In the first week of March 1968 in East L.A., a “pre-planned” group of students walked out from their classes at Wilson High School, eventually setting off a series of mass walkouts, or what they referred to as blowouts, throughout the city in the fight for a better education and access to more resources. The East LA Blowouts were a collaboration and the result of many prior events. While, more straightforwardly, the students were protesting first-hand accounts of cruel treatments in their school, they were also inadvertently protesting a history of racial injustices in the education system in the US. Very quickly over 20,000 students from five East L.A. schools (Lincoln, Wilson, Garfield, Belmont, and Roosevelt) took part of this event and walked out. Till this day, this is still the biggest student-led protest in US history, which resulted in a change of identity among the Mexican American youth.
During this time period, many students faced harsh circumstances in their school. They were heavily punished for speaking Spanish in school,
“more than 50 percent of Mexican-descent students [were] leaving school before graduation,”**
they had overcrowded classrooms and schools, and in general, were seen as incapable and only good for labor. Their teachers, as well as the whole educational system, assumed that Mexican American students did not have potential, resulting in a lack of support to pursue any education. However, it was also important to realize that these walkouts were the result of hundreds of years of racism in the US, and more specifically segregation that also impacted Mexicans and Mexican Americans. While Brown v. Board of education desegregated schools for Blacks and white in 1954, prior to this, the case of Mendez v. Westminster (1946) also declared it unconstitutional to segregate those of Mexican descent into distinct schools.
The “implementation of ‘separate but equal’ schooling […] limited the quality of education available to students of color and all but guaranteed their future school failure; this in turn limited social mobility and perpetuated unequal access to employment, housing, and health care.”****
This is what students, like the ones involved in the protests, decided to speak out about it.
The blowouts were all very well planned out and were a result of prior meetings, events, and the collaboration of different organizations. In fact, “an important component of organizing the blowouts was the active participation in meetings that helped to develop or support the demonstrations.”* Here is where the students made their lists of demands, including demands such as smaller classrooms and more Mexican American administration, which became their main form of justification for their actions, and what they presented to the School Board multiple times. The blowouts lasted for over a week, with heavy disapproval and punishment from administrators. Students were threatened with removal of scholarships, and academic discipline. However, most harshly, the walkouts eventually led to some form of violence as the police were quickly sent, and they treated the students like if they were rioting, which they weren’t. Eventually, the students were promised a review of their demands in the next School Board Meeting, and while that did happen, no change occurred. On top of that, weeks later, 13 were arrested in conspiring to initiate the walkouts and they each faced up to 66 years in prison.***
The aftermath of the walkouts was not what many had envisioned. Many of the demands the students believed in and fought for were ignored by the school board, and additionally, people from their community were arrested and feared prosecution because of the walkouts. However, their resistance still continued, and a state appeals court exonerated them, throwing out all the charges as they were protected under the first amendment.*** Both the walkouts and the legal consequences helped legally established Mexican Americans as “non-white” aiding in their future fight for greater, more equal and rightful opportunities they were being denied.
While the students did not have many of their demands met by the school board, they still had bigger victories. There was a change to the spirits of Mexican American students as they were able to redefine themselves and realize the power they held against racial injustice. In the months and years following the blowouts, the number of Chicano students attending college in California tripled, quadrupled, and even quintupled the number of Chicanos attending before. Walkouts like this, and even the Chicano movement, gave marginalized groups of people the ability to fight for social injustice and others their rights. It is what inspired many other Mexican Americans to become educated, to be able to pursue a career as school administrators or even as politicians. These blowouts also inspired other protests and the formation of groups such as MeCHa, which is still active till this day. The youth developed an identity for themselves that would follow them into empowering future generations of successful Mexican Americans.
*Bernal, Dolores Delgado. “Grassroots Leadership Reconceptualized: Chicana Oral Histories and the 1968 East Los Angeles School Blowouts.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 19, no. 2 (June 1998): 113–42. doi:10.2307/3347162.
**Haro, Carlos Manuel. “Write Your Own History.” Aztlan 39, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 149–53.
***López, Ian F. Haney. “The Chicano Movement and East L.A. Thirteen.” Racism on Trial the Chicano Fight for Justice (2003): 157-177.
****Quirós, William A. Calvo. “Thank You Maestro.” Aztlan 39, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 155– 65, http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/login.aspx?direct=true &db=asn&AN=98363962.