By Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro
University of North Carolina Press
By Luis Torres
Celebrated high school teacher Sal Castro was at the epicenter of the turbulent beginnings of the Chicano Movement for civil rights and social justice. He was the key organizer and provocateur of the now storied East Los Angeles high school walkouts of 1968. And now he tells the inside story of those days and examines what’s wrong with the public schools today in a new book titled “Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice,” co-written with UC Santa Barbara history professor Mario Garcia. It provides a valuable look at a pivotal chapter of Southern California history, a series of events and attitudes that ultimately reverberated throughout the country.
In the book Castro asserts: “The blowouts… represented the start of the urban Chicano Movement and Los Angeles represented the political capital of the Movement. “
The Chicano walkouts, or “blowouts” as they are also referred to, occurred at a time of tremendous social upheaval and political turbulence. It was a time of grass-roots activism, fueled by opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam and the aftershocks of the Black civil rights movement.
Students at Lincoln, Garfield, Roosevelt and Wilson brought the schools to a standstill by walking out of the classrooms. The students boldly issued a set of “demands” to the L.A. School Board. Fundamentally, they claimed the schools were failing Mexican American students and they sought comprehensive reform.
The social activism, the galvanized sense of solidarity in the Mexican American community and the changes in public policy that eventually came about marked a significant new direction for Chicanos in Los Angeles and, through a kind of political osmosis, throughout the country.
The events of that fateful March of 1968 were featured in an HBO drama a few years ago. Although produced by individuals quite familiar with those events, the film, unfortunately, bore little resemblance to reality. Compressing time and creating composite characters is clearly necessary in order to tell a story on film. The story has to be told in a manner that’s brief, compact and succinct. Understood. But a film that purports to be drawn from “real events” and is presumably “a true story” shouldn’t veer into a realm of fiction that more resembles fantasy than truth. Castro smiles a Cheshire Cat grin when recalling the liberties the film took with his story.
Today Castro laments the fact that public education for people on the periphery of society hasn’t improved enough since those heady days of the walkouts some 43 years ago. His reasonable suggestion for improvements in the public schools hinges on having smaller classes. No more than 20 students per teacher. It would make a huge, positive difference he asserts. He writes that California schools attempted that for elementary grades a few years ago, but gave up on the idea because of severe budget cutbacks.
“The concept was good, but to reach this goal you needed to have more teachers, and the state didn’t provide enough money to do this,” he writes. He adds, “Everyone wants positive educational results, but no one wants to pay for this.” Scoffing at critics he regards as shortsighted, Castro writes, “We’re not spending enough for education. All developed countries spend much more per capita for education than we do.” He concedes he’s swimming against the current political tide but he insists, “There must be a gargantuan effort to get taxpayers to accept larger taxes for education.” Tough sell. Ultimately, “Blowout!” provides intriguing insights into the history of L.A.’s public schools and its current problems.