‘60s ‘Blowouts’ : Leaders of Latino School Protest See Little Change
On March 6, 1968, more than 1,000 high school students in East Los Angeles marched out of their classrooms and into the streets, setting off a chain of events they hoped would change their schools forever.
So began the East Los Angeles “blowouts,” a series of student walkouts to expose substandard education for Latinos in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The young militants demanded remedies for soaring dropout rates, overcrowded, dilapidated schools, incompetent teachers and counselors who steered Latino students into auto shop instead of college-track courses. They wanted bilingual education, Mexican-American principals, culturally relevant courses and Mexican cafeteria food prepared by mothers from the barrios.
The initial walkouts lasted several days. Before the protests were over, they would spread to 15 schools, with 13 people arrested on conspiracy charges, which later were dropped.
“There was a feeling that our time had come,” recalled Kathy Ochoa, 35, who was a 10th-grade student when she joined the walkout at Roosevelt High School. “In our small part of the world, we were going to force some kind of change and some kind of equality.”
Twenty years later, a core of walkout leaders--now film makers, lawyers, social workers and artists with school-age children of their own--are asking why many of the conditions they protested in 1968 persist today.
School crowding in predominantly Latino and Asian schools is worse than it was 20 years ago, and statewide, the number of Latinos who enter four-year colleges remains disproportionately low. Latino students still complain that their teachers expect too little of them and that counselors do not push them hard enough to qualify for college.
Problem Remains Severe
And the dropout problem remains as severe as in 1968, when the average dropout rate in Eastside high schools was 44%, three times higher than Westside and San Fernando Valley schools.
“That is an unpardonable sin,” said movie producer Moctesuma Esparza, 38, a Lincoln High School graduate who was one of the 13 charged with conspiracy to plan the walkouts. “Those of us who have achieved some status in life have an obligation to bring this to the attention of our community, confront the institutions and demand accountability.”
Today, according to state education department estimates, 30% to 49% of the students enrolled at the five schools where the protests began--Belmont, Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson--will drop out before the end of their senior year. Some experts say that because of confusing and imprecise guidelines for counting dropouts, the actual figures probably are higher.
With the exception of Belmont, reading scores at the five predominantly Latino high schools remain as poor as they were in 1968, when they ranked in the bottom 25% of the nation. Districtwide, nearly twice as many blacks and Latinos repeat grades than whites.
Perhaps the most visible improvement has occurred in the number of Latino teachers and administrators. In 1968, Latinos--then predominantly Mexican-Americans--accounted for 20% of the enrollment but fewer than 3% of teachers and 1% of administrators. Today, 10% of teachers, 20% of secondary principals and 12% of elementary principals are Latino, as is the district’s second-highest-ranking official, Deputy Supt. William R. Anton.
In addition, the district now has more than 6,000 bilingual classrooms, the majority of which serve Spanish-speaking pupils. The success of the district’s bilingual program has been hampered by a shortage of qualified teachers, however. And, although bilingual education appears firmly entrenched in the Los Angeles school district, its status statewide has been shaky since last year when Gov. George Deukmejian allowed California’s bilingual education law to expire.
“We have come full circle,” Esparza said recently. “That is why we have to look at what happened 20 years ago and look at what’s happening today.”
Esparza, who graduated from Lincoln High School the year before the walkouts, has been holding weekly dinner meetings for the last few months at his Silver Lake home to plan blowout anniversary activities. There will be youth leadership conferences, a scholarship program, a photography exhibit and a documentary on the walkouts. On Tuesday, a City Hall ceremony will be held to honor student walkout leaders and Sal Castro, the former Lincoln High School teacher who instigated the protests.
“This is nothing compared to what we did back then,” Esparza said. A UCLA freshman when he helped lead the blowouts, Esparza spent three years on trial for conspiracy. The charges later were dismissed for all 13 of the indicted.
Esparza remembers with bitterness a high school counselor who advised him to apply to a junior college instead of a university, even though he was a top student who scored high on college entrance exams. Esparza eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from UCLA. He’s had a successful career, producing several films with Latino themes, including an upcoming Universal Pictures release, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” starring Robert Redford.
Other walkout leaders tell similar stories.
Harry Gamboa, a noted Chicano artist and playwright who often lectures at major universities, was a junior at Garfield High School in 1968. “I graduated with a 1.1 grade average. I was not a good student at all, but it was a mutual rejection,” he said of his relationship to high school.
He was advised to enroll in shop classes and told he would never be “college material.” On his first day at Garfield, he remembers the principal telling a student body assembly that he expected half the students to drop out. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Gamboa said.
Create Positive Images
Through a special admissions program for minority students, he entered Cal State L.A. but never earned a degree, preferring to become a full-time artist. He wrote a play produced at the Los Angeles Theater Center two years ago that was inspired by his experiences during the walkouts.
It was not by accident that many of the walkout leaders chose careers that enabled them to create positive images of Latinos, he said. “The walkouts were a motivating factor . . . to serve as role models for younger people. That’s the reason I got involved in art, to offer an alternative of what one can be.”
Gamboa has a 10-year-old son, and Esparza has three school-age children. Both men chose to enroll their children in private schools.
Paula Crisostomo, 37, was a senior at Lincoln during the walkouts. Senior class vice president, a member of the student council and the girls council, she was an unlikely rabble-rouser. But at Lincoln, she recalled, students had legitimate gripes. Teachers seemed to make only the minimum of effort, restrooms were never open, and when it rained, students “either didn’t eat or we had to stand in the rain” because the lunch area was uncovered, Crisostomo said. She thought all high schools were like this--until a student action group she belonged to conducted a survey of other district schools.
‘Amazed by Their Buildings’
“We visited Fairfax High School, which was brand new at the time. I remember being amazed by their buildings--they were so nice. And they had brand new books. We got angry. We talked to Sal (Castro), and one thing led to another,” she said.
Crisostomo, who has a degree in ethnic studies, has worked with hard-core delinquent youths and now works as a fund-raiser for the Pasadena YWCA. Thinking back to 1968, she said: “We were fortunate to have grown-ups who were wiling to give us guidance. That doesn’t happen much anymore. One of our purposes today is to re-establish that interest . . . tell kids there is an alternative to gangs and drugs.”
If you asked Sal Castro what it was like to teach in a predominantly Mexican-American high school 20 years ago, he would say it was “like American education forgot the Latino kid.” Today he would say Latino students are still victims of educational neglect.
‘Make a Dent’
When he talked recently about those stormy days of walkouts and sit-ins, his eyes welled tears.
“For an instant, those kids were able to really make a dent and stop this huge establishment, the second-largest school district in the country,” he said, holed up in a cluttered office at Belmont High School, a crowded school near downtown where he works as a dropout counselor.
Castro, 54, was a social studies teacher at Lincoln when he told students that the way to improve their school was to strike against the system. Although he said he denied it at the time to avoid going to jail, today Castro freely takes credit for masterminding the walkouts.
For his role in the protest, Castro was removed from Lincoln and bounced around in various positions in mostly Anglo schools for several years, until landing at Belmont in 1973. To some district officials, he is still considered persona non grata.
Sat in Corner
Born in East L.A., Castro developed his ethnic pride early in life. He first learned to read in Spanish and knew a little Mexican history from going to first grade in Mexico. When he returned to Los Angeles, his second-grade teacher made him sit in a corner because he was the only student who couldn’t speak English. But rather than feel the stigma, “I started thinking, these teachers . . . should be able to understand me,” he recalled. “I didn’t think I was dumb--I thought they were dumb.”
Many years later, as a teacher at Lincoln, he remembers asking the principal if the school could acknowledge Mexican independence day with a little notice in the school bulletin. “He said, ‘No way, we’re here to teach the kids English,’ ” Castro said. “But how could the kids develop a positive self-image if they don’t have pride in themselves and their heritage? It doesn’t make a very good student.”
Bilingual education has helped, Castro said. And he noted that there are “a lot of brown faces” in district administrative posts who were not there 20 years ago. But he complained that the schools still do a poor job of raising cultural awareness and lamented the continued high dropout rates. And it galls him that today, as in 1968, only one of the seven school board members--Leticia Quezada--is Latino.
‘I’d Do It Again’
Nonetheless, he said he does not regret his role in the walkouts. “To force schools into a change . . . hell, it’s a tough job,” he said. “But I do not feel the walkouts were a waste. I’d do it again, a million times.”
Gerald Richer, who has taught science at Lincoln for 25 years, remembers the walkout period as a soul-searching time for teachers. Lincoln’s curriculum then was heavy on shop classes and light on academics. “We didn’t expect (Latino students) to go to college. But the walkouts changed the expectations of teachers. We re-evaluated ourselves,” he said.
Richer said he almost wishes students would mobilize again because too few students seem to care enough about their education to question what they are asked to learn.
There are signs of progress. Almost twice as many Lincoln students took advanced placement (AP) examinations for college credit last year as in 1986, school records show. Lincoln offers AP courses in English, Spanish, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, government and U.S. history.
Half Dropped Out
In addition, almost half of Lincoln’s 1986 graduating class went on to a two- or four-year college.
However, the attrition rate for Lincoln in 1983 (the latest year measured) was 52%--meaning that more than half of the school’s 10th-graders had left or dropped out before they were scheduled to graduate. Some of those students moved and finished high school in another district, but many of them became dropouts. According to the state Department of Education, which now requires districts to specifically report on dropouts, Lincoln’s dropout rate is 30%. It is 49% at Belmont, 38% at Garfield, 44% at Wilson and 45% at Roosevelt.
The education department, in its 1987 “report cards” on the state’s high schools, also found a disproportionately low number of Latinos taking the harder courses, such as advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry. At Belmont, Garfield, Wilson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, Asian students, though far fewer in number, typically were enrolled in the advanced classes at a higher rate than Latinos.
‘They Don’t Care’
“Some kids just kick back and don’t go for” the harder courses, said Lincoln senior Sergio Flores, who hopes to attend Cal State L.A. “They just say OK if they get four years of basic math. They don’t care about college. But it’s because they don’t know about college. The only reason I found out about the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) was my sister told me.”
Like the other six student leaders seated around a lunch table one day last week, he believes much of the problem rests with school counselors and teachers who encourage the top students and give short shrift to the rest.
Raul Gomez, 18, a senior class representative, said some students talk of walking out in protest the way hundreds of Lincoln students did back in 1968. But they are not sure that their peers care enough to take the risk.
Meanwhile, they notice that gang activity, which had been in a lull for months, seems to be resurging. And that younger students--ninth-graders instead of 10th- or 11th-graders--are becoming the dropouts.
Of the seven students around the table, three said they will be the first in their families to attend college. One of the seven, 17-year-old Sally Araceli Gomez, wants to be a teacher.
“I have wanted to be a teacher since I was small,” the soft-spoken young woman said. And she wants to teach in East L.A. “Anglos have lots of smart teachers. But we’re the ones who need good teachers the most.”