Commemorations last month of the 40th anniversary of the East Los Angeles Chicana/Chicano Walkouts of March 1968 were a celebration of the process and progress of the civil and labor rights struggles of Mexican Americans.

Back then, thousands of students in five east side barrio high schools walked out to protest blatant discrimination and inferior treatment by the school system. They demanded dignity and justice with salsa-flavored reforms, from the curriculum to the cafeteria.

Supported especially by a caring, courageous teacher, Sal Castro, and community activists, the students faced down police brutality, red-baiting, indictments and parental misunderstanding. They emerged victorious with limited immediate gains but important long-term results. The foremost of these was a rallying of community support that accelerated Latino struggles on education, peace, health, housing, labor, immigration and civil rights into the 21st century.

Last month’s commemoration was a reunion with “mucho cariño” (much love). The activists of the past are now activists for the future.

The joy was tempered by awareness that the dropout rate, poverty and institutionalized racism are at similar if not greater levels.

Professor Carlos Muñoz Jr., who as a graduate student was indicted, but later cleared, for his help to students during the walkouts, has written an important article on how the policies of the Bush administration and California Gov. Schwarzenegger undermine public education. Muñoz recommends “another round of student strikes against educational inequality … joined by all the teachers and administrators who share their concerns, to demand that state and federal governments prioritize the educational needs of our youth instead of feeding the military-prison-industrial alliance.”

His proposal is a good start, but improving education will require substantial political, social and economic changes. High on the priority list is the need to politically defeat right-wing domination of our country since Ronald Reagan was elected president. For Chicanos and other Californians the process can be traced to Reagan’s election as governor in 1966, when he whipped up a backlash against the student uprising in Berkeley and the African American uprising in Watts.

Reagan puts right wing in the saddle

A year after the walkouts, in 1969, Los Angeles right-wing forces ran a slate of three for the school board. They were elected at the same time that L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty used racism to beat back a serious challenge from African American Tom Bradley, and LAPD officer Sgt. Robert Thoms reported to the U.S. Senate on the “subversive” nature of Chicano community groups.

In the early 1970s reapportionment plans by the city, school board and state continued the disenfranchisement of Mexican Americans. Mass deportation policies began again. In the mid-’70s a national assault on affirmative action began with the Bakke case for colleges and the Weber case for unions. A right-wing offensive was picking up steam.

In 1978 came California’s Proposition 13, cutting much of the schools’ tax base at the same time that runaway shops and plant closures devastated the pocketbooks of workers, school districts and local governments.

The right wing used attacks on integration to win domination of the L.A. school board.

Then Reagan became president and the right offensive was in the saddle: Robin Hood in reverse — steal from the poor to feed the rich, cut education and services to build up the Pentagon.

Chicano power in L.A. was at a low point. In the 40 major elected seats for city and county schools and community colleges, there were no Latinos. Reagan attacked the unions, while California Gov. Deukmejian applied the policy to farmworkers. U.S. aggression in Central America brought Latino refugees into the barrios.

Fightback growing

Meanwhile our fightback kept growing. We elected a Latina assemblywoman and two more congressmen. Then we elected a school board member, next a councilman and then another, then a county supervisor and more state and congressional representatives. We lost the fight against employer sanctions and “English Only,” but forced the amnesty movement to be bigger and better. We gained influence in the labor movement. Students walked out to support striking teachers.

The right responded with Gov. Pete Wilson, Gulf War I, Proposition 187, Newt Gingrich and police attacks on unions. Centrists made bad compromises on welfare and immigration. Corporate globalization brought more and more Latino and other poor workers to Los Angeles, and the right wing moved to deny them rights.

Next, students walked out for immigrant rights. We gained real power in the local labor movement, which helped win more progressive, multiracial political leaderships locally and statewide. The Statehouse was taken back from the right. Cesar Chavez’ birthday became a state holiday.

Here comes McCain

Then came the sonofabush Dubya, then the Enforcer Schwarzenegger, then Sensenbrenner, and here comes McCain.

There’s no need to point out the right-wing offensive in the past seven years. What I most want to show is that the right has been the greatest obstacle to progress for Chicanas/Chicanos and others in education and other issues, on local, state, national and international levels.

Today the right wants to get rid of public education. McCain and fellow Republicans use the word “choice.” What they mean is the giant corporations and rich choose not to support public schools.

It’s hard to learn well when your stomach is empty, when your parents could be deported any time, when your brother is on patrol in Falluja, when the family can’t pay the rent or see a doctor, when the adults in your family work two or three jobs, when police beat you up at marches.

I agree with Carlos Muñoz that the student struggle needs to reassert itself strongly. I would add that this struggle should be joined with other people’s issues in the elections like immigrant rights, labor law reform, ending the war and a safe environment.

Students in recent years have walked out to march for immigrant rights saying, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” The California Latino vote tripled in the Feb. 5 Democratic primary, increasing from 16 percent to 30 percent of the total. Struggle is a great educator. The students of the walkouts were and are students of struggle. Struggle has steeled more and more activists for community progress. Today Latinos/Latinas can be a decisive force in the growing coalition to realign our nation’s politics with a landslide defeat of the right wing.

Rosalio Muñoz (

is Communist Party USA district organizer in Southern California.