On March 18, the HBO cable television network premiered “Walkout,” a film based on the 1968 protest by thousands of Mexican American students from five East Lost Angeles high schools.
On March 27, some 40,000 high school students in Southern California walked out to protest of anti-immigration legislation. “Walkout” director Edward James Olmos was right when he said the struggle for equality and civil rights is far from over.
Back in 1968, Latino students were tired of racial injustice, discrimination in the school system and lack of equal opportunities. The youth came together and led a multi-school walkout that became part of the rising Chicano movement. “Walkout” shares that historic story.
The movie shows how students organized walkouts after lobbying the school board for improved facilities, bilingual education, revised textbooks and the ability to speak Spanish in class without being reprimanded.
The youth-led movement, inspired by the civil rights movement, also demanded implemention of a curriculum that included Latin American history, and elimination of janitorial work as punishment.
“Our schools are the back of the bus,” yelled one student leader in the movie.
The walkouts were peaceful demonstrations that erupted into unnecessary acts of violence when an overzealous and aggressive racist police force beat and arrested unarmed students.
An outraged community was awakened and a fight for justice was born that first got parents involved, then community leaders, eventually forcing the school board to pay attention.
In the end the Chicano movement produced real changes, increasing Latino college enrollment by nearly 25 percent two years after the protest.
Moctesuma Esparza, who produced the film, was a college student at the time.
He was one of the main organizers of the student walkouts of that time and was arrested with 12 others — “East L.A. 13,” as they became known. All were eventually acquitted.
“I remember, growing up in the ’50s, when someone said you were ‘Mexican’ it was almost like being slapped in the face,” the 57-year-old recalled in a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle.
Esparza went on to say, “How one’s ancestry could be pejorative is hard to grasp today, but there have been people who have experienced discrimination and overcame it, and that’s one of the things we were looking to do, to stand up for our rights and be treated like all other Americans.
“The free speech movement of ’64 at Berkeley, the civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, what Cesar Chavez was doing in the fields and the growing women’s movement were all very vivid examples to us.
“There was a feeling we could change the world,” he concluded. “That’s what protected and motivated us.”
While some have said it’s not the best-made film, its focus on this youth-led struggle is inspirational for activists today. Young people are still under attack by reactionary policies, racism, poor education and a war going on. With united struggle, change is possible.
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Made for cable, Walkout is the true story of a little-known but profoundly significant moment in the history of the Latino community in East Los Angeles. In 1968, Lincoln High School honor student Paula Crisostomo (Alexa Vega), outraged at the shabby treatment afforded Chicano students in the L.A. school system -- including habitually lowered expectations, poor facilities, a total absence of bilingual courses or textbooks, unfairly administered penalties for slight infractions, demeaning corporal punishment, and out-of-hand refusal to write letters of recommendation to choice colleges -- challenges the authority of her elders for the first time in her life by organizing a mass student walkout at five barrio high schools. Mentored by dedicated young teacher Sal Castro (Michael Pena), Paula and her fellow student activists intend to make their protest a peaceful one, but the L.A. cops typically use brute force to quell the "radicals." Even when it seems that the school board will capitulate to the Chicano students' demands, the kids are betrayed (there's an undercover police officer in their midst) and the leaders of the walkout are threatened with lengthy prison sentences on trumped-up "conspiracy" charges. It will not spoil the ending of the film to reveal that the students are ultimately successful; as directed by actor Edward James Olmos (who also plays one of the school board members), the dramatic thrust of the story is the lasting effect that the protest has on its participants -- especially the idealistic Paula Crisostomo. Executive producer Moctesuma Esparza, who'd been one of the original walkout organizers back in 1968, spent a full two decades getting this story on film; Esparza is played by Bodie Olmos, son of the director, while Esparza's daughter Tonantzin Esparza is seen as Vickie Castro. Also, Paula Crisostomo's daughter Marisol Crisostomo-Romo is seen as Mita -- and in addition, several of the former student activists are interviewed during the closing credits, or appear as extras in the crowd scenes. Produced for HBO, Walkout originally aired on March 18, 2006.