In early March 1968, as many as 22,000 American students, mostly Mexicans, emerged from their classrooms at seven Los Angeles schools, attracting national attention. The unprecedented event shone a light on educational inequality, galvanized Chicano’s civil rights movement and inspired a new generation of activists, artists, educators and elected officials.
The schools involved served Mexican barrios in the city’s Eastside neighborhoods, or East Los Angeles, where Chicanos or Mexican Americans made up about 75% (130,000) of the student population. Students protested the vast educational inequalities they faced: dilapidated and understaffed schools, overworked and undertrained teachers. The average class size was about 40 and the student-to-advisor ratio was 4,000 to 1, according to United Way of Los Angeles. Students have also complained of being channeled into vocational and domestic training, instead of academic courses that would help them get into college.
Early 1968 was a time of deep civil unrest in the United States, plagued by anti-war and civil rights protests. Aware of these and other parallel social movements taking place across the country and around the world, Chicanos have demanded that their language, history, and culture be reflected in the curriculum of their schools.
Historians point to the East LA walkouts as the first time the Chicano movement moved from the rural setting of the 1965 United Farm Workers strikes to an urban setting. The Blowouts, as they are also known, also marked the movement’s first major youth-led protest.
“This time it was the young people who said, uh-uh,” says Valerie Talavera-Bustillos, professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles. “It really made people stop and think, ‘Oh yeah, those kids are right. We don’t have to accept [the school conditions].’ It was a turning point. »
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Strengthening Youth Empowerment
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Many of the walkout leaders had attended the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC), an annual gathering that began in 1963 at a Jewish campsite in Malibu, an upscale beach community. There they talked about their personal struggles and learned about pivotal moments in Mexican and Mexican American history.
“Seeing, hearing and being proud of all these accomplishments has really helped students to think critically about their own families. [situations]says Talavera-Bustillos. “What they were going through [at home], but also their own life at school. Say, ‘Why should we accept these things?’ »
Conference regular Sal Castro brought some of what he learned at CYLC to his social studies class at Lincoln High School in the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.
“In East LA, this generation was blessed with a role model like Sal Castro,” wrote Mario T. García, professor of Chicano/a studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in Switch off, a 2011 memoir co-authored by Castro. “As a teacher, [Castro] encouraged his students to be critical, to be proud of themselves and, above all, to believe in themselves. And that included the idea of going to college.
Wanting to promote empowerment, Castro taught his students that they first had to take their grievances to the school board. Their demands not having been heard, he helped them organize the walkouts.
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The walkouts were spread over five days
The original plan was for students from four Eastside schools to exit on March 6, but an unplanned exit took place at Wilson High School on March 1. On March 5, 2,000 Garfield students walked out and administrators alerted the police.
The next day, students walked out to other schools on the Eastside—Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Belmont—despite school administrators barring the doors and locking the doors. Helmeted police arriving at schools arrested students or escorted them to the principal’s office. At least two police beatings were reported on March 6 in Roosevelt.
Parents and community members also participated in the protests, which spread to two other schools in Los Angeles, Jefferson and Venice.
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Remembrance of a protester
Carlos Montes was a student at East Los Angeles College in 1968 and a member of the Brown Berets, a group of Chicano activists who helped carry out the walkouts.
Two years prior, Montes himself had been a student at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. “I almost gave up [when] the vice principal called me into the office to sign me up for the Selective Service System when I was 18,” he says. “I started to get angry. I saw that the teachers didn’t really care about the regular student, they only cared about the elite intellectuals. The rest of [us] just reviewed.
Montes recalled that on March 6, 1968, he drove his car to Lincoln High School and parked across from campus.
“At 10 a.m. we came across Lincoln High School…[and] started shouting “Walkout,” he said. “The principal is out, [said] ‘What are you doing?’ We said, step aside, this is business… This is a walkout.
Later that day, Montes and other Brown Berets helped students at Roosevelt High School open a door intentionally locked by police. Montes said plainclothes police photographed the events at both schools and he was temporarily detained while he and a friend went to deliver flyers to another school.
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Claims Denied, Leaders Arrested
Nearly a week after the walkouts, on March 11, a committee of students, teachers, parents and community activists attempted to meet with the Los Angeles Board of Education to present its list of 39 demands. They ranged from instituting bilingual education and removing racist teachers to expanding libraries and incorporating a culturally inclusive menu in school cafeterias.
The board held a meeting to discuss the demands on March 28, but concluded it did not have the funds to implement changes.
On March 31, police arrested Castro and 12 other walkout leaders and charged them with disturbing the peace and other crimes. People protested the jailing of the so-called East LA 13, and they were released on bail on June 2. Castro lost his job at Lincoln but was reinstated after protesters staged sit-ins at school board meetings.
In 1970, all charges against the East LA 13 were dropped.
The legacy of the Chicano civil rights walkouts
Although the walkouts had no immediate effect on changing conditions for Chicanos in Los Angeles schools, historians and activists see them as a catalyst for the then burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement.
“It put us on the map,” says Montes, now a community activist focused on police brutality. “It energized the community, radicalized a new generation of Chicano activists.”
“It taught us that the only way to change things is to protest and take back the system,” he adds.
Many walkout participants and youth organizers later took part in the August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium, an anti-Vietnam War march that became the largest protest in Los Angeles history to that date.
Considered pivotal moments in the Chicano movement, the walkouts and moratorium inspired a generation of artists, writers, activists and educators, many of whom are active today.
“These students who came out…really gave back,” says Talaveras-Bustillos. “Chicano and Chicana studies, Latinx studies… They became teachers, they became activists in their own communities.