Sal Castro, a longtime Chicano activist and Los Angeles Unified teacher, died Monday. He was 79 (Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Fox News Latino).
Castro taught social studies at Lincoln High School in the late 1960s, and was a pivotal figure in the 1968 “blowouts,” where thousands of students from East Los Angeles marched in protest of over-crowded classrooms, discrimination, and a lack of access to quality education. The walkouts spread to 15 schools over several days. Castro was arrested and charged with 15 counts of state and federal conspiracy—charges that were dropped in 1972.
“Sal Castro held a mirror up to our district that showed the need for a youths’ rights agenda more than 45 years ago,” said John Deasy, LAUSD superintendent (LA Weekly). Of course, with hindsight it’s easy to praise a movement’s social justice goals while, perhaps, slighting the intelligence and personal risks shown by movement leaders in defying entrenched systems and those who defend the status quo.
At the time, many Mexican-American students faced discrimination inside their schools as well as in their communities. For example, they might be punished for speaking Spanish in classrooms. Often, they were funneled onto menial career tracks instead of college-preparatory courses. In East Los Angeles schools, which had majority Mexican-American student populations, dropout rates were about 60 percent. Before the “blowouts,” Castro encouraged students to draw up a list of demands that were presented to the school board: “What emerged was a list of thirty-six demands that highlighted material deficiencies (dilapidated buildings, overcrowded classes, too few counselors) and the students’ desire for a stronger community voice in shaping their education.”1
As we remember Castro’s life and legacy, it’s important to reflect on those particular 36 conditions—where we have seen progress and where we haven’t. We should also keep in mind that “progress” in addressing the multiple forms of school discrimination does not mean that inequality and discrimination disappear. For example, as recently as 2004—36 years after the “blowouts” and several generations of school children later—the Williams v. California lawsuit was settled to address persistent schooling inequalities that “shock the conscience.” And many of those conditions remain. Neither the “blowouts” nor Williams diminished the need for today’s continuing youth and community organizing and activism, which are as much Castro’s real legacy as the demands made decades ago. Those demands are still relevant though their shape and expression might change.
“No student or teacher will be reprimanded or suspended for participating in any efforts which are executed for the purpose of improving or furthering the educational quality in our schools.”
Today, shutting down schools or “reconstituting” faculties can be an effective strategy to discipline, remove, or isolate outspoken teachers and activist parents and students who organize for social and educational justice.
“Bilingual-Bi-cultural education will be compulsory for Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles City School System where there is a majority of Mexican-American students. … In-service education programs will be instituted immediately for all staff in order to teach them the Spanish language and increase their understanding of the history, traditions, and contributions of the Mexican culture.”
Today, underserved communities are still fighting for schools that provide academically rigorous, culturally relevant courses. Educators lack career-long professional-development opportunities to keep pace with the school and societal demands placed on the state’s poorest students, English learners, and other most at-risk populations.
Sal Castro’s legacy lives on in the tangible benefits wrought by his activism, but it is also found in the organizing and civic engagement of education activists who follow in his tradition.
1 Rogers, J., & Morrell, E. (2011). "A force to be reckoned with": The campaign for college access in Los Angeles. In M. Orr and J. Rogers (Eds.), Public engagement for public education: Joining forces to revitalize democracy and equalize schools (pp. 227-249). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.