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Giant Steps : Walkouts Against 187 Trace the Growth of an Issue Into a Cause

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The student walkouts that have disrupted schools in Los Angeles in recent weeks have their roots in a televised speech by Gov. Pete Wilson last spring that offended Angel Cervantes.

Cervantes did not like the governor’s tough stance against illegal immigrants, and now the 22-year-old graduate student from San Fernando finds himself a somewhat reluctant leader of efforts to channel youthful energy against Proposition 187, the Wilson-backed measure that would deny them public services.

“I’ve been trying to organize students for years, but this is the one issue I’ve been waiting for,” Cervantes said Thursday, preparing for the final days of campaigning before the Nov. 8 election.

“We want to have statewide, organized student mobilizations--hopefully in the form of sit-ins and forums . . . and precinct walking,” Cervantes said. “And our goals are 100% after the election to continue the movement.”

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The number of students who walked out declined Thursday to about 4,000 in the Los Angeles area, less than half the number that participated in Wednesday’s demonstrations. Students from dozens of schools joined in, but as in past days most protests involved only some of the teen-agers, mostly Latino, at each campus.

The largest demonstration Thursday was at Cerritos College, where 1,000 youths from nearby high schools took part in a protest rally.

Although most were peaceful marches, at least 11 students were arrested for throwing rocks--seven in the harbor area and four in Palmdale.

About 400 Valley students walked out Thursday, down 80% from the number of youths who took to the streets in such protests Wednesday.

At Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills, more than 50 pupils marched off campus before classes began Thursday morning and headed to nearby Taft High School, but returned to Parkman without incident when police told them to go back, officials said.

The hourlong walkout prompted Principal Michael Bennett to cancel physical-education classes for the day to allow students to meet with him and ask questions about the controversial initiative.

“Might as well get it out of their system,” Bennett said. “I’m up there doing a Phil Donahue thing with them. They have some really good questions. . . .

“It’s so emotional. There’s so much misinformation.”

In addition to Parkman, some students at Northridge and Sutter middle schools and Sylmar and Reseda high schools walked out Thursday.

All was quiet at Birmingham High in Van Nuys, where about 100 students cut classes to protest Wednesday.

“Some of the interest is fading away,” said Principal Gerald Kleinman. “People are getting turned off because students are doing what they shouldn’t be.”

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Kleinman said the school had suspended about 10 students involved in Wednesday’s walkout and march to the Van Nuys Civic Center.

The potential for the protests to turn more violent worries student leaders like Cervantes, who are more confident of their power to incite than their ability to calm.

“We are concerned,” he said. “We’re trying to send the message to keep the peace.”

Born in San Fernando to Mexican immigrants, Cervantes grew up steeped in Chicano culture. As Occidental College’s first Latino student body president, he fought for financial aid for undocumented students. He graduated with a degree in history and is now studying history at Claremont Graduate School.

He and friends formed the October Student Movement with the intent of staging anti-Wilson rallies the month before the election. The Republican governor has made slowing illegal immigration a focus of his campaign for reelection against Democrat Kathleen Brown.

But Cervantes found himself swept into the Proposition 187 cause when he was recruited by Californians United Against 187, one of the groups formed to campaign against the measure.

He joined hundreds of high school and college students to discuss mobilization techniques at a summer conference in Fresno sponsored by Californians United, and he has organized several large student meetings at Occidental College this fall.

To get the word out about what became known as “the Student Movement,” he tapped into time-honored political networks, such as campus MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) groups, and made use of the electronic mail that is available to many college students.

It was during the September meeting, Cervantes recalled, that he first heard casual talk from high school students about walking out. The first walkout occurred about two weeks later.

“We put students together and they started talking to each other,” he said. “I won’t take credit for it, though, because I can’t.”

Although the Student Movement supports students’ decisions to walk out of school, it has pushed for more involvement in traditional political activities. A rally and precinct walk against Proposition 187 is scheduled for Saturday morning at Elysian Park, near Dodger Stadium.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina on Thursday joined efforts to redirect student emphasis. Greeted by applause and chants at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, Molina challenged students to sign a pledge to walk door-to-door Saturday.

For Araceli Resendez, a senior at San Fernando High School who was born in Tarzana but at 17 is too young to vote, this is the first opportunity to translate cultural pride into political action.

“Never did we have something to address,” she said of her MEChA activism before Proposition 187.

Araceli attended one of Cervantes’ meetings but remained resolute that walking out of school was not her style. Instead, on Thursday, she and other members presented Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) with a petition bearing thousands of student signatures against the initiative--and a few for it.

The petition was just one component of a campaign by the MEChA group, a mostly on-campus effort that shunned walkouts. Last week, the group staged a sit-in instead of a walkout, a two-hour session featuring speakers ranging from university students to a local priest to members of a socialist youth group, whom MEChA members met at a regional gathering a few days before.

Students were encouraged to attend only if they understood the purpose of the event, not if they merely wanted to cut class.

“It would be not only an embarrassment for them, but an embarrassment for our school image and our race,” Araceli said.

“Our message to them was to go back into class and let students know that walking out of school is not the answer. Stay in school, get an education, and try to defeat this proposition by informing their parents if they can vote, helping out with the voter registration project, phoning.”

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Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s election, Araceli is buoyed by the surge in student involvement and activism.

“A lot of our members are getting interested in politics. Who knows, maybe we’ll have future senators” in our group, she said. “We have a lot of potential.”

In Spanish class at Huntington Park High School last week, 15-year-old Mariela Flores watched the film “El Norte,” a Spanish-language saga detailing the northward trek of Central American immigrants in search of a better life in the United States.

While sitting in the darkened school room, viewing immigrants who encounter brutal exploitation and racial discrimination, Mariela said she thought: “Yeah, that’s the way it is here and it’s just getting worse.”

So Mariela began calling classmates, encouraging them and their friends to join school walkouts.

Pyle is a Times education writer, Romero a special correspondent. Times staff writers Henry Chu and Isaac Guzman and special correspondents Leslie Berestein and Jon Garcia contributed to this story.


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