By Irene Sanchez
During the East LA walkouts that took place in early March 1968, thousands of students from five East LA high schools demanded classes that focused on their culture, Latino teachers and administrators, use of the restroom during lunch and other demands they presented to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s school board. Although most demands were not met, there has been some progress for the Chicano/Latino community since these young students walked out.
55 years later, schools in California are on the cusp of implementing Ethnic Studies courses as part of a law signed into law in 2020. California Assembly Bill 101 (AB 101) requires one semester of Ethnic Studies as a high school graduation requirement starting with the class of 2030. Although this is great news for students in California, the new law has also faced opposition. Students of Color all over the United States are still being denied the opportunity to learn about their history in public schools. History, such as what is taught in Ethnic Studies, is often not seen as “real” history, but labeled a disruption, mostly to the dominant white U.S. history narrative.
Recently in Florida, attacks on Ethnic Studies continue as Governor Ron DeSantis stated he supported banning Advanced Placement African American Studies and the Florida Department of Education wrote in a letter from January 2023 to the College Board, that the AP African American Studies course “significantly lacked educational value”. In Texas, over 800 books focusing on Race, Gender, and Sexuality themes, have been banned in 22 districts as of 2022.
Even in the last decade, there have been struggles such as in 2010 when Arizona banned Mexican American Studies. After 7 years, a federal court stated that the ban on Mexican American Studies was motivated by race and that it was illegal to ban the program. These attacks on Ethnic Studies impact more than courses though, they impact the teachers who teach these classes as well.
In 2022, Chicano teacher Tim Hernandez in Denver, Colorado was fired from teaching at North High School and this sparked student walkouts who fought to keep their beloved teacher. At North, Hernandez taught English and Latinx Literature and led a Latinx Leadership Class. He taught students history specific to what happened during the Chicano Movement in Colorado, including blowouts that were inspired by the East LA walkouts of 1968 at nearby West High School in Denver.
I remember these stories and ones closer to me everyday as I walk in and out of 3 high schools as the only Chicano/Latino studies teacher in my district for the past 6 years. I remember these stories as the daughter of two East LA born and raised Mexican American parents. I remember these stories as part of a larger legacy as my late mentor and East LA 1968 walkout participant, Bobby Verdugo and I used to discuss often. During my years teaching, I have also experienced hostility and opposition although the schools I teach at consist of 92 percent Latinx students and Azusa had its own student walkouts also sparked by the East LA ones, months later in December 1968.
During the past few years, I have seen how the pandemic has impacted Latino students and families in many ways, but research also confirms these stories. Research from the Pew Research Center indicates that half of Latinos have been directly impacted or know someone close to them who faced a health of financial struggle due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent years school shootings continue and most recently the horror of Uvalde reminds us how little action has been taken by lawmakers since to protect our children lives in what should be a safe place to learn, our public schools.
Many of us can not forget the racially motivated violence that continues on Latinos in the Southwest since 1848 as evident in the massacre targeting Latinos in the Walmart in El Paso. As a teacher it is difficult to disconnect the continuation of violence of Latinos in the U.S. from past events dating back to the invasion of Texas and the Mexican American War. The history of Latinos in the U.S. includes violence, lynchings, forced assimilation in the early 1900s, bans on speaking Spanish up until the 1970s, anti-immigrant laws and policies that continue, as well as many cases of unequal and inadequate education and opportunities, but our history is also more than struggle and violence, there are also victories and hope.
I can not forget these things as I tell my own students that there was segregated schooling in California until the Mendez et al. v Westminster case ended it legally in 1947. I cannot disconnect that history from the fact that there is a Mexican school down the street from our schools in their city, Azusa, CA, that will hopefully soon become a historic landmark.
Ethnic Studies helps us connect the past to the present with history and stories that have been deliberately left out of U.S. history textbooks and school curriculum from African American, Asian American, Indigenous/Native, and Chicanx/Latinx Communities. Ethnic Studies urges us forward to seek change and better solutions.The East LA walkouts by high school students, young people, who were part of some of the earliest calls for including Chicano/Latino history in schools is important to remember.
In the United States in 2023, students are being banned from learning about their communities and themselves, teachers are being restricted in what they can teach, and books are being removed from classrooms. The struggle continues, but as my late mentor Bobby Verdugo, East LA walkout participant told me many times, despite the challenges, he would walk out again and I know as a Chicana teacher, I won’t give up ensuring our children, including my own, learn these stories in public schools.
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