REMEMBERING SAL CASTRO.
Some 45 years ago Sal Castro told me, “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders – for a guerito – go out and do something good for yourself and for your gente.” He said it with a wicked smile and a knowing nod of his head. That was back in 1968 when I was a student of Sal Castro’s at Lincoln High School. I had just learned that I’d been accepted to college and stopped by his classroom after school to share the news. I never forgot what he said to me all those years ago – through college and through a professional career in journalism. He always good-naturedly kidded me about being a blondish, fair skinned Chicano. (The hair is long gone.) Sal was always alternately serious and playful. He had a great sense of humor. And he had a steely determination to stand up for equality and justice, and he tried to instill that determination in his students.
We lost Sal recently. He was 79 years old. He fought cancer for the last few years of his life. Cancer eventually won that battle. But Sal won many battles throughout his life. He was the catalyst and inspiration for the 1968 Eastside high school walkouts. He fought against racism and discrimination throughout his professional life. He stood up to school administrators and school officials whom we can charitably describe as “insensitive” to the needs of Chicano students. He had courage, the trait I admire most.
He urged students in 1968 to walk out of school, to stage a massive student strike. It took courage for the students to do that, inasmuch as we were threatened with expulsion – or worse—by school administrators who knew the walkouts were likely coming. I certainly wasn’t a leader or organizer of the walkouts. Others in my class took on that role. They were often clumsy and unsophisticated as leaders, but they ended up doing an admirable job when all was said and done. It was a remarkable achievement. Sal helped the students realize that something was wrong and that we could do something about it. Because of the walkouts, the city of Los Angeles, and the country, had to sit up and take notice of Chicano students and their desire for a better education than they were getting in the segregated schools. And Sal was the spirit and conscience of that entire endeavor, at great personal cost to him. I walked out with a notebook and a tape recorder. I was the editor of the student paper, “The Railsplitter,” and the walkouts were my first Big Story.
But the walkouts were just the beginning of the story for Sal. He was fired. He faced criminal charges and his personal life was shattered in the immediate aftermath of the walkouts. But the Chicano community rallied around him and with a great deal of effort and, yes, with a good amount of courage, the community was able to get Sal back into the classroom and force school authorities to begin the process of improving education for Chicano kids. We owe a great deal to Sal.
His tireless work sparked a process of change within the Los Angeles Unified School District and beyond. It was a glacially slow process for some, but it was clear things would not be the same after the walkouts. Some of that change was evident when I attended a ceremony at the hearing room of the LAUSD School Board on March 4, 2008. It was organized by Monica Garcia, president of the school board. (Imagine that. A progressive Chicana as head of the school board; that would have been unheard of in 1968.) Along with Sal Castro and other students from Lincoln and from Garfield we were there to receive certificates celebrating our participation in the walkouts. Again, something seemingly unheard of. What I remember about that day a few years ago was how the Earth seemed to be turned upside down.
In the late 1960s Sal was vilified by the school authorities. He was a “trouble-maker.” He was a “destructive force.” And he was called much worse. On that day commemorating the 1968 school walkouts in 2008 Sal was extolled as “a great leader and a visionary.” My, how things had changed. In 1968 school officials wanted his head. Now, he was being praised for his work, and deservedly so. But the surreality of the change from then to now always stuck with me. When he spoke at that commemoration, Sal talked about the work that was still ahead to ensure equal opportunity for all kids in public school. There was still a lot to be accomplished, he said.
And he was right, of course. After I left Lincoln High, went to college and graduate school and began a long career in broadcasting and journalism, I stayed in touch with Sal. He became a friend and a trusted source on educational issues. He never lost the fire in his eyes for the battles to be fought. He never lost his enthusiasm for the task of encouraging Chicano students to do well and to embrace their proud heritage. I’ll always remember his commitment to justice. And I won’t forget his sense of humor either. Even though he sometimes playfully gave me a hard time for being a guerito among a sea of morenos.
Luis Torres, a journalist and writer from
Pasadena, California, is at work on a
book that examines the 1968 East Los
Angeles high school student walkouts.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org