On this the 50th anniversary of the 1968 East Los Angeles high school Blowouts it is good to take time to study and reflect on these historic events. In a week long period starting March 1st, 1968, over 15,000 mostly Chicano students from 16 schools walked out of their classes in protest of the unjust and racist conditions of their schools and their education. It was a turning point in the Chicano Movement, being the largest mass demonstration led by Chicanos up to that time.
The 2006 HBO movie Walkout, directed by Edward James Olmos, dramatized these events and brings attention to this period to a more general audience.
There is great significance to the 1968 blowouts. The year 1968 was also a time of worldwide political upheaval. Several anthologies of this year have been written, yet there is almost no mention of the Blowouts this year, despite their effect in galvanizing the Chicano people. It is no coincidence they happened in Los Angeles, with the largest population of Mexican people outside of Mexico itself. Many activities within the Chicano Movement have occurred up to then, for example the film showing images of Cesar Chavez on his hunger strike that year. The actions the students took were inspired by the change going on around them.
The film illustrates the causes of the walkouts, based on the national oppression imposed upon Chicano students in their schools, basically institutions of colonialism. Students experience degradation and dehumanization in acts such as being locked out of bathrooms during their lunchtimes. They are punished for speaking Spanish in their classrooms, and their culture is disrespected. They are tracked and steered into menial jobs, and discouraged from applying to college. Janitorial work is imposed on students as punishment. In one scene a student punished with janitorial duty and monitored by a racist teacher violently lashes out and drops out of school. Dropout rates were extremely high, and in many cases it was more of cases of being pushed out. The administrators and teachers are shown as perpetuating this institution of racism and oppression, and from this came resistance.
The exception is shown by Chicano teacher Sal Castro, played by actor Michael Pena in the film, who becomes a main organizer of the students. Castro shows how Chicanos were written out of their history textbooks, and denied their legacy, for “if people don’t know about it, it didn’t happen.” One of the main protagonists is Paula, based on organizer Paula Crisostomo. An honor student, she becomes a main organizer after seeing the injustices and inequalities in their education. Castro gets Paula and other students to attend a Chicano Youth Liberation Conference where they meet other student and youth organizers. Castro analyzes false media portrayals of East Los Angeles, and reads from the epic poem I am Joaquin. Cultural consciousness of their lost identity becomes a catalyst for students to take action. The slogan of Chicano Power is raised, showing the struggle was not just about education reform.
Some of the main organizations are introduced. UMAS, United Mexican American Students, made up of some of the few Chicano students enrolled in area colleges, become key organizers with the high school students. The Brown Berets are another prominent organization, known for their increasingly militant stances. Their coffeehouse, La Piranya, becomes a main space for the student organizing. It shows the escalation of tactics that led up to the walkouts. They put out surveys to the student population. They petition the schools administrations and the school board. The exposure to these acts showed the need more more direct action. Violence and non-violence is debated. Comparisons to the Civil Rights movement are made, with one commenting that their schools are the back of the bus. Walkouts are decided on to bring pressure, as the schools get funding based on the number of students attending each day. They bring up a list of demands, (1) and bring organization beforehand to these actions.
The film also illustrates the police repression the organizers faced. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is shown surveilling La Piranya and individual students, and send an informant into their groups. One academic study stated of this time:”The LAPD intelligence reports show the department had detailed information on the financial status of Chicano organizations; the employment status, arrest records, and political affiliations of individual activists; and the decisions made at meetings and plans for upcoming demonstrations. In addition, both the presence of informers and the belief in their presence sowed debilitating distrust within movement organizations.”(2) The FBI was also involved in monitoring this movement, under COINTELPRO.(3) The police meet the walkouts with major brutality, and the realism of the terror inflicted is shown. Sal Castro states the importance of media to be at the protests, but the media gives the police version, showing the students in a negative light, are redbaited, and seen as troublemakers. Internal conflicts with families is shown too, but the organizers get the community involved too. Further repression is put on many of the organizers, as 13 are arrested for conspiracy charges. They become known as the East LA 13, the first political trial of the Chicano Movement. With popular support the cases of all 13 were eventually dropped two years later as unconstitutional.
The film ends with a mass demonstration in support of the East LA 13. Paula confronts the undercover cop who infiltrated them, with him arguing that nothing really changed with the protests and turmoil created. Paula shoots back that while the institutions didn’t have immediate change they themselves changed, with the students showing their college applications thanking Sal Castro for inspiring them. This ending scene can give mixed messages. It is a positive one in that it shows the beginning of national consciousness developed through struggle. Revolutionary change is one of transforming oneself, and oppressed and marginalized people develop new-found confidence in themselves through this. On the other hand it could show that the struggle was one of individual achievement and reformism, with the primary goal becomes going to college. So the participants do not create structural changes but received greater sense of self-worth. In a sense this struggle succeeded, for the film ends with statistics that show the amount of Mexican Americans going to college dramatically increasing after this event. This in turn created not only new organizers in higher education but a new professional Chicano middle class that was less interested in social change once they succeeded. There has been an ongoing debate about whether the movement was to be about simply civil rights or for national liberation. Viewers of Walkout can take it either way, but as shown the Blowouts were one of the sparks of national liberation for the Chicano people. This film is a good one to reflect on this history, to help in study of this time period, and to show the power of students and youth organized.
- Escobar, Edward J. The Dialectics of Repression: The Los Angeles Police Department and the Chicano Movement, 1968-1971. The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Mar., 1993), pp. 1483-1514. https://www.umass.edu/legal/Benavides/Spring2005/397G/Readings%20397G%20Spring%202005/7Escobar.pdf