What is the significance of the 1968 East L.A. Walkouts?
The 1960s and 1970s have been well documented and covered historically by scholars interested in the Black Liberation Movement, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, amongst other popular African American civil rights activists. What we know about the African American/Black civil rights movements are the obvious events leading up to the political revolutions that ensued. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the scars of slavery had all had their violent and discriminatory effects on the African American/Black population, especially in the South.
Unfortunately, the history of the powerful movement that was comprised of millions of Mexican and Mexican American individuals in the U.S. Southwest that happened concurrently to the African American/Black civil rights movement has been somewhat neglected. These individuals leading this movement eventually claimed the political identity of Chicano. Chicano had previously been a derogatory word used by Mexican and Mexican Americans in the U.S. for individuals who were poor and recent immigrants to the U.S. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chicanos reclaimed the word in order to signify that their indigenous ancestry and culture were important to them, as well as to the land they had lost from Spanish and American imperialism.
The Chicano movement, or El Moviemiento, was complex and came in to being after decades of discrimination, segregation, and other issues arising over decades of war and violence around the region we now know as the U.S./Mexican border. The East L.A. School Walkouts were an expression of the frustration over the treatment of the larger Chicano community by Anglos both in and out of the classroom. Contemporaneously to the walkouts, the United Farm Workers Movement was in full throttle. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were organizing strikes and convincing Mexican and Filipino laborers to become union members.  The East L.A. School Walkouts walkouts were critical component of the spark ignited the Chicano and Mexican American community to begin the fight for equality alongside their Native American, Asian, and African American brothers and sisters during the Civil Rights Era.
East L.A. Walkouts
On March 3, 1968, Mexican American students enrolled in Abraham Lincoln High School in East L.A. successfully organized a walkout and most of the students left their classrooms to protest their poor classroom education. They felt they were receiving a substandard education because they were Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The school had forcibly tracked most of the Mexican and Mexican American students into trade and vocational careers They did not allow them to even consider pursuing a degree four-year collegiate institution.
The students felt that the school system disregarded their culture and history and they called for more ethnic studies and more ethnically diverse faculty. Much like the non-violent Black student sit-ins in Greensboro N.C. that had happened eight years prior, “the Los Angeles strike signaled the beginnings of a powerful Chicano student movement throughout the Southwestern United States.”  Before the strikes ended, more than 10,000 students would join in on the strike in states all over the Southwest all the way to South Texas.
The importance of the East L.A. walkouts lies in the growing dissatisfaction of the second and third generations of Mexican American and Chicano students in the high schools and colleges around the Southwest. For these students and young people, they saw their families struggling and being discriminated against just as the African American community had in the Deep South but with different historical contexts. Mexicans and Native Americans had always lived in the Southwest and only through Western Expansionism and multiple advances towards ridding the West of Native American ‘problems’ were Anglos able to successfully move their border across the communities that had been their for centuries. Because of this insertion of a new race and class based hierarchical power, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were considered second class citizens and the youth of the 1960s had seen what the history of the past couple of decades had done to their chances of gaining an equal education. Using the Chicano idea of Aztlan and claiming basic human rights, the students of L.A. and the Southwest began to march and organization around those ideas. What they did not expect was the amount of force they would encounter.
COINTELPRO and Infiltration
What these students and organizers did not anticipate was the amount of push back they would receive from the federal government and the new COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) that Herbert Hoover initiated in response to the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation movements in order to successfully stop and dismantle and civil rights movement. The protesters and organizers of the walkouts thought that they were exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and protest. Unfortunately, thirteen members that were involved with the planning and organization of the East L.A. walkouts would be targeted and arrested for treason by COINTELPRO and the federal government. Sal Castro, a teacher who supported the students and spoke out against racist and discriminatory practices at Lincoln High in East L.A., would be included in the group of thirteen, which sparked uproar in the community in order to reinstate him as a teacher at Lincoln High. Eventually, the federal government would release Sal Castro and the other twelve individuals because of the unconstitutional nature of the arrests. As the American public became even more aware of Chicanos, the school walkouts, and their ability to form their own unique movements amongst the larger political atmosphere of the decade.
What the infiltration by the federal government of the East L.A. walkouts and the various groups that had begun to emerge like MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil [email protected] de Aztlan) and MAYO (Mexican American Youth Organization) told the Mexican American and Chicano community was that they were considered dangerous and hostile. This would only fuel the fire that was the movement and begin to confirm that the Anglo community had no intentions of listening or even considering what Chicano’s and their allies had to say. The COINTELPROs existence was enough proof to argue that the federal government supported racial discrimination towards people of color, and in the case of the Chicano movement, the infiltration and the resulting protests and creation of community organizations would only be the beginning of a long fight for social, economic, and political justice for their people.
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The East L.A. walkouts is only one of the important markers signifying the beginnings of a political revolution that would eventually span the entire Southwest of the U.S. Non-profit organizations and other community organization rose out of the Chicano movement in order to better serve the local Chicano communities. These organization not only protested unfair conditions, but advanced Chicano rights through legal representation. These walkouts also helped spur the creation the Chicana movement of Mexican and Mexican American women. Chicanas came out of this important era with an understanding of how both racism and sexism played a role in their own unique oppression that barred them from leadership positions during the 1960s through the 1980s.
With influence from both the Chicano movement and the Feminist movement, Chicanas would begin to write their own literature and create their own art that was expressive of their identities. These pieces of literature and art inform today’s Chicano scholars and only improve the understanding of the Mexican American and Chicano culture. The Chicano movement would last up until about the early 1980s and fizzles out as the media focuses its’ attention elsewhere. What is important to understand about the ‘ending’ of this movement is that the people who took part in all of the marches and protests for equality never stopped working with their communidad in order to fight for social, economic, and political justice for the gente.
- Richard Griswold del Castillo and Arnoldo de León, North to Aztlan: A History of Mexican Americans in the United States, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996), 126.
- Matt Garcia, "A Moveable Feast: The UFW Grape Boycott and Farm Worker Justice," International Labor and Working Class History, 83, (Spring, 2013): 146-153.
- Michael Soldatenko, “Mexican Student Movements in Los Angeles and Mexico City,” Latino Studies, 1 (2003): 290-295.
- Carlos Muñoz, “The Last Word: Making the Chicano Movement Revisited,” Black Issues in Higher Education, 13, no. 3 (Apr. 4, 1996): 72.
- Michael Soldatenko, “Mexican Student Movements in Los Angeles and Mexico City,” Latino Studies, 1 (2003): 294-295.
- Michael Soldatenko, “Mexican Student Movements in Los Angeles and Mexico City,” Latino Studies, 1 (2003): 291.