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Sal Castro and Chicano Educational Justice

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April 15 was a sad day with the horrible bombing at the Boston Marathon. It was also a sad day for me due to the death of Sal Castro. Sal was a major figure in Chicano history.

As a public school teacher in the East Los Angeles schools, in March of 1968 Sal inspired his students to participate in a historic student walkout of the schools that came to be known as the "blowouts." The students were protesting a legacy of racial segregation and discrimination against Mexican American students in the public school system -- not only in Los Angeles, but throughout the Southwest, where the majority of Mexican-descent people lived.

In the early twentieth-century, these schools were referred to as "Mexican schools." They were segregated public schools for Mexican American children. They were inferior schools characterized by limited education aimed at teaching students to work with their hands rather than their minds, fewer grades than the white or Anglo schools, low expectations by teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and lack of books, etc. Despite efforts by Mexican Americans to change these conditions over the years, the legacy of the Mexican schools was alive and well in the East L.A. schools in 1968.

As one of the few Mexican American or Chicano teachers in these schools, Castro knew and opposed such conditions. He also came to understand that only a dramatic action would pressure the educational establishment to do something about them. But more importantly, he knew that only the students could do this -- by first recognizing that they were not the problem, the schools were the problem.

Castro worked with students to develop a critical consciousness that further recognized that the schools as constituted were not there to help them but instead to limit their opportunities so that they could be recycled as cheap labor, like their parents. Castro believed that the development of this critical consciousness represented real education, as opposed to the regimented "schooling" that the students received that only intended to produce submissive citizens who would not question the inequalities in the American system.

Armed with this more critical consciousness and inspired by Castro's leadership, the students went on strike in what may be the largest high school student strike in American history. Some 20,000 students walked out of 15 schools in the first week of March 1968 in the "blowouts." Their strike eventually led to various reforms, although even today education in inner city schools leaves much to be desired.

But what the walkouts really changed was the consciousness of the students. They recognized that it was within their power to produce social change. No one else could do it but themselves. They empowered themselves by their actions and Sal Castro was largely responsible for this.

The blowouts were a seminal moment in the history of the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, the largest and most widespread Mexican American civil rights and empowerment movement in U.S. history. The Movement made Chicanos and other Latinos into major national political actors for the first time, and we are seeing the fruits of that movement today in the rise of Latino political power.

Sal Castro paid a price for his leadership and courage by putting his own career on the line for his students. He and 12 others were arrested after the blowouts and became known as the "East L.A. 13." They were indicted on conspiracy charges and if convicted might have served over 50 years in jail. After a two-year legal battle, Sal and the others were cleared of all charges. The blowouts, a court ruled, constituted an expression of First Amendment rights. Sal continued to be harassed by school officials, but he persisted in dedicating himself to teaching for the next three decades until his retirement.

I was privileged and honored to write Sal Castro's life story in my 2011 book Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice (University of North Carolina Press). We worked for over 10 years on this project and I conducted some 50 hours of taped interviews with Sal. It was a pleasure and a learning experience to have spent so much time with him and listen to his stories.

Sal had a great sense of humor, and he used humor to educate. But he could also get very serious when he talked about the courage of his "kids" who engaged in the blowouts -- the blowout generation. When the book came out, we visited many campuses and bookstores and had a wonderful time together. I represented the "teaser" opening, and then Sal did his thing and had the audience in the palm of his hand.

Sal also spoke in many of my classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and many students over the last ten years and more had the opportunity to meet him and, when the book came out, to read about his story growing up in L.A.: going to both public and Catholic schools, being in the military, returning to go to college, his early teaching career, his involvement in the blowouts, the repercussions he faced, and then his many more years as a devoted teacher. I believe my students were as inspired by Sal as I was.

He was the epitome of what it means to be a teacher, and we surely today need teachers such as Sal. But he is also someone who made history -- American history -- and he needs to be recognized as a major figure in American educational and civil rights history.

One of the last questions I had for Sal for the book was, "How do you want to be remembered?" He simply said: "I would like my tombstone to read: 'Sal Castro -- A Teacher.'"