L.A. school honors a living revolutionary

Sal Castro went from classroom to jail cell.

The Eastside social studies teacher was branded a dangerous agitator in the press — held responsible for inciting thousands of teenagers to march out of school. The district attorney slapped a bunch of conspiracy charges on him. The Board of Education voted him out of his job.

All that was 42 years ago.

Fast forward to Saturday, when Sal Castro will stand with Los Angeles Unified School District dignitaries and cut the ribbon at a brand-new campus: Salvador B. Castro Middle School.

“I thought they’d wait until I was dead,” joked Castro, 76. “Maybe they’re trying to send me a message. Or maybe they’re just running out of names.”

Sal Castro did a heroic thing in 1968 when he helped launch a student rebellion on the Eastside. By naming a new Westlake district campus in Castro’s honor, the school district is officially acknowledging that fact.

“Back then, the school board wanted to march him to the guillotine,” said fellow educator Carlos Haro, a longtime friend. “Now they’re putting up a monument in his honor.”

Once, Castro’s message seemed radical, that the public schools were set up for Mexican Americans and other minority students to fail. He still believes many L.A. schools are failing working families. The difference is that these days a lot of district administrators agree with him.

“Honoring Sal’s contributions acknowledges our history and offers inspiration to our students,” said Monica Garcia, an L.A. Unified school board member. Castro Middle School, she points out, will serve a community where fewer than half the students complete high school.

Naming a school for Castro is a necessary jolt to our collective memory. It reminds us how hard we’ve struggled, how far L.A. has come and how much farther we have to go in the battle for equal opportunity.

In the late 1960s Castro was teaching at Lincoln High, a school with an overwhelmingly Mexican American student body but few Mexican American teachers. Castro worked to encourage students at Eastside high schools to protest crowded classrooms and the tracking that funneled many bright minds away from college-prep courses.

The students prepared a list of demands to present to the school board. But events quickly spun out of their control. On March 5, 1968, the day after officials canceled a school production of “Barefoot in the Park” as too risque, thousands of teenagers at five high schools walked out of classes.

“Before that, we would talk about doing a walkout, but really it was just a bluff,” Castro said.

Castro left his classroom and joined the students, who were later pummeled by riot police. The walkouts, or “blowouts” as they came to be known, soon spread throughout the city.

The movement reached predominantly black campuses too, but is remembered today as a seminal event in Chicano activism. And it made Castro — though he paid a high price for it — a hero to the city’s Mexican American minority.

He was arrested and held for five days. Eastside parents staged weeks of protests, pressuring the school board to rehire him after the criminal charges were dropped.

In the years that followed, the school district got a measure of revenge with repeated job transfers. “They were kicking me … as many times as they could,” Castro said.

A lot has changed in L.A. since the 1960s. The term Chicano has lost ground to the more sweeping Latino. And students of Latin American descent now make up 75% of the school district.

“They used to call us the invisible minority,” he said. “Now we’re the invisible majority.”

His people — despite their numbers — are still getting a raw deal. They have among the highest high-school dropout rates. And that makes Castro, who retired from teaching in 2003, very angry.

“They’re happy with us the way we are because we’re low-cost labor,” he told me.

Castro was born in Boyle Heights in 1933, the son of Mexican immigrants. He went to college, became a teacher and in the early 1960s planted the seeds of a later movement in a county program designed to train young Chicano leaders.

“That movement redefined who we are,” said Haro, then a UCLA student and one of several undergraduates who worked alongside Castro. “It created a new awareness that pulled us forward.”

More college counselors were hired at Eastside schools and the number of Mexican American students soared at UCLA and other campuses. The walkout generation produced professors, jurists and politicians.

And yet today, the district is still grappling with the challenge of educating students from Spanish-speaking families.

Often, Castro runs into students who tell him it’s time for another round of walkouts. No, he says. “The real fight is with a book under your arm.” But he gets their frustration. And he sees in them the potential to push for the many necessary changes people used to call a “revolution.”

“A lot of people tell me, ‘the movement’s dead,’ ” Castro told me. “It ain’t dead. It’s alive, right there in the eyes of those kids.”