Fifty years ago, 17-year-old Paula Crisostomo helped organize a multi-school walkout that galvanized the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles.
Yesterday was not the first time that high schoolers walked out the door of a classroom, calling for a revolution.
The school walkouts across the country yesterday were, in part, a 17-minute protest in memory of those who died during the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They also serve as a clear demand. Students, both in Parkland and nationally, are speaking out—on Twitter, in town hall meetings, at rallies—for stricter gun control laws.
They did much of their mobilizing online. And a good deal of attention has been paid to the way social media has allowed the teenagers to organize. But activism didn’t begin with the internet, and the current movement echoes a series of school walkouts in East Los Angeles 50 years ago. Then, as now, high school students were angry and frustrated about the way their lives were being harmed within the walls of an institution that was supposed to support and protect them.
On March 6, 1968, students at four high schools marched out the doors to protest the school district’s treatment of students of Mexican-American heritage, pushing back against norms that included corporal punishments for speaking Spanish. The high schools—all of which had populations of more than 75 percent Latino students—were overcrowded and in a state of disrepair. Furthermore, the punitive measures, lack of college prep courses, and sometimes outright racism from teachers and administrators painted a damning rationale for why the dropout rate in the district was approximately 60 percent for Mexican-Americans. And with no Mexican-Americans on the district’s Board of Supervisors, the families of L.A.’s East side felt they had no advocates.
Knowing that their public schools would lose money for each student not attending class, the organizers decided to plan a walkout. The original plan—to threaten the walkout after presenting a list of demands to the school board—was conceived in 1967 but never came to fruition. A year later, when the principal at Wilson High School cancelled its school play with no warning, frustrated students walked out of the campus. The organizers of the walkout movement realized their protest had new life. On March 6, 1968, a new round of walkouts began in earnest, and by the end of that week the protest had spread across the city: more than 15,000 students in Los Angeles had marched out of their classrooms.
The students had clear proposals for reform, including an end to corporal punishment, the inclusion of Mexican-American history in the curriculum, and the removal of administrators and teachers who showed prejudice towards Mexican or Mexican-American students. They also had more immediate practical demands, such as the addition of covered dining halls: At one school, students had only an outdoor dining area and were forced to eat in the rain during poor weather. Eventually, the walkouts led to the school district hiring more Hispanic teachers, the end of paddle beatings for speaking Spanish, and the introduction of bilingual classes and ethnic studies. The walkouts also changed the students, and their belief in what they could do: The Los Angeles Times reports that the year after the walkouts, the number of Mexican-American students enrolling at UCLA rose 1800 percent.
Paula Crisostomo was a 17-year-old high school student at the time, and one of the walkout’s organizers. CityLab spoke with her on the day of the Parkland walkouts.
What was your role in the walkout movement?
I was one of the organizers and leaders. We planned and organized for at least a year—remember, this was before social media and computers and all that. We had to build a movement by raising consciousness and awareness with not only our peers, but the community: educating everyone about the conditions of our schools and racist treatment. That entailed lots of meetings [and] free community newspapers we wrote for. We were also guided and mentored by one teacher, Sal Castro, and a cadre of Chicano college students who knew more about this stuff that we did.
What motivated you to plan and take part in the movement?
I had the privilege of having Sal Castro as a teacher, and he was an out-of-the-box sort of guy, especially for those times. One time, Mr. Castro took us for a 15-20 minute ride down the freeway to another school. I was amazed at the condition of that school: It was new, it had green space, it had this beautiful lobby in the administration building, the libraries were full of books, and the restrooms were open. All of ours were closed, because we weren’t allowed to use them before school, during lunch, or after school. We had to get a special hall pass: We had to respect them. They were bathrooms, they weren’t church!
When Mr. Castro said [this school] is part of the school district you’re in, I had to wonder “What the hell?” seeing the inequality of the whole situation. We were, of course, in a lower-income working class community; the school he took us to was higher-income and predominately white.
Was it difficult to convince the larger community to get behind the movement?
We didn’t get much support till after the actual walkout, and it was very difficult to convince other students, because their parents were opposed to it. At that time, we were an obedient and conservative community. But some of the principals called in the LAPD for what they called crowd control. The police started using their batons and beating students. So when the parents and community saw that—and again, it was a peaceful protest, we were not violent but we were met with violence—when the parents heard about or saw that, they knew that it was more serious than they had imagined.
And a lot of them felt guilty, because the walkout was not our first step: It was our absolute last. We had a list of demands and had started by going through the protocol to get our grievances heard and met. And that included meeting with parents, and community people, and members of our school board, but no one listened to us. They never thought we were going to do anything about it. So once the walkouts began, the so-called grownups realized we had taken on issues and actions that they should have been dealing with all along.
Do you wish you’d had social media to help with the organization process?
It sure would have been a lot easier, of course. However, actually talking to people face-to-face—seeing their expressions or being able to argue with or convince them, actually hearing their misgivings and answering questions—I think was really important to sustaining the building of the movement. There were about 15 other [schools] across the city that walked out also in our support, and that was part of the meetings and face-to-face educating and raising awareness.
What did this mean for you as a 17-year old? Did you feel like you had any real power?
Not at the time. Because we weren’t getting any support, and because things moved so slowly—especially when you’re 17 you want things to happen overnight—I didn’t feel really empowered, that took a little while: Maybe when I started receiving accolades about my so-called bravery, and when I started to see some specific school site changes. We had a long list of demands, and some of them required a vote by our board of education, or state legislature, but a few of them were things the principals could decide to do if they wanted. When I saw the principals were making those changes the following semester, I started to feel like “Hey, we may have done something here.” And when the statistics came out of how many students from our community had applied to colleges and were going to go to college, that was really encouraging.
How did your family react to your involvement in the walkouts? Did most of the other students have familial support?
My mother was very supportive, and my father was not. I know that caused a huge friction in their relationship, and it did affect the relationship I had with my father. He was mostly concerned about my safety, and he thought I would not be able to graduate because of it. That was one of the threats, early on, but that became one of our first demands: that any student who participated would not be punished.
Where do you think the strength of student activism comes from?
[Students] have no real ties to anything or anyone yet. They certainly have fresher ideas, and more time to devote to these causes. I think our strength came from each other, and from knowing that we weren’t asking for anything crazy. We were asking for a better education: for teachers to treat us like we had human intellectual potential. I felt like I didn’t have any other choice.
I had a geometry teacher—we were supposed to be working quietly at our desks, and I got up to ask him a question. He, very loudly, because he wanted the rest of the class to hear it, said, “Oh Paula, why are you wasting your time? You’re not going to go to college, you and your girlfriends are going to be pregnant by the end of the summer. Go back to your seat.” It’s horrible to hear that today, but we had heard that throughout our entire school career: teachers who called us lazy Mexicans and stupid wetbacks and thought nothing of it. When you hear this over and over again, you internalize it, it became normal. But we started feeling like “wait a minute, this isn’t right.”
How do you see the legacy of that movement reflected in the current walkouts and activism of high school students?
I’m very proud that they’ve chosen the strategy of walkouts, because we certainly proved that it helped us. So I’m really, really awed by these students. By standing up when the adults did not, just as we did. But I have to question why the Black Lives Matter organization, who also was also building a movement, and also was concerned about their lives and their safety, was so vilified. We received the same sort of racist treatment by everyone else. While what they’re doing is awesome, by standing up when grownups would not, I just, again, have to wonder why when people of color, when our movements stand up, we’re vilified for it.
Why do you think administrators ultimately gave in to some of the proposals?
It was a long process, because some of them did need some laws changed. We were politically unsophisticated—we were high school kids, what did we know?
But over the course of several years things changed, and parts of the larger demands that we made have been implemented because of the walkouts, for sure. A lot of our parents and community members [pressured the administration] to meet our demands.
Do you think the reason the administration gave in instead of forcing more punitive measures against students was because they knew the movement was not going to back down?