By Antonio Mejías-Rentas
In the early days of March 1968, as many as 22,000 mostly Mexican American students walked out of their classrooms at seven Los Angeles schools, garnering national attention. The unprecedented event spotlighted educational inequality, galvanized the Chicano civil rights movement and inspired a new generation of activists, artists, educators and elected officials.
The schools involved served the Mexican barrios of the city’s Eastside neighborhoods, or East Los Angeles, where Chicanos or Mexican Americans made up about 75 percent (130,000) of the student population. Students protested the vast educational inequality they faced: schools that were run down and understaffed, teachers that were overworked and undertrained. Class size averaged around 40 and the student-to-counselor ratio was 4,000-to-1, according to the United Way of Los Angeles. Students also complained they were being steered toward 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 U.S., rife with antiwar and civil rights protests. Aware of these and other parallel social movements taking place in the country and around the world, Chicanos demanded that their language, history and culture be reflected in their schools’ curriculum.
Historians point to the East L.A. walkouts as the first time the Chicano movement moved from the rural setting of the United Farm Workers’ strikes of 1965 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 youth who said, unh-uh,” says Valerie Talavera-Bustillos, professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles. “That really made people stop and think, ‘Oh yeah, these kids are right. We don’t have to accept [the school conditions].’ It was a turning point.”
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Building Youth Empowerment
Many of the walkout leaders had participated in the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC), a yearly gathering that began in 1963 at a Jewish campground in Malibu, an upscale beach community. There, they opened up about their personal struggles and learned about crucial moments in Mexican and Mexican American history.
“Seeing, listening and being proud of all of these accomplishments really helped the students think critically about their own family [situations],” says Talavera-Bustillos. “What they were going through [at home], but also their own lives in school. To say, ‘Why should we put up with these things?’”
Sal Castro, a regular at the conference, took some of what he learned at the CYLC to his social studies classroom at Lincoln High School, in the Eastside barrio of Lincoln Heights.
“In East L.A., this generation was fortunate to have a role model like Sal Castro,” wrote Mario T. García, a professor of Chicano/a Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in Blowout, a 2011 memoir co-authored by Castro. “As a teacher, [Castro] encouraged his students to think critically, to be proud of themselves and, most important, to believe in themselves. And that included the idea of going on to college.”
Eager to promote empowerment, Castro taught his students they should first take their grievances to the school board. With their demands unheard, he helped them organize the walkouts.
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The Walkouts Were Spread Across Five Days
The original plan was for students at four Eastside schools to walk out on March 6, but an unscheduled walkout took place at Wilson High School on March 1. On March 5, 2,000 students at Garfield walked out, and administrators alerted the police.
The next day, students walked out at other Eastside schools—Roosevelt, Lincoln and Belmont,— despite the school administrators barring the doors and locking the gates. Helmeted police who arrived at the schools arrested students or escorted them to the principal’s office. There were at least two police beatings reported on March 6 at Roosevelt.
Parents and community members also participated in the protests, which extended to two other Los Angeles schools, Jefferson and Venice.
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One Protester’s Remembrance
Carlos Montes was a student at East Los Angeles College in 1968 and a member of the Brown Berets, an activist Chicano group that helped execute the walkouts.
Two years before, Montes himself had been a student at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. “I almost dropped out [when] the vice principal called me to the office to sign up for the Selective Service System, when I was 18,” he says. “I started becoming 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 shuffled through.”
Montes recalled that on March 6, 1968, he drove his car to Lincoln High School and parked across the street from the campus.
“At 10 a.m., we ran into Lincoln High School…[and] started yelling ‘Walkout,’” he says. “The principal came out, [said] ‘What are you doing?’ We said, get out of the way, this is business… This is a walkout.”
Later that same day, Montes and other Brown Berets helped students at Roosevelt High School break open a gate purposely locked by police. Montes said undercover police photographed the events at both schools, and that he was temporarily detained when he and a friend went to deliver flyers to another school.
READ MORE: How the Chicano Movement Championed Mexican American Identity
Demands Denied, Leaders Arrested
Almost a week after the walkouts, on March 11, a committee of students, teachers, parents and community activists tried to meet with the Los Angeles Board of Education, to present their list of 39 demands. They ranged from instituting bilingual education and removing racist teachers to expanding libraries and incorporating a culturally inclusive menu at the school cafeterias.
The board held a meeting to discuss the demands on March 28 but concluded it didn’t have the funds to implement any 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 L.A. 13, and they were released on bail on June 2. Castro lost his job at Lincoln but was reinstated after protesters held sit-ins at school board meetings.
In 1970, all charges were dropped against the East L.A. 13.
The Walkouts’ Legacy for Chicano Civil Rights
Although the walkouts had no immediate effect in changing conditions for Chicanos in Los Angeles schools, historians and activists consider them 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 things can change is by protesting and taking up the system,” he adds.
Many walkout participants and youth organizers later took part in the Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970, 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 the Moratorium inspired a generation of artists, writers, activists and educators, many of whom are active today.
“Those students who walked out…really gave back,” affirms Talaveras-Bustillos. “Chicano and Chicana studies, Latinx studies… They became professors, they became activists in their own communities.”