written by Moctesuma Esparza
A decade ago I produced “WALKOUT,” an HBO film that dramatizes the extraordinary actions of a group of Chicano High School Students who risked their lives during the 1968 student strikes, now known as the East L.A.Blowouts. These “Blowouts” were born out of frustration with the substandard and discriminatory educational policies against Mexican-American students, not only in East Los Angeles but throughout the United States.
When I grew up, in the 50’s and 60’s, there were simply no university-educated Latino professionals to speak of. During the 60’s it was unrealistic for Chicanos to dream of being professionals; not only were there no role models, but none of us were being encouraged to go to college. Only 2% percent of Latinos went to college at that time, while white students went to college at a rate of 40%.
For over 100 years we were forced to deal with, prejudiced, teachers who not only swatted us for speaking Spanish but denied us basic rights such as restroom access. In addition to that, we were also being forced into doing janitorial work, as a form of “punishment”, while we were channeled into manual labor jobs.
We knew what was happening to us, we documented it, but Mexican Americans simply accepted it because they didn’t think there was an alternative. The students would take their grievances to their principals and be ignored. They would then go to the school board, only to be ignored again.
On March 5, 1968, about, 22,000 Mexican-American students from five East Los Angeles high schools took to the streets to demand a quality education that could lead them to college as well as end these educational injustices. I, was one of the organizers.
I had recently graduated from Lincoln High School, one of the five East L.A. high schools, and I was a freshman at UCLA.
As a result of my commitment to improving educational opportunities, for all American students, I was arrested. On June 31, 1968, I was one of thirteen arrested and indicted, by a secret Grand Jury, for conspiracy (a felony) to disrupt a public school (a misdemeanor). The East LA 13 faced 45 years in jail for their part in the walkouts. Two years later, the charges were overturned on appeal.
The Walkouts lasted for weeks, and they accomplished their goal as they helped to improve educational opportunities; they also ignited a new wave of Chicano pride and activism among Latinos across the U.S., while giving them their first real opportunity at pursuing the American Dream.
Before children used to be trapped in their local jurisdiction, unable to enroll in a higher achieving school outside of their area. 50 years later, parents have alternative choices for their children’s education, like charter schools and magnet schools. These alternate options have improved today’s academic environment by spurring access and achievements in schools across the country.
As a board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, I know that over 30 percent of public charter school students identify as Latino. Because of their local control, many charter schools are able to meet the needs of their Latino student population from offering second language support to elevating cultural responsiveness and family engagement, to hiring teachers who reflect the diversity of the community and promote higher education.
It is critical that our students have teachers who respect their heritage, know their history and understand their culture. To attract the best teachers, we need to ensure that they earn a middle-class salary and can afford to own a home. Teachers need prestige and support to devote their lives to the education of young people. By investing in our teachers, we can create an educated society in which everyone wins.
What we achieved 50 years ago during the Walkouts was the start of a movement for educational justice. We still have a long way to go to improve the quality of public education for our all our children. It is our job to pass our legacy forward, to motivate and inspire our children. It took over 20 years to produce “WALKOUT” and I know, firsthand, that success does not happen overnight; but it is our duty to support the next generation of Latino students in all public schools – traditional and charter.
Moctesuma Esparza is a civil rights activist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur.