MARGARITA "MITA" CUARÓN (FORMER STUDENT, JAMES A. GARFIELD HIGH SCHOOL): If we had to take to the streets and claim our rights to equality in our schools, then so be it.
TEXT ON SCREEN: EAST LOS ANGELES, 1968
MITA CUARÓN: I went to Garfield High School. My first semester was 1967. The schools on the East Side were known as the “Mexican schools.” If we spoke Spanish there was corporal punishment. And the lesson there was, we want you to assimilate.
CARLOS MONTES (FORMER STUDENT, JAMES A. GARFIELD HIGH SCHOOL): The teachers didn't really understand who we were. You know, they would make fun of our names when they would do roll call. Most of us were just, kind of, going through like a herd and if we dropped out they didn't care.
CARLOS MUÑOZ, JR.(AUTHOR, “YOUTH, IDENTITY, POWER: THE CHICANO MOVEMENT” / FORMER STUDENT, BELMONT HIGH SCHOOL): Mexican-Americans had one of the highest dropout rates in the city of Los Angeles. We were not considered to be intelligent enough to be able to go to college.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA (FORMER STUDENT, ABRAHAM LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL): The education that we all got was aimed at turning us into workers, manual laborers, tradesmen.
MITA CUARÓN: Girls were told, “Oh,” you know, “we don’t want to waste our time on you.” You know, “You’re just going to get pregnant.”
NARRATION: A group of high school students, recent graduates and activists came together to advocate for better schools. They were encouraged by Sal Castro, one of the few teachers who was critical of how schools treated Mexican-American students.
SAL CASTRO: Most teachers approach the Mexican with a negative attitude. “You have nothing to give to me, I am going to make you Anglo come hell or high water.”
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: Sal Castro was a teacher at Lincoln High School. And he wanted his students to know that it was great to be a Mexican, that our culture and history was important and that we had huge contributions that we had made. And so, I got that from him.
CARLOS MUÑOZ, JR.: We deserve a good education. We deserve something that is positive because we are citizens of this country. The civil rights struggle was all Black and white, you know, and we were left out of the picture. And so we had to establish our identity and we we did it by by calling ourselves Chicanos.
VICKIE CASTRO (FORMER STUDENT, THEODORE ROOSEVELT HIGH SCHOOL): Being Chicano was a self identity that meant we were here for change. And we want it.
MITA CUARÓN: We drew up a list of our demands and our grievances to take them to the board of education. We left it with them and waited and waited, and nothing was done.
VICKIE CASTRO: And then Sal just told it like it was. He convinced us nothing's going to happen until it hits the press.
MITA CUARÓN: We needed to become activists, take it to a different level. We want to be heard. We want our voice to be heard.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: What was going on in the world in terms of protest against the Vietnam War and the African American civil rights struggle. All of these things were surrounding us. And so it was a very simple step to say we need to strike. And as high school kids, it sounded a lot cooler to say to blow out. So we need to blow out. We need to walk out.
CARLOS MONTES: We parked the car and ran right up the main gate into Lincoln High School, the main building, and started yelling, "Walk out 10 o'clock." Yelling, "Walk out, walk out, walk out," and, and banging on the lockers.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: Ten seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. And nothing was happening. It seemed like an eternity. And we didn't know if anything was going to happen. But then the door started opening. And hundreds and ultimately over a thousand kids streamed out of Lincoln High School.
NARRATION: Around the same time, other schools began to walk out.
MITA CUARÓN: I ran across the street, saw a street cone, jumped on top of the car and started yelling, “Walkout! Walkout!” through the cone.
STUDENT: You guys showed them. Give yourselves a hand.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: It was exhilarating. It was an extraordinarily empowering moment to see our community stand up.
NARRATION: As the protests spread, at some schools, students were met by the police.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1968):
POLICE: You will be arrested as of right now.
MITA CUARÓN: There’s a famous photograph of their backs as they were approaching. I was on the other side.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: The police, with batons, rushed in. And bloodied kids, beat them up. Kids trying to climb fences to escape and being pulled down and then bludgeoned.
NARRATION: The next week, Mita Cuarón says she was arrested and dragged out of the school principal’s office.
MITA CUARÓN: With the little airway that I had because they had the baton [points to throat], I said, as they dragged us, “Look at what they’re doing to us. Look at what they’re doing to us,” over and over again.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: Quickly spread throughout the community that this was going on, that the police were brutalizing us. And the next day, the clergy was there and the union leaders were there and our parents were there. And they joined us.
MITA CUARÓN: The parents were the ones who should have been at the helm. Not us.
ARCHIVAL (STUDENT MEETING WITH ASSISTANT SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT, NBC, 1968):
MITA CUARÓN: Why isn’t he there sitting down with us? He’s our principal from our school and he’s not even there sitting down.
MITA CUARÓN: As a 15-year-old was I prepared for that? No. But we’re not getting an education, we’re not getting justice.
NARRATION: The walkouts lasted for more than a week, growing to about 15,000 students.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1968):
STUDENT: We’re tired of talking. I mean talking is not getting us anywhere, we want some action sir, I mean really. And we’re going to be united and we’re going to fight for what we are going to get.
NARRATION: The students were persuaded to go back to school, and eventually the board agreed to a few of their demands, including more bilingual teachers and administrators.
But nearly three months later…
CARLOS MUÑOZ, JR.: There's a knock on the door. Bang, bang, bang. So I went to the front door, open the front door, and all these cops ran, rushed into my apartment, threw me on the ground.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: And they told me that I was under arrest. I asked, “for what?” They wouldn't tell me. The next thing I knew, I was in handcuffs being thrown into the back of a car.
NARRATION: Thirteen of the walkout organizers, including Sal Castro, were charged with conspiracy to disrupt the schools, and faced decades in prison.
VICKIE CASTRO: I remember when they were indicted and being in shock. We never had the concept that we were breaking the law. Asking for better schools, asking to be able to have college counselors that promoted us, asking for less corporal punishment. How is that breaking the law?
CARLOS MONTES: What happened is that the L.A.P.D. sent undercover police to infiltrate and spy on organizations, the Black Liberation Movement, the Chicano Movement.
NARRATION: While they were awaiting trial, Castro was removed from his teaching job…leading to more protests at the school board.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: We decided to occupy the school board and we were there for weeks.
CARLOS MONTES: Eventually there was a motion to reinstate Sal Castro. I was there and Sal was there. Everybody spoke favorably about reinstating him.
We have come once again to ask you to do what is the just thing to do: to bring Sal Castro back to his classroom.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: And I still remember this glorious moment where the school board votes to reinstate him and the Brown Berets picked him up on their shoulders and carried him out of the school board. It's an amazing image that I have in my memory.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1968):
SAL CASTRO: I just hope that now we can get down to the real issue.
REPORTER: What are those issues?
SAL CASTRO: The real issue is the education of Mexican kids.
NARRATION: Castro returned to teaching. And the most serious charges against the “L.A. 13” were later dismissed as a violation of the First Amendment.
It was one of the first important moments in a new movement for Chicano rights.
CARLOS MONTES: This is the first time that young Chicanos took to the streets to demand equality and justice. And we made history. There were walkouts in Denver, Colorado, Albuquerque and Texas. So the walkout helped to generate growing national Chicano power movement.
CARLOS MONTES: That included the struggle for the land, the struggle for, against the war, the struggle against police brutality, the struggle for political power.
NARRATION: In the years since the walkouts, Mexican-Americans have made broad gains in political representation, school dropout rates are down, and more Chicano students are going to college.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: There are now senators, movie stars, billionaires, entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors. Vickie Castro became elected to the school board and became chairperson.
VICKIE CASTRO: My whole K through 12, I never saw anyone in authority that looked like my parents or myself. That is completely changed.
NARRATION: But many of the walkout organizers say the inequality and stereotypes they confronted are still relevant 55 years later.
MOCTESUMA ESPARZA: The school board started reforms that are still continuing to this day. They're not done. There's still a disparity in education for Mexican-American students and other students of color. There is still huge under-representation in college. There's still a lot of inequality. But there is also a tremendous change. And that started when those students stood up and walked out of school in 1968.