brown Berets. A grand jury indicted the so-called Eastside 13 on conspiracy charges.

ESPARZA: We went on a hunger strike immediately.

DEL BARCO: They were released after five days. Teacher Sal Castro was fired from Lincoln High. Students spent the summer protesting until he got his job back. The indictments were dropped. After the walkouts, things changed. Mexican-American enrollment at UCLA and other colleges went up dramatically. Some of the protesters became educators or politicians. One served on LA's school board. Fifty years later, Moctesuma Esparza has some advice for the newest generation of student activists.

ESPARZA: The most important thing that they can do is to understand that the struggle for social justice is a lifelong struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHICANO!")

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Chicano.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Power.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Chicano.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Power.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Chicano.

DEL BARCO: Veterans of the Chicano blowout say their sense of pride and power never left them, though the changes they fought for were slow to come. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we misidentify one of the people speaking. The person talking about child heroes and about fighting racist policies is Yoli Rios, Bobby Verdugo's wife, not Mita Cuaron.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.